March 28, 2011

Travelogues 1.2

Finally, after nine days, a couple thousand miles and a temperature drop of 40 degrees fahrenheit, we reached Shanghai, and we said goodbye to our ship and wandered out into a country with a language we didn't speak, an alphabet we couldn't read, no idea of where we were, and nothing to help us out but a piece of paper printed with the name and address of our hotel in Chinese.

Here we are in Shanghai, China.

You are not supposed to take pictures of Red Army soldiers.

Even super bored ones who are assigned to watch the ship.

So I absolutely didn't take this picture.

But now you know what Red Army soldiers look like when they are given the boring duty of making sure no one sneaks off a ship to seek asylum in a communist country.

Our guard notwithstanding, the process was fairly well organized- all along our path from the gangway to the outside world (which was about 500 yards through a spanking new terminal with nothing in it but walls and high windows) we were greeted every 20 feet or so by a smiling Chinese girl who said either "Ni Hao" or "Welcome to China", depending on if she had gone to her English lesson or not.

We emerged into foggy white sunlight, squinting, and stopped in a line of folks waiting for a taxi.

The system went like this:

Wait your turn.

Tell the nice lady where you are going.

Wait for the nice lady to tell the next taxi in line where you are going while some other people start loading your luggage in the trunk.

Get in.

Drive away from the ship and everyone you know who speaks English.

Well.  You know us.  If there is a more interesting/scary/stupid way to do things, we'll be in the middle of it.

We got to the front of the line, handed the nice lady our paper and started to watch the loading of our things in the trunk.

But then our attention was returned to the nice lady because the cab driver was shaking his head and telling her lots of things in rapid Chinese.

She spoke back.

He started speaking loud rapid Chinese.

She told the other people to take our things out of the trunk.

The loud rapid Chinese driver pulled up about ten feet and the nice lady went to the cab behind him and showed him our paper.

While the nice lady was talking to the next cab, a big scary lady came to us and poked me in the chest while pointing to the first cab.  Ted and I both pointed to the nice lady and our paper.

Big scary lady marched back to the nice lady and they spoke in rapid Chinese.  Big scary lady took our paper, went to the first cab, grabbing Ted's arm as she passed and motioned for me and the other people to follow and bring the luggage.

When big scary lady got to the cab driver, she began their conversation by yelling at him hard enough to make a vein pop out on her forehead.  He yelled back.  She yelled louder and got right up in his face which made him stop for a second and just stare at her.

While he did this, she yelled at the other people to put our things in the trunk of the still staring cab driver.

Then he started yelling at her with little spits coming out of his mouth.

At this point, big scary lady began screeching at him in what even we could tell were epithets and swear words.  He escalated his retorts and just before they actually came to blows, two policemen showed up and grabbed them both by the arms and pulled them apart.

One policeman told the cab driver to get in his cab, and everybody else told us to get in too.

Uh.  No?

We don't want to.

Cab driver mad.

And with a final desperate look at each other (where are the grown ups when you need them????) we both obediently walked to the cab and got in the car.

Our cab driver peels out as Ted and I sit in the back seat looking at each other, quietly wondering what the hell just happened and expecting at this point to be Shanghai'ed in Shanghai.

Welcome to China!

So.  If you know anything about Asian culture, you will know that keeping harmony and saving face are two big components.  Public screeching, in full view of western visitors is really really out of character.

They lost face, they made us lose face. 

The harmony was totally shot to hell.

And now, we were in a cab with an angry man, taking us very fast to who knows where.  We quickly and quietly fastened our seat belts.

Finally, as we were weaving our way along an elevated freeway, we snapped out of it enough to realize that this guy could drive us to Beijing and we'd never know the difference.  We were already up to about 45 RMB ($7) and saw nothing resembling the Huangpo River or a hotel of any kind, let alone our hotel.

So Ted dialed the hotel on his phone and asked them to make sure our driver knew where they were located and then handed the phone to the driver.  We knew this was a little risky- it was making him lose face, but we figured he didn't care about our face and we were more interested in him knowing we had a quad band phone with international roaming if he had any kooky ideas about selling us into middle aged slavery.

He spoke to the nice hotel lady for about thirty seconds before he started yelling at HER, too!

We took the phone back and asked the nice hotel lady what to do.  She said to get his driver number.  We thanked her and hung up.

So now we have his driver number to give to the people he sells us to.

Now what?

There was a phone number on the back of the seat that said in English:

"If you have trouble communicating with your driver, please call this number."

We looked around, looked at each other, looked at the meter (which was, by now 75 RMB or about $11.50) and dialed that number.

We explained to the person who answered that we were in a cab with an angry man who had been forced to take our fare by the big scary lady and who was randomly rolling his window down and shouting to other cab drivers and that we were not sure where we were but our driver would not communicate with our local contact and our fare was approaching large numbers without any hotels or commercial areas in sight.

He asked to speak with our driver.

Our driver proceeded to speak rapidly into the phone, going slower and slower every second until we were in the middle lane of our side of a six lane highway going about 20mph.

As cars whizzed past us, honking their horns, our driver, (big surprise here) yelled at the new people on the phone.  This guy was apparently a very angry man with many issues that were made worse by his worried western passengers.

He gave us the phone back and the people on the other end said, "Get his driver number." and hung up.

Okey doke.

We had committed his driver number to memory in case we ever saw anyone again who gave a holy crap and sat back in our seats, trying to figure out how we got to this point.

Another few miles, off the freeway, some random turns, some aimless wandering, and a couple of switchbacks later, the driver seemed to suddenly get specific. 

We made two hard right turns and entered the semi-circular driveway for the Hyatt Hotel.

Final fare: 89 RMB ($14.00).  Ted gave him exact change with no tip- an absolute first in our lives.  We collected our luggage, showed him our backs, and left the taxi, even as some hapless stooge jumped into the back seat.

We still have no idea what the deal was, and no clue about why all the drama.    But welcome to freaking China.

If I was our driver, maybe I would hate tourists too.  But why a fare to a destination in tourist central (where he had a new fare as soon as we got out) would make him so angry and defiant is beyond us.  Sometimes, bridging the cultural gap is just exhausting and we decide not to.

So.  Here we are.

Things have to get better from here.

Whoever watches over drunks, small children, and us was on duty that day, because we not only get our room at 9am we get a room on the 29th floor over looking the Huangpo river - only the bar and revolving restaurant are higher than us.

We retreat to our cushy western hotel room.  Flop on the bed and marvel at the fact that we are alive and free.

Finally, I drag myself off the bed and the first thing I see on the river is this...

Now, it's worth enjoying this shot just for the uniqueness of the boat- but juxtaposed against a spectacularly modern skyline, it only hints at what we know is true of the country we suddenly find ourselves adrift in.  China is a place of ancient and modern all cobbled together, co-existing in a strange and interesting way.

The skyline out our window looks like this:

Again, it was foggy. But this is part of the Shanghai skyline these days.  At night this city is lit up like Las Vegas.  


And the river is full of boats all lit up like Christmas trees...

At least the tourist boats.  We saw a whole bunch of ore barges and other boats blithely sailing up the river without any running lights or navigation lights at all.  Sailor beware!

We were definitely in ABCinAFC (Another Big City in Another Foreign Country), but we wanted to get out to walk "the bund".  

The bund is a major river walkway that covers a long portion of riverfront and contains nothing really, except some river boat cruise docks.  

Here's a shot of it as we started walking...

It's really very nice.  And very well used by people from... well, China.  We were a distinct minority in our western-ness. I was wearing a Northern Michigan University sweatshirt and that combined with our faces made us the target of a lot of stares, one or two smiles, and a couple of people eager to practice their English.

A great effort is made to keep the bund clean and tidy, and they have plants and flowers in lots of places.  I was particularly tickled by this flower bed-

so I stepped up on the cement that surrounds it to get a better shot of the whole thing.


A Chinese policeman with a crossing guard vest and a whistle started tweeting at me and motioning to Ted to get me off the wall.


So I guess this qualifies as a semi-illegal picture.

We kept walking down the bund, trying not to look like the scofflaws we obviously were, and enjoying the sights and sounds and people.  Here's some random shots of signs:

No clue.  It explains something on the Bund, but...


Click it bigger if you want to see some chinese with translations.

Street sign. 

All in all, it was a good chance to just sample some new places and get an idea of the possibilities.

We are planning a trip on our own back to the rural parts of Vietnam, but we need to think a little harder about whether we really want to deal with China again... even just dipping our toes into China proved to be something of an ordeal, so venturing into the countryside may not be the thing of which dream vacations are made. 

In any case, there is a big fat statue of Mao on the bund, and everyone was taking their picture with it.  So I set my scale model up in front of it and told him to flash a peace sign because that is what all the Chinese were doing. 

 So now we have a classic Chinese photo.  

We think. 

In the airport for our plane back to Jakarta, we finally found the crap stores we had been unable to find in Shanghai- the ones with the magnets and keychains and cheap tee-shirts.  

You know- all the stuff Made in China.  

And now we could relax and enjoy our flight home, knowing that at the last moment we had obtained authentic local goods. :-)


March 24, 2011

Travelogues 1.1

Today we go to China!

We haven't been to Hong Kong since 1990, years before the British lost their lease, and years before digital cameras.  We had a blast there the first time, but all our pictures are in albums, in storage, in Houston.  So you just get the short version here.

But at least it's current.

The good news is, Hong Kong is actually in better shape now than it was twenty years ago.  Even the commies know a good thing when they get it back, and the harbor is cleaner, the shantytowns less shanty, and capitalism is alive and well on the streets of Hong Kong.

Unfortunately for us, the day started with a thick fog that didn't really get any better even in the 'heat' of the day (never got above 60), so apologies for the less than stunning shots of the skyline...

As soon as the boat docked, we got on the tram to Victoria peak, something we had neglected to do in our 30s, disdaining it as "too touristy".  Now we had a chance to redo that decision and this is our view...

Oh well.  That was our penance I guess.  But the tram was a hoot.  Like a funicular but they call it something Chinese.

The floor of the tram has small speed bumps angled into it so the conductor can walk when you are at a steep angle.  It's pretty funny, but hard to get a shot with perspective, so use your imagination.

We took a bus down the hill, and got a shot of this cemetery on the way...

Space is so limited in the city, I'm amazed that this is even here.  But wow, have they packed them in!

Once we got back down to harbor level, we got on a sampan to check out Aberdeen (part of the harbor with lots of houseboats).  This is what the sampan looked like...

And this is the view once we were on board...

And this is a little piece of Hong Kong's Aberdeen...

...which is so very different from 20 years ago.  In 1990 it had 10 times this many boats, the water was brown and filthy (the kind of filth that makes you look up your last tetanus shot) and the smell was overpowering.

Now it's like a free form marina, and you can see for yourselves that the water is remarkably clean and clear.

I don't know what happened, although I'm pretty sure it involved "voluntary" relocation for a pantload of people but I give the Chinese credit for cleaning up the water- it's truly amazing.

Once back on dry land, we wandered the streets of Kowloon, visiting some places we enjoyed last time, and sitting in the park watching people.

A typical Kowloon street scene....

When we got back to the ship, we got a bottle of wine and went up to sit on the small balcony in our stateroom. (I absolutely recommend this if you take a ship trip.  Being able to open a door and step outside anytime of the day or night when sailing is really REALLY good.  Trust me on this.)

Our side of the ship was the side tied to the dock, so we knew we would be able to sit there, drinking wine in our jammie clothes, and mock the people who were late returning to the ship.

We were not disappointed.

No less than 10 people showed up after the "all aboard" time, accompanied by our hoots of "Fail!", as they made the walk of shame onto the gangway.  We were seven stories up so they couldn't hear us, but it was good immature fun anyway.

Best part: we found out (from the horse's mouth because she was sitting behind us whining to someone at breakfast two days later) that one woman missed the boat completely and was met with an empty dock when she finally arrived and she had to find her own way through China to the ship at its next port.  EPIC FAIL!

2000 other people made it, including the 10 slackers who were 15 to 30 minutes late, so we didn't really have much sympathy for her.

In between heckling the latecomers, we watched the people who gathered on the parking garage roof directly across from where the ship was tied up.  There weren't many, but one pair was a man and his little boy.

The boy was very excited to be so close to the big ship and ran happily along the length of the parking garage stopping every few feet to stand on the rail and gaze at the ship.

When he got to us and realized there were real live people on the ship he almost had a stroke and started waving like mad.

When we waved back, he fell backward off the railing and had to jump back up to continue waving to us and yelling to his Dad in Chinese to come and see.

After a minute, he stopped waving, took a deep breath, and in very clear English yelled:


I yelled back, "Shanghai!" and he started waving all over again.  He and his Dad stayed another 20 minutes until the ship pulled away from the dock.

That was our happy Bon Voyage from Hong Kong.

Next stop was Xiamen China.  We didn't even get off the boat.

Nothing there interested us in the least, and our shipmates confirmed for us at the end of the day that it was basically just a good place to stop the ship for a while, but hardly qualified as a "port of call".

The most interesting thing there was this boat, apparently come to rest for good, given that it was there for the entire cycle of high and low tides.

In any case, we were soon enough back at sea, following the coastline north to Shanghai.  We assume we were following the coastline because there were always little boats in the water to our port side.  Much littler than we would ever have wanted to be out in the open ocean in.

This one guy, nicknamed Crazy Boat, came close enough to the ship to get himself honked with that big old bass horn that ships have.  Crazy was a charitable nickname.

If he was trying to defect, he needed to find a ship that wasn't on its way to a Chinese port... d'oh!

Meanwhile, we were cozy in our cabin.  Here's my scale model, showing how to enjoy shipboard life while he reads trashy magazines and drinks Coca-cola (with chinese characters on one side of the label). 

The next morning, at sea, we got up, looked out the balcony door and saw this:

I kid you not.  You could not see the horizon.  You could not see anything.  And it was 58 degrees outside.

What, you may ask, does one do now?

I have two words for you:    

 HOT.     TUB.

Ted and I skedaddled to the pool deck which was empty of all living souls, the rest of our shipmates being huddled in various warmer parts of the ship.

All the better!

We staked our claim to one of the four hot tubs on deck and sailed our way to Shanghai.   The captain was blowing his fog horn every ninety seconds when we got in the hot tub.  By the time we were all pruny and ready for lunch he was blowing it every thirty seconds.

I felt us bang into and run over a small fishing boat, but Ted says we didn't.


After lunch, we got right back in the hot tub and sailed some more until other people figured out how smart we were and started getting in the other hot tubs.

By dinner time, this was the view from our cabin...

Next stop, Shanghai!

March 20, 2011

Travelogues 1.0

Happy happy joy joy.  We are no longer slaves to the public school calendar!  We have just returned from a vacation whose date depended on nothing but our wish to travel.

We have had China and Vietnam on our wish list of places to see for a while now, and we found a ship leaving Singapore that would take us to both places.  It was a chance to sample them and decide whether we would enjoy returning on our own while experiencing shipboard life for the first time as a couple instead of as a family; so off we went on our tour of Eastern Hemisphere Communism, which just felt strange for this pair of baby boomers.

We boarded our ship on Saturday, March 5 and headed off for nine days in the China Sea.

It was really strange to be headed for Vietnam more than 25 years after Ted ceremoniously shredded his draft card- at that time, I couldn't imagine it as a place anyone in America would willingly visit, ever.  But here we were, on our way.

First stop, Saigon.  The official name is now Ho Chi Minh City, but none of the Vietnamese we met called it that, and when we corrected ourselves once, the Vietnamese woman to whom we were speaking snorted and laughed and told us not to worry- they all call it Saigon still.  The North Vietnamese make a big deal of "reunification" but the South Vietnamese don't really care- they just carry on, like always.  

I woke up the morning we arrived in port to check out the view and here it was...

We were slowly making our way up this river (good luck finding a name for it- we were there and couldn't get a straight answer- closer to the city it is the Saigon river, but it changes name in the Delta...) in part of the Mekong Delta.

Very soon after I snapped that picture, boats of all kinds started showing up...

A lot of them were anchored for the night and just starting to get busy with their day, and some of them were already moving- most of them sounding like the African Queen.

We kicked up all kinds of mud in this very shallow harbor, and wondered briefly if we would find ourselves aground and tilting before the day was out...

In any case, we made our way to Saigon and found what has become a standard designation in our family: Another Big City in Another Foreign Country.  This was Cooper's comment many years ago when we were in some European capital expounding on the coolness of being there.  He looked at us, sighed, and said, "It's just..." and the rest is history.

Obviously, even ABCinAFC's have their attractions, but we have kind of come to see his point over the years.  All too often the work of finding more than a McDonalds with some weird food on the menu is exhausting because in large cities it's hard to get past the more commonplace steel, cement, traffic, and international brands.

We did finally manage to find a market mostly filled with crap for the tourist trade, but it also contained some seriously creepy food items in a central "Food Court" that was 100% occupied by locals.

The smells were beyond smelly, and although we enjoyed looking, we opted to eat elsewhere.  Our enthusiasm for local foods pretty much depends on our sense of smell. 

Saigon's 'attractions' are things we just couldn't get excited about.  They love their copy of Notre Dame cathedral, and they practically shove you into the 'Reunification Hall', but we are not big fans of places copied from other places, and North Vietnam's homage to the country they reunified under a communist government wasn't really the stuff of which our leisure time dreams are made.  Propaganda from either side is boring, at best.

So we just wandered and found new...

and older...

and much older...

This is Ho Chi Minh City Hall.   It was built by the French more than a hundred years ago for whatever, but now it is the "Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Head Office" and don't you forget it!

It isn't open to the public and you are NOT allowed to take pictures of it.  So don't tell anyone you saw this picture.

We also found a lack of understanding when it comes to infrastructure...

Wires like this were all over the place.  Sometimes bundled at the intersections, sometimes just hanging.  It's a modern city with a distinctly clueless approach to a lot of things.

All in all we weren't terribly impressed, and we dragged our hot, sweaty selves back to our boat thinking "not so much with the Vietnam".

But then, further up the road (or sea as the case may be) we stopped at Da Nang.  Now there is a city we could spend some time in.

Da Nang is a lot more in touch with its cultural self.  Or something.

We just felt more like we were in Vietnam there. And we saw the best houses (none of which I managed to get a picture of)- they are very very narrow and three or four stories high and one that caught my eye was for rent!

Ted brought me back to earth very quickly by pointing out that we didn't know ANY of the language (and it's a tonal Asian language- we couldn't even manage 'thank you' without accidentally saying a completely different phrase) and reminding me that it would never get any cooler than it was right that second (sweaty hot and humid).

Oh well.

But in any case, it's a fun place.

Still a pretty big city, but it has a lot less of the schizo and a lot more of the local.  This is the local.

(none of the tall skinny houses made this shot, unfortunately)

We also stopped at a tourist trap called "Marble Mountain" which has some really nice marble pieces made from stuff they mine right there.  As a cultural attraction, it has a lot in common with Ruby Falls and Little America, but there were some fun and interesting marble sculptures.

Here's a guy we just liked...

and here's my scale model with a laughing Buddha...

This is the temple on Marble mountain. 

After that we high tailed it to the beach, because that was our actual goal.  We spent the day on the very southern end of China Beach- the place American GIs came for R and R during the war.

It was easy to see why...

This is the view to the south and north from our umbrella chairs.

The bad news is, this whole area is the scene of a race between at least five international resorts to build big fat gated horrors in Da Nang.  This may be the first time we've gotten someplace before it was well and truly 'discovered'. 

Cool surf, golden sand, good food. 

Dragon fruit, shrimp and something we still don't know what it was, except good to eat. The little blob under the little thing is wasabe mayonnaise- yum!

We wandered up the beach to get a closer look at the local boats.

Vietnamese boats are round.

They have one oar that is attached to the front of the boat and the person in the boat works the oar back and forth in a way that looks easy, but has to be a workout, and more importantly we are sure if we tried to do it we would end up spinning in circles and never moving an inch.

Here's two shots we got of people actually using them (they're everywhere, but catching them on camera isn't easy!).

Setting nets------->

And just for grins, here's some random scenery from what really is a beautiful country if you get past the history and sadness.

Finally, back at the boat, getting ready to leave... it's also forbidden to take pictures of the army guys.  

So of course, I did.

This was one of the guys they assigned to make sure none of us tried to stay in Vietnam without permission.  

I had to wait until he wasn't looking.  

So now you've also seen an illegal photo of an army guy.  Shhhh.

Next time: We're off to China!