Saturday, October 30, 2004

Hospital Visits and State Department Warnings… 

In-between several monastery tours, Katherine, Michele, and I decided to team up a Swedish-American girl named Rose for the five day 4WD trek to the Nepalese border. The day after we finalized our date of departure, we took Katherine to the hospital.

Altitude sickness is a scary thing, especially when you realize it could kill you. A traveler from Katherine’s hostel told us that the last person who went to the hospital for altitude sickness was forced to take the next flight out to keep their lungs from filling with frothy, oxygen-deprived blood. Sweet.

Fortunately, Katherine is a trooper, and after sucking down three hours worth of hospital-grade oxygen, taking an anti-nausea shot in here rear end, and downing a couple bottles of pills, she was as good as new.

When we got back to the hostel we bumped into some friends that reminded me I am still pretty much a wimpy traveler. Miarka, a six foot blonde from Holland decided to add a little spice to her vacation by hitching through parts of Tibet that were officially off-limits to foreigners. If she got caught, she could be imprisoned and/or deported, but she was tired of the well-worn tourist path so she just took off. Nice. Our other friend Nedan, who just finished seven years as a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force, had just finished a 20 day 4WD and hiking trek to Mount Kailash, the most holy mountain in Tibet, which was officially closed due to snow. That didn't stop Nedan though, and now he was planning to ride on top of a bus all the way to Nepal. Incredible.

I am still baffled by the power of your environment. If you surround yourself with people who are doing great things, you too, are inspired to be great. If everyone you hang out with does drugs and acts like a victim, there is a good chance you will eventually adopt their values. I would love to believe that I am powerful enough to stay consistent regardless of my environment, but I think that environmental resistance may be impossible over the long term. Before I came to Tibet I was surrounded by western travelers who had decided it was too dangerous to go to Nepal. Their feedback, combined with the nasty comments from the US State Department (See below) had me convinced that Nepal would never be part of my agenda. I believed in the value of pushing past my comfort zone, but I didn't want to be stupid.

”The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Nepal. Maoist supreme commander Prachanda issued a press statement on July 1, 2004, threatening to use "more violent means" if peace talks with the Government of Nepal are not forthcoming or are unsuccessful. The Embassy has received information that the Maoists may attempt to attack or take actions specifically against U.S. citizens as part of that contingency, particularly in regions of the country under Maoist control. On September 10, two bombs exploded at the American Center compound. There were no injuries, but the blasts damaged the facility.

The Department of State has designated the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as a Terrorist Organization under the "Terrorist Exclusion List" of the Immigration and Nationality Act and under Executive Order 13224. These two designations make Maoists excludable from entry into the United States and bars U.S. citizens from transactions such as contribution of funds, goods, or services to, or for the benefit of the Maoists.

On a number of occasions, Maoists have burned or bombed tourist resorts after the foreigners staying there were given short notice to evacuate. Maoists also detonate bombs periodically within Kathmandu itself. Several bombs have exploded in Thamel, a tourist hub. All official travel outside Kathmandu Valley, including by air, requires specific clearance by the Regional Security Officer. As a result, emergency assistance to U.S. citizens may be limited.”

Sounds like a great place to visit right? Fortunately my great friend Paul Mangen kept me in the loop regarding his travels, and when I read his stories from Tibet and Nepal I decided to risk Tibet at least. I would just go to Tibet, catch a ride to the Nepalese border and then come back to see more of southern China. Then, while staying in Chengdu and Tibet, I was surrounded by hundreds of passionate travelers, all fired up on Nepal. They had read all the same things I had, but they too had friends that had already done it, and they were willing to take the risk to see the southern and western views of the Himalayas. Without influences from Paul and my co-travelers, I wouldn't have crossed the border, and I wouldn't have all the amazing Nepalese stories to share with you. But those are yet to come...

Friday, October 29, 2004

Yak Butter Candles & The Empty Seat of the Dalai Lama... 

An hour after our flight to Tibet left the Chengdu airport, I finally pulled my nose out of my book long to enough to notice that the leather-faced Tibetan man next to was squirming to look past me out the window. After five minutes of using grunts, hand signals, and translator books to communicate, I learned that this was the first flight of my seat-mate's life. I immediately traded seats with him and his face was glued to the glass in wonder for the half-hour. Then I realized that this guy's ten friends were also on their first flight ever, so I proceeded to read my book in the aisle as all ten Tibetans rotated through my window seat. Their excitement reminded me of the abandoned children in "Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome" when the kids found a crashed airliner after the apocalypse. The Tibetans were terrified and excited all at the same time. I enjoyed being around them, even if I was standing for the rest of the flight.

As we touched down on the roof of the world, the first thing I noticed was the cleanliness of the air. In Chengdu I couldn't see more than two blocks. In Lhasa I could see 20 miles! As our local bus wobbled its way from the airport to downtown Lhasa, it was my turn to glue my face to the window. The sky glowed so blue it almost hurt my eyes. I'm not sure what it is, but the sky just seems bigger in places like this. I had the same feeling in Namibia. The sky goes on forever, so much so, that you almost get dizzy looking at it. Mother nature rocks.

On the bus ride I became friends with Katherine and Michele, two Americans who just finished teaching English in Japan, and we decided to hit Drepung Monastery during our first day in town. Drepung used to house and educate over 10,000 monks, but after the Chinese "Cultural Revolution" less than 300 survived. The Chinese have since become more tolerant though, and the monk population is growing steadily. Every monk we met flashed us a huge smile, stopped to talk with us, and graciously let us snap away our photos. As I walked through the massive, empty, monastery dorms, and wandered through the ruins of the sections of the facility that still haven't been rebuilt, the frustration began to build inside me. I couldn't help but imagine the what could have been. Where would Tibet be if their religion and the majority of the population hadn't been almost wiped out? Why don't we ever hear about this? Oh yeah, Chinese media blackout. The good news is that it's getting better. The bad news is that Tibet will never be the same. The Chinese government is strongly encouraging Han Chinese settlement, and the traditional Tibetan buildings are being quickly replaced with gaudy, commercial Chinese storefronts. On a positive note, the Chinese government has spared no expense re-building Tibet. The roads, schools, airports, and infrastructure are brand new and well built. Unfortunately the "One-China" policy will result in "Zero-Tibet" over the long term.

Near the end of our Drepung tour, we stumbled into a Tibetan monk afternoon prayer ceremony. Almost all 300 monks were in attendance, and the ones near the door smiled at us and pointed to the cushions against the rear wall. I've found that hardship seems to spawn interest in religion, so it makes sense that Tibet is the most religious "Country" in the world. Hundreds of pilgrims lined the walls of the main prayer hall, and they all made room for us Gringo's to fit in. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, it almost felt like I had walked in on Thanksgiving dinner back home in Ukiah.

Once everyone was seated, all 300 monks began chanting in unison. Wow...I wish I could insert a sound recording into this blog so you could feel the goosebumps cover your flesh. The monks treated us like pilgrims, blowing incense smoke over us, dabbing our foreheads with Yak-butter tea, and giving us small cups of the tea to share with them. I was speechless. The low, quickly chanting voices, combined with the sight of 300 monks gently swaying back and forth in the yak butter candlelight brought tears to my eyes three times before it was time to leave.

After jumping a random city bus that looked like it was going the right way, the ladies and I were back in tourist central. It was the end of the Tibetan trekking season, so there weren't many tourists, making it seem like there were 100 times more beggars and touts. They were all friendly and left after one rejection, but it still distracted me from the beauty of Lhasa. A friend and I were solicited at our breakfast resturant table 18 times in less than 45 minutes. Luckily we found out that "Real" monks can't ask you for money, so it was easy to spot the imposters dressed up as monks. The real monks just sit on the sidewalk chanting or playing music. I had no problem throwing change to those guys.

In addition to understanding Tibetan begging etiquette, I also learning in the first five minutes that it was retarded of me to lug my bulky snow jacket around in my backpack for the last four months. I could have bought a deluxe "North Face" (Likely) shell and liner for $20! Every other store is an outdoor store, selling what appears to be high quality gear. If my bag wasn't already full of over 20 books, I would probably have an ice axe and some cramp-ons stuffed in there somewhere.

The Portola Palace is one of the most magical places I have ever been. I couldn't tell if it was because this was the Palace featured in "Seven Years in Tibet" or because this is always the place shown on every Tibetan tourist brochure, but something struck me about the Palace from the first moment I saw it. When I wasn't staring at it, I had the strange feeling it was staring at me! It must have been the lack of oxygen huh? As I moved from temple to temple within the palace, I noticed Chinese soldiers spread evenly through the facility. A local told me later that the soldiers have installed cameras in every public room within the temple, and beat the monks if they allow any tourist to take pictures inside the palace. Ugh.

On the top floor of the palace, I toured the apartment the Dalai Lama used before he fled to India to avoid Chinese persecution. In every place he used to sit they placed one of his pointed caps as a placeholder in hopes that someday he will return. If the rumors of the monk beatings are true, I doubt the Dalai Lama is leaving India any time soon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Giant Buddha's and Baby Pandas... 

As I settled into my "Hard" sleeper, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. After the floor-sleeping trials of the trip to Shanghai, my hard sleeper felt like a five star Sheraton. The other five bunks were full of Tibetan Buddhists en route to their monasteries west of Chengdu. They didn't speak Mandarin or English, so all we could do was smile and nod at each other. Even so, I immediately got a great impression of Tibetan Buddhists. I couldn't understand what they were saying to each other, but I could tell they treated each other in a comfortable, loving manner. It was almost as if each of them was wearing the expression I've been taking pictures of on all the Buddha statues. I felt more relaxed just being in the same vicinity as them. As they each pulled out there long, skinny, hand-written Buddhist scriptures, they began to slowly chant and sway in unison. It was if they had transformed our bunk compartment into a mini-monastery and I was getting a private show. I LOVED it.

The 1-1/2 days on the train sped by, mostly because we were in tunnels 50% of the time. The Chinese spare no expense on their infrastructure projects. As I stepped off the train in Chengdu I felt like I was standing in a steam sauna. Even though there were no clouds in the sky, the smog kept me from seeing more than two blocks in any direction. When I first got off the plane in Beijing, I had no idea how well developed China's traveler trail was. Chengdu made me feel like I was back in South Africa. Pony trekking? Caving? Meditating? Hiking? Boating? Off-roading? No problem. Since my main reason for coming to Chengdu centered on getting my permits for Tibet, I decided to confine my expeditions to giant Buddha’s and baby pandas.

As I you can see in my pictures, the largest Buddha in the world is carved right out of the side of a mountain. Thousands of religious tourists flock to the statue every year and they almost trampled each other trying to pose next to his three foot thick toes. My hyper-practical mind kept thinking that the thousands of Buddha carving man hours could have been spent more effectively building roads and schools, but I guess you could say that about every religious or artistic feat. All work and no religion makes the Joe zealot a meaningless boy.

As I pulled up to the Panda Breeding Base the next morning, I was pretty fired up. I think I saw a fat sleeping panda in the San Diego zoo once, but the Breeding Base houses the largest population of Pandas in the world, and even though 40 of the 107 cubs born there have survived, that's still more than four times more than the next most successful breeding facility.

Pandas have been on earth for over eight million years, yet there are only 1,000 of them left in the world. Apparently they used to be meat eaters, and after switching to an all-bamboo diet, their numbers have dropped off dramatically. Their bodies can only absorb 20% of the nutrients from the bamboo, so they barely have enough energy to eat, must less reproduce. Yup, one of the biggest problems facing the Breeding Base is that pandas are too lazy to have sex. Crazy huh? As I watched Pandas of all ages chomping away at their 40 kilograms of daily bamboo, it reminded me of the obesity problem facing the western world now. The Panda's choice of foods threatens to wipe them off the face of the planet. With obesity rising into the top 3 killers of people in the United States, you can't help but wonder if our choice of foods will do the same.

On my last night in Chengdu I bumped into an English teacher named Shannon Lovelace from a town near Mount Shasta in Northern California. After stumbling through mandarin and hand-signal conversations for a couple weeks it was great to be able to relax and hang with someone who speaks the same language as me, grew up watching the same cartoons as me, likes the same food as me, and laughs at the same jokes as me. While I think it would be better if expatriates fully assimilated into their host cultures, I understand now why people like to hang out people from similar cultures and backgrounds. The Europeans have been freaking out over immigration issues over the past few years because the new Northern Africans, Indians, Middle Easterners, and Eastern Europeans aren't meshing with the existing Western European cultures. While I agree that a society that mixes regardless of color and culture is ideal, I can't really knock the immigrants for staying close to what they know.

After all the hoopla I'd heard about the Tibetan permit restrictions, I found out it was nothing more than a scheme to over-charge tourists for flights into Lhasa. Oh well, I wasn't too worried about getting scammed as I stared out the plane window at Himalayan whitecaps as far as my eyes could see. I was going to TIBET! I don't know why, but Tibet has always held a mystical place in my mind. I couldn't wait to hit the ground.

Friday, October 22, 2004

International Birthdays and Impossible Missions... 

After a full day cruising the rice paddies, I stopped by the office of my "Fly by night" travel agent for the fifth time to see if she had my train ticket to Shanghai yet. Nope. "The ticket delivery guy must have gotten in an accident". Sure. Since I already had plans for Shanghai the following night, I got my money back and decided to roll the dice at the train station. After an hour-long bus ride and an hour in line, the train ticket lady gave me "The Heisman" in broken English and told me try back next week. Luckily, an Irish teacher I bumped into on a previous train trip told me that they will oversell the trains by giving you a ticket, but no seat. There’s a risk that you’ll stand the whole way, but at least you’re on the train. Just as the rejection queen behind the glass started to help the next customer I pulled out my ace in the hole and asked for a seatless ticket. She gave me a funny look that said "Are you crazy? You can’t stand up for 28 hours straight!," and passed me the ticket.

Before I left for Africa, my great friend Kevin Thompson told me that someday I would find myself puking on an all night train, surrounded by mosquitoes, accosted by thieves, and then I would truly find out what I was capable of. As I boarded my home for the next 28 hours, Kevin’s words were ringing in my head. As I signed up on the waiting list for the sleeper car, the attendant laughed in my face. Mmmmm…not a good sign. Have you ever tried to stand in one place for over 12 hours? I have a whole new respect for security guards. Finally, around two in the morning, I folded my body into a tiny ball and curled up under the chair of the station attendant. As the moldy peanut shells pressed into my cheek and the spilled soup juice soaked into my pants, I smiled on the inside knowing that someday this adventure would make a good story.

Around four in the morning the train gods started feeling sorry for me, bumped my name up the waiting list, and gave me a luxury sleeper…for full price of course. As I stepped over the grumbling bodies littering the train hallway I knew I was getting special treatment based on the color of my skin. I was grateful for the soft bed, but for some reason my gut was telling me I was a sellout. Special treatment was nothing new since I’m frequently the only non-local around, but for some reason I felt more guilty this time. Should I have refused the bed and given it to one of the other floor-sleepers? Maybe. I guess now I have a taste of what it might be like to be on the other side of affirmative action.

My crazy Croatian buddy Toni met me at the train station in Shanghai to begin my birthday party celebrations. When I arrived at Toni’s friend’s house, nine smiling faces from nine different countries met me at the door. I didn’t know any of them, but that didn’t keep them from singing me a nutty birthday song and passing me a healthy helping of the traditional Irish meal they’d prepared for me. How cool. After a night of international conversations and twenty-person bar-top dancing in Shanghai’s bustling expat hotspot Zapata’s, Toni disappeared with a girl who later claimed to be a guy, and I crashed out on Toni’s friend’s couch surrounded by plates full of cold Irish mashed potatoes. After sleeping face down on the floor of a train the previous night, the couch was almost excessive luxury.

The next day Toni and I met up for a random photo safari through Shanghai. We jumped on random buses, took random pictures, ate random food and enjoyed a completly unplanned, random day. During our several random conversations, Toni argued that Shanghai’s consumer culture is a form of mental drug addiction. He said that people in his city, and around the western world for that matter, consume and spend money to "Build a bridge over a bad mood". It made total sense. We are barraged with messages telling us that buying certain product will make us feel good…and it does, for a while. Luckily my travel budget helps me resist that addiction.

That night I bought George Lucas’s first film, THX 1138, at the pirated DVD store and was blown away. It shows a version of the world full of perfect people, perfect efficiency, perfect cleanliness, perfect everything…except for how imperfect the people felt about their lives. It was almost as if imperfection is what makes us human, what ads spice, variety, and love to our lives. The movie is a trip, but if you get the chance you may want to check it out.

The next day I spent the morning SPRINTING through Shanghai’s public transit system trying to catch my 38-hour train to Chengdu. Whenever my schedule is tight, the theme from "Mission Impossible" pounds through my head. I love it. I love the rush of JUST making it. I’m not sure how healthy that is, but it sure is fun when I make it. My foot hit the first step of my car after the train was already going five miles an hour. Nice!

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Rock Pinnacles and the View of a Lifetime... 

Scott and I boarded the 6AM bus with bugers still blurring our eyesight. Unfortunately, we were still able to see FOUR TO SIX FOOT SURFABLE WAVES out the window of the bus about an hour north of Sanya...exactly where we had told our mini-bus driver to go two days before. We rode the next few hours in silence, but the smiles returned once we realized that our late surf-spot find just gave us one more reason to come back to China. Well, maybe we weren't smiling, but at least we weren't crying anymore.

The flight from Hainan to the tiny outpost of Guilin was fairly uneventful, but fifteen minutes after our taxi driver picked us up at the airport, we swerved into a random driveway nowhere close to the hostel we had requested. Seconds later "Jerry" poked his head in our window with a "Can I help you two?" in perfect English. The perfect English is what threw us. We hadn't met one local Chinese person who could say more than "Please" in "Thank you" in weeks. Immediately we assumed Jerry was a con-man and tried to get the taxi driver to leave. Unfortunately the taxi driver was incahootz with Jerry, so we were stuck.

Jerry told us the hostel we requested was closed and the taxi driver called him because the driver didn't know enough English to explain that to us. This sounded like a typical tout scam, so we argued for over fifteen minutes before Jerry hopped in and showed us the former location of our precious Lonely Planet-recommended hostel. Next Jerry led us to a mega-cheap hotel, hooked us up with two tours of Guilin and booked us on a river cruise to Yangshuo the next morning. Scotty and I were skeptical the whole time, but Jerry came through with flying colors. He even answered our questions at all hours of the night over the next few days.

After Scott and realized that Jerry wasn't trying to screw us I was confronted with my familiar conondrum. To trust, or not to trust? When I suspect someone who's trustworthy I insult them and feel bad. When I trust a weasel I get pissed. Is it better not to trust anyone? That's safe, but it also keeps you from making local friends, which is the best way to truly get to know a country. The right answer seems to be reading people better, but it's tough in tourist areas. These guys make their living on fooling rookie tourists.

After racing around to the mega-tourist sites of Guilin, Scotty and I tested our trust barriers again at the hottest dance club in Guilin (Recommended by Jerry of course). The place was hopping, and a cool Chinese kid approached us out of nowhere and offered to introduce us to his girlfriends. Immediately Scotty and I thought he was a pimp and they were his hookers, but we went along with it just to see what would happen. The Chinese radio DJ that Scotty had become friends with at the bar had started stroking his thigh, so it was time to change crowds anyway.

For the second time in three nights the two oversized Americans went epileptic on the dancefloor. Unfortunately there wasn't much of a dancefloor, so our "Dancing" consisted mostly of bumping into everyone we were close to and spilling a ton of drinks. Our new friends loved it though, so it was all good. By the time we said goodnight we realized that our new crew was full of a bunch of fun loving kids like us, and I felt pretty crappy for assuming they were in the flesh trade. Is it better to be naive or judgemental? I know the answer is somewhere in the middle, but that middle is hard to find.

The next morning we stumbled onto our riverboat packed with tourists and hit the river to Yangshuo. Wow. We'd gotten a glimpse of Guilin's rock towers, but the mountains along the river were uncanny. Check out the "Beijing to Tibet" slide show to see what I mean.

Scotty had to fly back home that night, so we had to hustle once we docked in Yangshuo. Within ten minutes we'd completed our self-guided tour of Yangshuo's tourist traps, and we were pedaling away on our $1 per day full-suspension mountain bikes. Scotty is a biking guru, so he quickly pointed out that everything about our rides was fake, but they got us out into the rice paddies, so it was all good. Yangshuo was one of my favorite stops in China. It has all the beauty of Guilin, combined with all the extreme traveler activities of South Africa. If you want to climb rocks, mud-wrestle in caves, soar in hot air balloons, or relax on tiny river rafts, Yangshuo is for you.

After a one hour bike ride and a two hour hike Scotty and I found ourselves on top of Moon Hill, enjoying the view of a lifetime. The rock pinnacles combined with the textures and colors of the thousands of acres of rice paddies made for a 360 degree view that can't be accurately described with words or pictrues. There is something very powerful about mountaintops, and Scotty and I relaxed in the moment for almost a half hour before saying a word. We didn't have to say anything. The beauty said it all for us.

By the time we hustled back to Yangshuo it was time to say goodbye to my good friend and return to the life of a solo traveler. Scott is truly an amazing individual and having him in China was just the boost of San Diego flavor I needed to keep my spirits high.

After Scotty left, I spent the next couple days riding out into the rice paddies with no specific destination in mind. I would just start pedaling and then turn onto the first dirt road that caught my eye. The farmers were so welcoming it was almost embarrasing. They had nothing but they offered me whatever they were eating and asked me to join them in the shade. We could only talk about the topics covered in my handy Mandarin phrasebook, but it was memorable just the same. One thing that struck me was that most of the fields are irrigated by HAND. The men, women, and children carry buckets of water to the crops that will sustain them for the year. Some crops are flooded by the river, but every field I passed was full of women carrying water. No hoses, no pipes, and no complaints. Wow...

Friday, October 15, 2004

Moshing Six Footers Searching for Surf... 

When Scott and I first started discussing a rendezvous in China, we tossed around hundreds of different travel options. With less than a week of free time we knew we would have to move quickly, but neither of us wanted a schedule that was too restrictive. After about twenty e-mails we decided to just blow off over-planning and go with the flow. This was an excellent choice. A couple days before Scott finished up his work obligations, we decided to book a couple flights to Hainan on the Southern tip of Chinese land mass. Scott is a great surfer and I enjoy getting pummeled by mother nature, so we had high hopes that would find some surfable waves in China's beach paradise.

Based on one of Scott's work buddy's recommendations, we opted to stay in a five star beach resort, which was supposedly right in front of the biggest beach break on the island. As we strolled past the thatched hut bar serving cocktails in coconuts, we discovered that Scotty's Chinese buddy must have misunderstood what we meant when we said we where looking for "Waves". Maybe he thought we meant "No Waves", because I doubt a piece of two inch styrofoam could have caught a wave in the bathtub-like water outside our hotel.

Considering we were still lounging on a white sand beach, listening to top-notch reggae, and playing volleyball at sunset, the lack of surf wasn't exactly making us cry in our slushy cocktails. The next day we hired a minivan to take us up to a section of the island that looked like it SHOULD have a good swell. Five minutes after leaving our posh digs, our trusty driver reneged on our deal and told us were no waves at our destination and he wouldn't drive us there anyway without a significant bump in the transport price.

Scott and I started getting hot for a moment, but then we both realized everything happens for a reason, so we opted for plan two and ferried out to an island off the coast to continue our quest. The only reason we thought there might be waves on the island was the little surfer some tour company drew on their map near that location. The ferry ride to the island opened our eyes to the lives of the people who survive on Hainan outside of the tourist industry. The hundreds of tin fisherman's shacks lining both sides of the ocean channel kept our attention for almost half an hour. Each fishing family lives on floating styrofoam docks, raising fish in netted fish pens. It looked like a stiff breeze could flatten the fishing shacks, but that didn't stop the fisher-kids from diving into the fish pens with their tiny masks to mend the underwater nets. What a life.

When we finally arrived, the island "Boss" told us we couldn't walk to the side of the island facing the swell, but we could, of course, pay big bucks to rent jet ski’s and check it out from the ocean. Whatever. By this point we were tired of getting worked by all the island's shysters, so we just went with it. As we were about to mount up, the island boss came running out to tell us (With vigorous hand signals) that we had to take a "Chaperones" with us on each jet ski. Ugh. At this point we both almost lost it, but thanks to a little deep breathing and the realization that we were about to jet off through fluorescent turquoise waves in search of elusive Chinese surf, we put a cork in our witty little mouths, grabbed our chaperones, and hit the gas.

Just as we rounded the corner of the island and lost sight of the dock, I realized why a chaperone might come in handy. The mid-sea waves on both sides of the island were enormous, and every time we hit the gas, the jet ski’s momentum launched us off the wave completely into the air. Each time I nose-dived into the next wave, the pressure of 100 fire hoses shot through my sinuses, prompting an immediate counter-attack of snot down my upper lip. Yummy. When we finally did get around to the side of the island that should have been surfable, we found waves....crashing into massive boulders. Ouch.

Since there was no chance we were going to ride a surfboard in Hainan, we decided to play as hard as we could with the toys we did have...chaperones be damned. After almost completely submerging my vessel in the pounding swells, I looked back to see Scott's jet ski floating belly up. For those of you who don't own jet ski’s, it's not all that good to completely flood the engine compartment with salt water. As Scott's ride began to sink deeper into the water, our chaperone's sprung into action, chauffeured us both back to the dock and then saved the ruined jet ski from Davey Jones' Locker. Nice.

That night reinforced the lessons I learned in Xi'an and Quzhou. Dance and sport surpass all cultural boundaries. For two hours in the fading light of the Chinese evening, Scott and I played game after game of volleyball with every family that came along. From 60 year olds to 6 year olds, we played against and with them all. We didn't know how to talk with them, but a high five and a hand shake were good enough.

After saying goodbye to our new beach buddies, we hit every night club we could find in Sanya. I couldn't tell if the other patrons were laughing out of nervousness or entertainment, but Hainan's dance population welcomed us with open arms. Just imagine two 6-1/2 foot tall, white, scruffy, dorks like us, moshing and bouncing around in sandals and board shorts in the midst of a sea of five foot tall Asians in full club garb. We were unique to say the least. After dropping about five pounds each on the dance floor, Scotty and I headed to what we thought was another bar. At first we assumed our bartender was just friendly, but once we realized that every patron in the joint had their own scantily-clad bartender, it dawned on us that we had accidentally wandered into a stealth KTV operation. As I mentioned before, KTV's can either be legitimate karaoke bars, or whorehouses posing as legitimate karaoke bars. Our "Accidental KTV bar" was far from legitimate. Since neither of us was ready to compromise our morals with a used up bartender, we hit the road and packed our bags for Guilin.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Smoking Idiots and Chinese Massages... 

During the days I spent locked in the internet mega-plexes of downtown Guangzhou, I got to practice my patience with the smoking majority of China. Within minutes of sitting down at a computer, the cloud of cancer would surround me, seeping into my clothes and staining my lungs. When I was well rested I would just feel sorry for them. It is as if the entire nation has been duped into thinking they are "Savvy" or "Progressive" by smoking. I think over 80% of Chinese males smoke, which makes no sense considering the Chinese government's emphasis on good health and exercise. I think the only reason there's not an anti-smoking movement in China is because all the government officials are nicotine addicts. On the days when I was hungry or tired, my patience was thin and I was tempted to shove their cigarette butts through the back of their heads. Luckily for me and them, I was always able to leave before giving into my dark side.

Fortunately for Guangzhou's smoking population, my four days in the city passed quickly and I soon found myself on a bus to Dongguan City, the industrial town where my great friend Scotty Folck would be based for the next week. My bus cruised past one of the brand new Olympic complexes (China is already 80% ready for the 2008 Olympics) before dropping me off in the middle of no where. By this time I was really good at saying "Wo bu hwe shuo Putongua" (I don't speak Mandarin), so I easily found a local businessman to guide me to the correct connecting bus. There is something wonderfully satisfying about navigating strange places. Every day can be an adventure or a hassle, depending on how you choose to look at it. Whenever things start going nuts, I just sit back and try to remember that the crazier things get, the better the story becomes.

When my third bus of the day dropped me off in central Dongguan City, I realized I had a new challenge. I knew the name of the "Grand Nobel Hotel", but I didn't know how to write the name in Chinese characters. No one spoke English in a five block radius and my Lonely Planet didn't specialize in industrial cities. I was off the map and out of luck. Rather than panic I decided to enjoy the adventure for a while and strolled from street to street with my 65 pound pack slowly carving gouges into my shoulder bones.

After four taxi drivers answered my questions with blank stares I saw the face of the "Colonel" peeking at me from across the most polluted river I'd seen since India. American restaurant chains should have at least one American speaking employee right? Wrong. Luckily, one of the KFC counter kids had a pocket translator, so by the time my "Spicy-Crispy" chicken sandwich was served I had my hotel name translated into Mandarin. Nice!

As I settled into the lobby of Scotty's five star mega-hotel I couldn't help but giggle to myself. I was supposed to be "Traveling"! Roughing it! Over the past month I had moved my bag from my buddy Ray's five star Shanghai hotel, to my plush apartment in Quzhou, to Elaine's deluxe pad in Guangzhou, to finally another five star wonderland. Obviously the Karma gods had been working in my favor during the last couple months.

For those of you who don't know Scotty Folck, the guy is amazing. We met through our Fraternity in the fall of 1996 and we've been great friends ever since. Scotty spent the summer of 2000 on the couch of Pink House before becoming a permanent resident a year or so later. Between San Luis Obispo and San Diego we have eight years worth of nutty stories between us, so my time in Dongguan City sped by like wildfire.

Scotty currently uses his Cal Poly mechanical engineering skills to design, test, and manage the production of shafts and miscellaneous parts for Taylor Made's golf club line. Most of Taylor Made's suppliers are based in Japan, Taiwan, and China, so Scotty has been bouncing all over Asia at least four times a year lately. I think there is something inherently relaxing about working in the golf industry, because every one of Scotty's business associates I met was laid back and fun to be around.

When Scott wasn't doing real engineering work, we found plenty of time to use the rooftop pool, inhale mountains of dumplings, find our first Chinese bowling alley, grub on all-you-can-eat American buffets, and sample the chaos of the Chinese nightlife. Scotty and one of his co-workers took me to my first "Massage" parlor and it was quite the experience. After enjoying a rather standard massage from a girl who had to transfer her entire 85 pound body into her thumbs for me to feel the pressure, I learned that most massage parlors double as "Gentleman's Clubs". None of us enjoyed more than a standard massage, but it was strange to think that there was a pretty good chance I had just gotten a back massage from a prostitute. Crazy.

During one of our forays into the shopping frenzy of the Chinese malls, Scotty and his team happened upon some knock-off Taylor Made drivers. The Taylor Made team was tempted to bust out their business cards and scare the hell out of the vendor selling fake merchandise, but they resisted and settled on taking pictures. Stolen intellectual property and patent violations is a huge problem in China, and Taylor Made is definitely not immune. Scotty said there are laser-guided machines now that can scan and copy any fabricated piece of steel in seconds. We also learned how easy it is to copy DVD's. After slipping past a "Secret" mall doorway we found ourselves in digital movie paradise. Never mind that the credits and subtitles rarely match the movie, for a dollar per flick, most customers are willing to put up with an inconvenience or two. If anyone wants a movie or the complete set of CSI episodes, just let me know. I've heard they go for around $0.80 each in Thailand...if you can deal with the Kazaa-like ethical conflicts that is...

Monday, October 04, 2004

Arranged Marriages and an Irish Reunion... 

On my last day in Quzhou I had the unique opportunity to watch someone sift through my trash. Everyone from my complex dumps their trash into street dumpsters that are accessible to everyone on a "First come, first serve" basis. As I waited for my taxi I was humbled to watch a Chinese junk merchant try on the ripped pants I'd thrown away and take a bite out of the week-old biscuits I'd tossed. I guess the universe thought I needed one more reminder that I lead a wonderful life.

About an hour later, as I plopped down in my train bunk, I was surprised to hear someone speaking English. For the next eight hours, Tiqi, a Pakistani toy importer with an American MBA, kept me informed on everything from Kashmir to arranged marriages.

Tiqi compared Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and argued that both feuds will never be resolved. He said too many lives have been lost, there is too much bad blood, and no politician wants to be known as the one who gave in to the other side. He doesn't believe there is a win-win solution, and no one wants to lose. I tend to be more of an optimist, but we found it interesting that both never-ending conflicts spawned from religious differences.

Tiqi and his two business partners were all happily married to wives selected by their families. Tiqi advised me that marriage was about "Minimizing differences". He said the romantic rumor that opposites attract might work for the short term, but not for a long term successful marriage. Tiqi's family picked a girl from a similar village, with a similar education, similar values, and a similar family history and he couldn't be happier. I still don't think arranged marriages are for me, but it sure would make things simpler. As far as minimizing differences goes, there is something to be said for having lots in common. Everyone has something special to offer, but it's way easier for me to relax and relate to girls with similar backgrounds. Coming from different countries, cultures, and age groups all pose challenges that can be overcome, but in Pakistan Tiqi says it's not worth the hassle.

When I hopped off the train in Guangzhou, I immediately started noticing white, Western couples with Chinese infants. I knew several Western families still adopted babies from China, but after I sat down in a restaurant filled with TWELVE of these multi-national families I knew something was amiss. One quick conversation with a new mother informed me that all American families must now process their adoption paperwork through the embassy in Guangzhou, regardless of where their new family member was fun. Apparently, even though Chinese families can now adopt children even if they already have one child, around 9,000 children a year are still adopted by American families. 9,000!

After saying goodbye to the scores of new families, I managed to hook up with my good friend Elaine Morrow, who now teaches English in Guangzhou. I met Elaine over a year ago in Zimbabwe, after she had left a successful career as an architect in Ireland to chase her dreams around the world. I had given Elaine my copy of Po Bronson's "What Should I Do With My Life", and she enjoyed it as much as I did. After a short stint traveling all over China promoting Australian colleges, Elaine had settled down in Guangzhou to teach for a couple month and gather her thoughts.

During the four days I spent in Guangzhou catching up on e-mail and waiting for my San Diego buddy Scotty Folck to arrive, Elaine and I had a blast. We are both searching for the job we love so much we would do it for free, so it was encouraging to feed off each other's enthusiasm. I also found it ironic that I had watched Bloody Sunday less than 48 hours earlier, and the event had taken place less than an hour's drive from Elaine's home. She remembered all the events vividly and added plenty of details the movie left out. Since everyone seems to know everything about the United States, it's nice to know a little about other people's countries when I meet them. It seems respectful in a way. It's also nice to rattle their paradigms that all Americans are culturally self-centered and ignorant of events that take place outside of their national borders. I'm still ignorant, but I'm making some progress towards learning about the rest of the world. Luckily since my family and Elaine's are from the same county in Ireland, we managed to treat each other like family from day one.

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