Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sturm to Gluehwein

I left Graz in October during the height of Sturm season there. The locals also call Sturm Jungwein, or young wine, reflecting that it is basically partly fermented wine. It is popular, especially among tourists, but very temporary, because it is heavily carbonated and cannot be stored or transported well. This continues to surprise me as a particularly atypical engineering failure. The Austrians, who are good engineers and quite experienced with their creative drinks, have not figured out any way to bottle Sturm. I tried buying some to bring to America, and nobody knew where to get any. I thought about taking some anyway, but then my picture of all the loot from my Memphis hotel I had a few entries ago would have been splotched with detonated wanna-be wine.

I got back to Graz a few days ago. No more Sturm anywhere, and the day of my arrival (18 Nov) happened to be the opening night of glühwein. Hauptplatz was way too crowded to get any, and they shut down at 10 PM, which seems unEuropean. The locals love their creative wine aberrations. I heard they even drink wine sometimes.

So do passengers on international flights, where Lufthansa still serves free alcoholic drinks on international flights. Their Star Alliance partner, United, does not. However, they account for their wine about as well as the Greek government tracks its taxes. Routinely, I buy one or two wine bottles and get the rest free, through cajoling and charm and bartering. Simply ask your flight attendant for some extra wine. Initially, he will say no, just as sure as he’s gay. Then, go to the bathroom when he’s hanging out in the back galley. Give him a couple Mozartkugeln, pee, and get ready for a free bottle upon your bathroom exit. Works every time. This time, I gave one of them a little bottle of obstler that I carried on, figuring it wouldn’t be a good stomachpartner for wine. The guy got me a full glass of wine from the first class cabin, which was dramatically better than the bottles they sold me in coach. Yeah, I was surprised too. Not at the wine, but that I still had obstler after 5 weeks in the US.

But I just experienced a far greater drinking indignity, a new low in airline exploitation. I was asked if I wanted a drink on my short flight from Munich to Barcelona. Sure, I said. Water. I even asked in Spanish. I got water and put my headphones on, thinking the transaction was over. No. She wanted 2 euros. Never had to pay for an on-board non-alcoholic beverage before. Que lastima, Spainair. I was reminded of my post a while back, inspired by the suggestions for airline stretches in United’s Hemispheres magazine, helpfully suggesting further stretches. Although they really should pay me for this, here are some further suggestions on how to profit from airline passengers.

First, they missed some key parts of the food and drink selling cycle. The menus are free. Why? They cost several cents to print. So did the emergency instructions, inflight catalog, and magazine. Spanair did not give out any pretzels or nuts, and if they tried to hand me any, I would now ask how much they cost. There’s an opportunity. And what happens later? Passengers go to the bathroom, particularly on longer flights. What about inflight pay toilets? It costs $10 grand to smoke in an airplane lavatory, so who could complain about paying only one percent of that to perform a much more private and disgusting act? To discourage cheap passengers who won’t shell out $100 per use, you could also remove the air sickness bags, or charge a reduced price for them, thus depriving niggardly innovators of a backup option.

Inflight movies are still free. So is the music, and the headphones. Missed opportunity. Similarly, the flight attendants on this flight will speak to me – in any of three languages – for free, and even smile on occasion, making me wonder if I said something witty or they just have to fart. Make passengers pay for their interactions with staff, and charge a lot more if the plane is delayed or suddenly losing altitude. Since trilingual passengers are rare, charge extra for speaking in the passenger’s native language, or even one that he knows. The traytables and seatbacks could both have electronic locks keyed to a credit card. Charge ten cents per minute they’re open, and hope the passenger falls asleep. Above me, I have a light and air vent that I can use for free. I can even close the window for free, which really helps me sleep. They could get a whole package for sleeping people, with a discount if you get the window turndown service and earplugs. Sleepy passengers also need pillows and blankets. Charge $5000 for each inch of blanket thickness, or $5.

They’ve been charging for better seat assignments for a few years now. Tall men can recall the good ol’ days when an exit row seat on an international flight didn’t cost an extra 60 euros. But I can still get an aisle seat without an extra fee, which is a loophole they need to close. Some people still like window seats, and might be goaded in to paying for them. Middle seats could also incur a surcharge. Are there other kinds of seats? Charge for them too. Passengers have to put their carryons in an overhead bin, or under a nearby seat. Prime storage space, given away for free, like a horny off-duty whore. And what about the shuttles that take me to and from the terminal? Without them, passengers are stuck. You may have read the articles about how a couple airlines made passengers pay for gas and airport fees while they were stuck in a terminal between connecting flights. Good move, but wouldn’t they pay more if they didn’t have a whole terminal with food, bathrooms, heaters, and seats?

Heat. Of course. It must cost a lot to heat an aircraft hurtling through the lower atmosphere. Let alone the air circulation. Get ready for this new line: in the event of emergency, or a loss of cabin pressure, air masks will automatically drop from the overhead areas if your credit card is valid. Note that cabin pressure will drop below safe levels within ten minutes after takeoff. All electronic devices must remain off until the captain has turned off the fasten seat belt sign, and you paid a corkage fee to open your laptop. Please remain in your seat, with your seat belt securely fastened, in case of unexpected or fabricated turbulence. If your seat belt will not fasten, or unfasten, please ensure your credit card is valid to accept the belting charges. In the event of emergency, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device for $50, which is the same price required to use your seat cushion as a seat cushion.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Play Doe

Here is a gratuitously cute picture of a doe with her two fawns, to help set the tone.

Three deer just off Main Street in Ouray.

I previously blogged about American Halloween traditions, such as Trick or Treat, pumpkin pie, Easter egg hunts, shoe trading, rabbit rodeos, and Kiss the Neuroscientist. I never covered Jack-O-Lanterns. Americans like to buy pumpkins and carve them up so they look like Jack Nicholson's head. Then, they put lanterns inside, because bright lights attract deer and moths. Deer cannot see orange, so they think the pumpkin is actually a real head, and we all know that deer love to eat human brains. But when they get too close to the light, they of course are stunned, and then Americans like to put costumes on them and take pictures. Fat children sometimes ride the deer when trick-or-treating. It is legal to kill and eat a stunned deer if it tried to eat from the pumpkin, since this proves it is dangerous to humans. It gets more vulgar in very rural areas, but that's illegal.

Two real pictures of a doe eating from a Jack-O-Lantern, one house north of the first picture.

Austrian pumpkins are small and green, and unappealing to deer. Pigs, however, love the Austrian kürbis, and so Austrians carve them to look like their most famous and talented composer, Falco. And they sometimes dress up pigs like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Otherwise the same.

How do Austrians kill deer, then? They put these unsportsmanlike hunter-huts out in the mountains.

A jagerstand I saw while hiking Graukogel near Bad Gastein, an hour from Salzburg.

Hunters will just hang out there all day and drink heavily and blow away passing deer. This seems too easy. American hunters have to cover themselves in deer urine and hike and hide and drink cheap beer all day to try to get off one shot with a bow and arrow. Sometimes they confuse the deer urine and beer, or just use that as an excuse to indulge their addiction. Meanwhile, deer are sneaking around, covered in human urine, trying to gore the hunters and eat their brains. Now that's a good sport. And very fair. Except the deer are not allowed to drink beer because they aren't 21.

Salzburg is the land of the second most famous and talented composer in Austria: Roger San Hammerstein, who is actually American. He wrote The Sound of Music, set in Salzburg, which Austrians really appreciate for its accuracy. They like him so much that most Austrians cannot name any Austrian composer from Salzburg, and sometimes argue that Roger is one of them. In appreciation, I rewrote the most famous song:

(Original Version)
Doe- a deer, a female deer
Ray- a drop of golden sun
Me- a name i call myself
Far- a long long way to run
Sew- a needle pulling thread
La- a note to follow so
Tea- a drink with jam and bread
That will bring us back to do oh oh oh

(New official version)
Doe, a deer, a tasty deer
Ray - my laser scope on gun!
Me, eat game, eat all myself
Fawn - you better start to run!
So - the baby deer is red!
Law: I'm glad that they don't know!
Tea - a drink for throbbing head
That will bring us back to so-o-ober.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beale House Rock

I just enjoyed couple days in Memphis, a city I never visited. This is too bad, since it was fun and lively and reminded me of living in Atlanta. I lived there less than two years, but that was enough to make me the ambassador of the South to other conference attendees, mostly Europeans, some of whom never even saw America before. It was fun taking them out for Southern food and explaining grits, corn bread, green beans with bacon and sugar, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, fried catfish, fried fritters, and even fried fries. I warned them about sweet tea, the table wine of the South. They all listened to me, which wasn’t part of my plan. I was hoping one of them would be adventurous and try it, providing cheap amusement and credibility.

Of course, I told them all about Elvis, and tried to convince them that Elvis was not only alive, but looked about the same as he did 50 years ago. Despite countless signs to the contrary, they didn’t believe me.

This was really close to my hotel. Either it is unique, or they have several hundred such plazas all over Memphis.

This is at Graceland. They would know, don't you think?

I also forgot about the itinerant and elusive southern belles, two of whom I met on my first night. I was talking to a cop who I had bribed with a Mozartkugel in exchange for information. Molly and Anna materialized and said they were celebrating their birthday. Two gorgeous and flighty blondes and one neuroscientist. I knew this wouldn’t last, so I managed to get the picture below before they disappeared as quickly as they emerged.

Right shirt choice?

Continuing my MO to ingratiate locals, I managed to get out the next night to a club in midtown with good live music. This was all thanks to a helpful tip from a thoroughly more impressive woman who lived in Memphis. Unfortunately, our clubbing adventure ended early when she lost her cell phone and one of her friends got sick. She later cut her finger while talking to me. I doubt I'll see her again, and can't really blame her.

On Sunday, I went back to Beale Street with my conference buddies. Sunday was much, much quieter than the last two nights, made all the more eerie by the tininess of the Beale Street drinking area. They basically cordoned off about three blocks of one street, flooded it with cops, and called that downtown Memphis party central. They make up for it by legalizing beer on streets and allowing alcohol sales until 3 AM, which is generous in America but still makes Europeans shake their heads sadly.

Like previous trips to Colorado, I had over 100 pounds of luggage, mostly consumables. Unlike before, very little was pumpkinseed oil. So, I went back to my room and created the picture below. Note I already gave away two bottles of schnapps and a lot of chocolate. Also, the five Chinese silk paintings from Suzhou aren’t shown because there wasn’t room. I need some of it for my conference and workshops in DC next month, but most of it will be distributed among friends and family in CO and CA, often with me present to play Indian giver.

Loot, mostly chocolate and bottles of schnapps. Amazing what you can do with Photoshop, eh, US Customs Agents?

Sign at a gift shop in Denver airport.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bad Guest? Nein

2 weekends ago, I went to Bad Gastein, near Salzburg, for a couple days of hiking. Austria continues to impress me as a hiking paradise, with ample well marked trails through gorgeous mountains. Their delight in peppering hikes with little restaurants initially freaked me out, but it grows on you. It is still weird to huff up a steep hill, totally alone, then turn a corner and see 30 Austrians and 10 dogs sitting on a patio, eating and drinking. But these waystations are quite practical. Does cold cranberry juice and water sound good now? Me neither. After ascnending 1 kilometer, it's delicious, and quite envigorating.

My goal here is not to glorify the hiking, but the exploding bathrobes. Yes, they amused me so much over the last 2 weeks that I couldn't focus on writing Tiger Leaping Gorge II or anything else. Had to devote a whole blog post to them. Cuz they are just that cool.

The notion of an exploding collar or other device to corral prisoners or slaves is prevalent in sci fi. If the prisoner leaves a security perimeter, he gets splattered. As only one example, here is a prisoner in the Schwarzegger classic "The Running Man" involuntarily modeling the exploding collar:

"The Running Man" includes this real footage of the death penalty in California. The Govenator's decision to execute this California prisoner, named Tookie Williams, alienated everyone in Graz and a small percentage of Californians who wouldn't have voted for him anyway:

Side note to all of my Austrian readers: Gerv and Clemens, you should watch the movie. It shows that Arnie was actually trying to free the prisoners, and was framed for their death. And, Arnie was punished horribly by being forced to participate in Hollywood game shows with Richard Dawson and Maria Conchita Alonzo. Isn't that punishment enough? Give him his stadium back!

I thought that exploding collars were sci fi. But leave it to the Austrians, who I always praised as clever engineers, to actually implement it. Bonus points for the triviality of the offense. You might think such a punishment would be reserved for escaping murderers, people who lock their kids in basements for 25 years, or who ask for kangaroos in Austria. Nein. Just people who try to steal bathrobes from the Hotel Grüner Baum in Bad Gastein:

Warning notice in my hotel room. Click on the picture to enlarge. Key phrase: "Our bathrobes are equipped with an anti-theft device and will explode when leaving the hotel unallowed."

Fucking Awesome!

One assumes the exploding bathrobes resulted from escalation, after prior unsuccessful efforts to reduce bathrobe theft. First, they asked nicely. Please don't steal our bathrobes. Sterner warnings may have followed. Maybe they upgraded to dye packs that would mar the bathrobes with a red badge of shame, a scarlet vetter. Still didn't work. They may have upgraded to bathrobes that play really bad music, or shock you, or fart. No luck. Then they got really pissed. Old Man Blumschein was out for blood.

They're really efficient, too. I walked all around the hotel - careful to bring no bathrobe - but couldn't find any craters or blood spatters or corpses. They must clean them up immediately! Well done! And the explosions must echo quite loudly off the many mountains around Salzburg, yet the locals never mentioned that the hills are alive with the sound of new sick. I asked several locals where I could find the splattered bathrobe-thieves, and they just looked at me funny. Maybe they were paid off, or live in terror. Could be my German.

Also, I played with the bathrobe for a while - careful to remain in my room - and found the bulge that must include the sensor and the payload. Not very big, at all. Yet it must pack enough punch to completely splatter someone, because the only other possibilities are that the device would only damage the bathrobe, or they're bluffing completely. These are much more likely explanations than Austrian punitive suicide vests, but less fun and hence disregarded. I hereby invent Brendan's Razor, which is that any scientific explanation that leads to the most entertaining sci fi silliness must be true.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tiger Leaping Gorgeous I: Naxi cavalry

The climax of the China trip was a two day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, on the border between Yunnan and Tibet, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Gorge is so named because it once narrows enough that a tiger supposedly leapt across the gorge to escape pursuit. It is a good legend, and any tiger that could have crossed that gorge merited such permanent glory, cause it is pretty wide. Never mind that it would have to be a really strong tiger; what was he running from?

Himalays disappearing into clouds

Right side of TLG trail

Shortly after we started hiking TLG, we were passed by a frail 60 year old woman. This might sounds embarassing, but she had a big advantage over my brother and me: cavalry.

Naxi cavalry!

The hike was spiced with locals, the Naxis, who were eager to profit from hiking tourism. All along the hike, Naxis would pass us with their horses, offering to give us a ride. They were persistent, lowering prices and yelling their offers after us as we hit steeper spots. Other Naxis sold walking sticks, lighters, wood carvings, and other greatly overpriced goodies. We also encountered other hikers. Most interestingly, absolutely no natives. Aside from Chinese people trying to sell us stuff, we encountered zero Chinese people on the whole hike.

2000 meters below our hiking trail, there was a tourist area with a lot of buses. This seems to be where the Chinese go to enjoy TLG, while the round-eyes puff and swelter through a hike.
Buses = much worse than horses!

In addition to the gorgeous mountains, there were also a lot of delightfully mysterious plants. They look normal from afar, but up close, they are obviously different.

Mostly mysterious plants on TLG

A handwritten sign (trying to sell us stuff) and the Official State Plant of California.

Here is yet another effort to service me. This was a Chinese ladybug I met on the Cangshan Trail. She didn't speak English, but I gave her 2 RMB when she started undoing my zipper, and the rest is far too vulgar to post. I simply quote Grumpier Old Men: "The devil is a beautiful woman in a red dress."

Another Chinese ladybug! This one wasn't wearing red, so I got her for only 1 RMB. Yeah. Oh, and she charged my 25000 RMB for the jissbon condom. Great name, too.

Jizz well! With jissbon! (Expert's tip: ladybugs like the lubricated ones.)
Oh also, you aren't supposed to put sunglasses on your condom before using it. The picture is really misleading, and potentially dangerous. Fortunately, the Naxis had anesthetic.

Steve, 2 Naxis, and lots of corn.

View straight ahead from the Naxi Guest House

View to the right from Naxi Guest House

View from the Naxi Guest House breakfast table

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Chinglish is easy to find online. Why, you can easily find mistranslations from every language. But only these have my special style of commentary.

Steve and I passed this sign all the time in Kunming. The sign does have the Chinese symbol for "blind", so it is definitely a mistranslation. But intentional? Perhaps a clever trick to convince us they really are blind?

I really don't think you know what "happy endings" mean. Definitely, stay away from massage parlors.

This was a sign at the base of the Cangshan trail near Dali. We did not somke.

"Brick" cannot be used comparatively in the same fashion as adjectives like wide or hard. You can say that something is wider, or harder, but not brickler. You also cannot say that something is "strawer" or "paperer".
The last sentence is funnier. There is nothing in the universe that looks like a lens or pudding. Visualize each item before reading further. A lens, and pudding, have nothing in common and do not look like each other in any way. I'd really like to see a type of rock that elicits comparisons to both lenses and pudding.

Yeah .... might want to get the basics down before you try technical jargon.
It sounds very unpleasant. I would not like to suffer solid state plastically fluid deformation.

This was also on the Cangshan Trail, but has surprisingly good English, and a nice story. We'll transition away from Cangshan and funny, and to Tiger Leaping Gorge and humblingly breathtaking.

Here is the entry to Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike.

This is not Chinese, English, Chinglish, or mistranslated. It does continue the transition from silly to pretty before my next post. We found it early on the Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike. It simply says, "The mountain calls."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Yi ha

The Yi people are one of the Chinese minority groups that have their own language, dress, and customs. They are prevalent in Yunnan, including the major city of Lijiang, and the much more remote village of Yongshan. We heard that they had a major annual fesitval planned in late July, called the Torch Festival, with lots of drinking and feasting and fire. They also have the odd tradition of throwing paint or colored water on people, which is why you see me wearing a tye dye in these pictures.

We learned all of this from one of Steve's students, Kenny, who hails from (relatively) little Yongshan. Some readers may think, as I did, it's an odd coincidence that his name would have the same spelling and pronounciation as the South Park character who dies in most episodes. No. Kenny named himself after that character. When such a guy invites you to his home in his little village for a feast and insider torch festival, you gotta go. May fortune favor the flaneurish.

Aside from the festival, we also wanted to check out their Buddhist temple complex. They sell incense for family health, world peace, money, or love. Being a rich American, I decided to cover my bases with lots of all of them. I was most definitely disappointed on the last one since then, and see no real progress in the first three. Sneaky Buddhists.

Hanging with Kenny at a Buddhist temple in Yongshan. None of us killed him. We aren't bastards.

A pagoda at the Yongshan Buddhist temple.

Praying for world peace. With really a lot of incense. So stop fighting!

Of course, one can always make minor inroads with (at least) world peace through feasting. Kenny's brother slaughtered a lamb the day before, which they roasted and served with all kinds of other things. They brought some rice wine and bamboo wine. Ever wondered what it would taste like to drink bamboo? Pretty much like you think. I donated one bottle of Austrian schnapps. It may well have been the first time these three drinks were consumed together. Further experimentation is warranted.

Our contribution to dinner and world peace.

Of course, feasting entails singing. This is one thing that stands out about Americans: groups of drunk Americans, especially American men, are less likely to spontaneously sing than other cultures. They may sing drunk because they have drunk karaoke, or joined a drunk choir, or lead Guns N Roses, but they just don't suddenly burst into drunksong. Kenny and his family really got going. Then, they wanted us to teach them American drinking songs. We don't really have any, I said. We don't even know our own national anthem.

They pushed. Kenny forced us to sing "Right There Waiting for You" by Richard Marx, which is most definitely not a drinking song. We thought about punshing them with "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," which would have shut them up for a while. (And taught them English counting.) Then we realized that we're very well versed in Python songs, and they would not know the difference. So, they now think that "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", the lumberjack song, and the Australian philosopher drinking song are all mainstream American drinking songs. As well they should be.
Oh yeah. The torch festival. Didn't happen. It rained. Streets were empty. C'est la flaneur. Did I mention we had plenty to drink?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nasal ganglia

I did mention that China is visually spectacular, both in natural beauty and edifying edifices. I got some great pictures from hikes in Dali and Tiger Leaping Gorge that I will post soon. Dear readers should be grateful that any pictures I manage to post do not include smell. The dark side of urban Chinese flaneur is a black pudding of pollution. 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China, and I gagged through two of them. Many Chinese travel around wearing filter masks, and I would too. Even through lovely mountain passes, the driver’s enthusiasm for tailing people means you get choked with exhaust so thick you couldn’t read Eliot if it were in your lap. Any smog check rules that may exist either suck or aren’t enforced, because truck exhaust should carry warning labels like (much less harmful) unfiltered cigarettes. It didn’t just affect me. On our bus ride from Lijiang, two of the Chinese people asked for the trash bucket to puke. The driver stopped and everyone went outside, gagging. I had wet my T-shirt and held it over my nose as a filter, and still had a nasty headache.
I went to the nearest bathroom to puke, but the air was far worse there. This is typical of Chinese public toilets. Urinal deodorant cakes are rare outside of fancy hotels, and there is way more piss on the floor than anywhere else. They really need urinal flies, and I gave up on studying them. I got confused after deducing that Munich and Frankfurt airport had them in only some terminals, and noticing that Malaga airport instead had a lit candle at the aiming point, which I failed to extinguish. Schiphol had much more abstract and fanciful flies. If you could see all the urinal art together, you’d have no trouble identifying which one came from a country with legal drugs. Add “no art” for the Chinese and you’d have no trouble guessing which culture has the most piss on the floor. If not urinal flies, maybe little Japanese faces, or even Americans if that inspires more assiduous aim.

“Our aim is to keep this bathroom clean. Your aim will help.” -- Sign in the bathroom of the Sunset Café, Ridgway, CO, late 1980s.

The Austrians have a word for the mud created by dirt and snow-sludge. Gatch. I wonder if the Chinese have a word for the piss-mud footprints you see throughout some Chinese bathrooms, often trailing outside the bathroom. One could also coin a word for the soot-and-sweat sheen that forms in very humid and polluted environments. Perhaps "swoot." Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow, but any of them in Shanghai or Atlanta will swoot.

Streets add some randomness to the smells. Walking around the streets, I often encounter some nasty smell, sometimes sewage, sometimes stinkfruit, sometimes unidentifiable. Other times, you get a whiff from a restaurant and street vendor that smells really good. Overall, though, I think the locals with the masks are the smartest. I wish they made something akin to the Sichaun peppercorn, which numbs your tongue. Is there a pepper that numbs your nose? Are there drugs that deactivate the nasal ganglia? I’ll pay well. I have a credit card.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Size batters

China is engineered around people who are smaller than Westerners. I measured the width of the seats on the bullet train, and the bus from Kunming to Dali. 14 inches, which would be perfect if I had no arms. My armpits about line up with the armrests on both sides of the seat, and when you consider that I have arms and shoulders bulging a few inches further on each side, I’m not well suited to middle seats. On the bus, the guy in front of us tried to recline his seat and only made it halfway before banging my knee. He glared at me, even though (for him) the impact was padded by his seat cushion.

I did have headroom, though. The train from Dali to Lijiang did not. I’m very familiar with European trains that have many semiprivate booths, with 3 people on each side facing each other and armrests separating them. The Chinese trains are equally wide, but the semiprivate booths have 4 people in the same space, without armrests. There is also less legroom. Best of all, there is a luggage rack above our seats that is about 3 inches too low, even if I slouch. On height, length, and width, I’m boxed in. The four Chinese people seated across from us seem comfortable. They’re quite cheerful and social, and my brother has them engaged in Mandarin quite well. I wish someone would show up and speak Spanish or German. Ideally, someone small.

The line to get on our train from Dali to Lijiang. The line is in the middle of the picture, moving to the left side. Lots of shoving.

When I lived on Soledad Mountain, I had to commute by the famously unknown midget houses. They are occupied by (you guessed it) persons who inspired my post about the Urban Hop maneuver, and look like normal houses except for really low ceilings. I wondered how people remained sane during construction. Either they hired only little people to build the homes, or they hired people who had to slouch and bump their heads constantly, much like “Being John Malkovich” except not funny. But the theory of a midget crew cannot be right, because the houses do not have huge lollipops, and the driveways are paved with regular asphalt instead of yellow bricks. So a bunch of contractors and their subs had to endure daily Quasimodoization. I used to feel sorry for them. Not anymore. At least they got paid.

We stayed in some great hotels and hostels, which were generally very cheap. The rooms were large enough, but the showers are also meant for smaller people. The faucets are around neck level, and even the rain showers can only really rain on my shoulders unless I stoop.

Size does have benefits. When I left the baggage claim area at Shanghai airport, then a week later at Kunming airport, I had to find my brother. Like any airport, there were ostensibly patient throngs clogging the baggage claim area, waving signs and arms in thinly veiled competition with their neighbors. Where is my brother? Look left. Look right. Scan faces. No match. Look over- hey, that guy’s really tall! Look up. It’s Steve!! This algorithm works every time. Don’t look at individuals; just look for the tallest person. Two of the Aussies we were hanging out with were blond, and said they also had an easy time finding each other. That would work too. On the other hand, Chinese people trying to find each other amidst a sea of Westerners might have trouble.

Here is a picture of my by a urinal that says “Please aim forward.” (Indeed, urinal targeting is a challenge for Chinese men, as per my next blog post.) However, this would have been messy given obvious height differences. I did not follow the rule, but instead aimed down.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Domestic Fight Terminal

A disagreement emerged while my brother and I were in line to check in for our flight from Lijiang to Kunming. It provided some further cultural education, and petty entertainment. We were right behind the person checking in when I noticed the airline employee behind the desk to my left getting quite agitated. He was about 5 and a half feet tall, skinny, with glasses. A customer in line said something to him that my brother later translated as: “What are you going to do about it?” The employee answered by bounding over the counter to charge him.

Last year, I had the frustrating choice between photographing a bear and getting away from him. Same situation here. Do I immediately start photographing the emerging fight, or get away? Tough call. There was no real threat to me. None of the combatants were anywhere near my size, and they fought comically badly, and my brother was there, and airports are famous for having cops everywhere. On the other hand, I didn’t think that it would be wise to get involved in a domestic squabble. It then would have become international, and they might have moved us to the international fight terminal.

So, after moving my bag and self further away, I dropped the bag and got my camera out as quickly as possible. Perhaps this might have been tacky, but they were the ones creating a spectacle in public, not me. And if anyone got annoyed, I would have said that I was trying to record it to help the police. By this time, a fair mob surrounded the combatants, and an innocent woman had been knocked down. She was fine, and no kids were threatened, so I was clear to snap the relatively weak photo shown below.

Earlier pix would not have been much better, though. I’ve seen more damaging fights between 7 year olds at Leisure Loft school. Any illusions or stereotypes about Chinese Kung Fu masters were dispelled. The combatants only slapped at each other and sort of moved with the crowd, which only intervened verbally. This included the police. Two cops were there pretty quickly. Why? They didn’t even touch the combatants. They seemed to kind of hope that the presence of an authority figure would quell the emerging drizzlestorm. It briefly did. But I was watching them both closely, and I commented to my brother that I wasn’t sure it was over, because one guy might be sandbagging until the crowd dispersed and he could try again. Sure enough, the defender went for an encore, charging the airport employee. Go! Get him! Flying side kick! Monkey style versus dragon style! But the guy sorta petered out when he got within striking range, and it again suffused to a bunch of yelling. No blood, guts, or glory. Both guys lost a lot of face, but only figuratively. I was on the verge of booing, but was pushing my luck enough with the camera.

People surrounding a chicken fight at Lijiang airport

The bus station in Kunming further highlit the different perspectives on security out here. I was in line to go through the security checkpoint. It looked much like an airport one, but with no trays. Should I just take out my laptop and put it directly on the conveyer belt? I started, but the security woman indicated not to bother. I then started fishing coins out of my pocket, which obviously annoyed her, and she shooed me through the metal detector. It went off. Then, I took my bag and left the security area. I noticed that the metal detector went off for absolutely everyone. The Dali bus station was identical. My brother explained that the point is to create the appearance of security, and allow someone can say they were following procedure. Hard to understand.

I later learned this actually constitutes great security. The bus stations in Lijiang and Yongshang also had metal detectors and X-ray screeners. They were turned off.

Police are also more focused on the appearance of stability and order than busting bad guys. Police always travel with their lights on but sirens off, so they can be seen and convey order. If no problems are reported to them, they will not go out of their way to nail anyone. Traffic violations in front of police are routine and casual. There are different types of police for routine traffic versus catching illegal street vendors. These vendors travel in packs, and are great at rapidly unrolling or packing their wares. They often clog streets, and local traffic cannot get through. Regular police just don’t care. The vendors instead get busted when 2 vans of special police show up and leap out and arrest people (if they’re lucky) while the vendors flee. You see why they get good at the rapid set-up and breakdown of their little businesses.

Driving seems really dangerous too. In American drivers’ education class, we learned about the two second space cushion. Pay attention to when the car in front of you passes an unmoving object like a telephone pole. If you pass that pole within 2 seconds, you’re too close. Chinese drivers instead use a light cushion. If you can see the car in front of you, then it is safe to get closer, because the light from the car took some time to reach your eye. It could call it high speed bumper to bumper traffic, except they usually don’t have bumpers.

They also pass each other on blind intersections constantly. There is no line in the middle of this mountain road to separate lanes, because it would not matter. Our bus passes trucks immediately before and even during blind intersections, much like the “road of death” in Romania. They manage this partly through proactive honking, which is very common in China. Americans honk when someone pissed them off, or prevents them from accomplishing a goal, or if there’s some kind of real danger. The Chinese honk in anticipation of potential problems. Drivers honk to announce their presence, warning bikers or pedestrians to stay in their lanes. They honk at pedestrians who are crossing in a crosswalk, with a green light and green hand indicating it is “safe”, just to make sure they keep moving, because they’re plowing through a red light toward your current location and just behind where you will be if you keep moving.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jing and a Prayer

My Beijing weekend was a busy one. After the Friday evening drive to some key sights, Jing went home to Shanghai and I met with some people from the Gao lab for a weekend exploring Beijing. We took the subway to the Temple of Heaven. The subway was an adventure in itself, far more crowded than any subway so far. Just getting to a subway car required plowing through a crowd so dense I could have lifted my feet off the ground and still been propelled forward at the speed of the mob, probably without anyone noticing. Getting on to each car required shoving and twisting and then fighting to get the rest of the party on the same car. However, the cars were air conditioned, which made a huge difference. Overall, much nicer than the Brussels metro, and certainly the line for the taxi stand under the Beijing train station. (Jing and I ditched the taxi stand and took a bus one station to find a taxi. The taxi driver waiting there said, yep, I get a lot of business right here, for that reason.)

The Temple of Heaven was magnificent. Like Central Park and many others, it was a massive park inside a metropolis. Unlike Central Park, it has Chinese buildings all over it. We went to many of the sights, including the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The temple included a “70 year old door” with a cute story. The door was built when an emperor turned 70 because it shortened his walk from the temple. However, the emperor decreed that nobody else could go through it until turning 70, lest he become lazy. Since then, no emperor ever reached that age, and hence, nobody has opened the door since then. A great story, but suspicious. Nobody ever opened it, not even a wayward guard or someone who bribed him? We got a picture of us pretending to kick the door down. Then, they would have had to edit their story to say: “Oh, and also, some fucking American tourist went through the door in 2011.”

Being helpful and obedient tourists, we decided against kicking down the door. We did pray for a good harvest at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, kneeling in the archetypal Christian fashion and praying insincerely, in English, exactly like the Chinese must have done for over 500 years. We must have got it right, because it promptly rained. I think the Chinese owe us for their incipient good harvest, but I’ll let it go. Swan le.

We proceeded to the Pearl Market, where Westerners are targets. Floor after floor of little shops, and every one opened with an absurdly high price and insulting appellations of sincerity and authenticity. No, I don’t believe an ancient Chinese coin that you’re trying to sell me for 20 RMB is authentic, partly because I just watched you sell a bag of them to that (Chinese) customer for 1. A real IPod for 300 RMB? But you like me so much I can have it for 250? Wow!! Since everyone sold the same stuff, I just went from shop to shop and played them off against each other. I usually lied about the price offered by the last person, without raising the least suspicion, which confirmed that I was still nowhere close to their breaking point. It worked for me when I was a teenager in San Felipe, when I wanted the cheapest possible fireworks and everyone on the street sold the same ones. I did get lower prices, but still way above a fair one.

The next morning, I was up at 6 to meet some people from their lab, and then met with Prof. Gao at 8.30 before flying to Kunming. After a few days in Kunming, my brother and I took the bus to Dali, and this afternoon, we’re off to a Torch Festival and hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge.