Friday, December 30, 2005

Our 6-Hour Trip Home

October 4, 2005
***Editors note: I’m actually back in the US now, it’s after the holidays and all that stuff but I still have a ton of badly organized material to put online, so I’ll just keep going where I left off a couple weeks ago.


Man this place is cold. Please keep reading, I didn't accidentally print the same chapter twice, but when it’s this cold, it is necessary to state it a couple times. I woke up Tuesday morning wearing the same clothes from the day before, and the day before that. I didn't wake up early enough to take a walk or do any writing, so Xinlei knocked on the wall to wake the girls up. The first thing I noticed as I rolled out of bed was that I muscles hurt that I didn't even know existed. My ass felt like I spent a night in San Quentin and my legs felt like they had done hard time in a meat grinder. My posture made me look like a 95-year old black woman carrying groceries home from the market.

After another great breakfast that I was afraid to eat, we hit the road. Xinlei assured me that the trip would only take six or seven hours. Remembering all the senseless traffic jams on our way out here, I was sure that we’d be forced to stop for a duck parade or an overturned produce horse on the highway, my liberal estimates put us in Langfang sometime mid-November.

The major change during the trip home that I noticed was that Mattie was acting quite a bit differently than she had most of the rest of the trip. She was leaning against the door, as far away from me as possible, head buried in her book. Every time I tried to rustle up a little contact or conversation, she was very short with me. Her evening in the hospital getting shots from rusty needles apparently wasn't enough for her forget the uncomfortable experience we shared together last night at sundown. After about two hours of this, I retreated into silence and inner-conflict. I tried to read my book, but it is very difficult to read Dumas with a wandering mind.

The car was blasting with that horrible Chinese pop music the whole trip and the only conversation was in Chinese. I was in no mood to even try to figure out what was going on, I just wanted out. It was mission critical that this trip be over with as soon as possible. How could this happen? What happened? What was I thinking? I knew that I really don't know her very well, but is that no reason not to try? Is that a reason not to pursue interest? What if our forefathers had that same mindset? There’s a pig and we have some barbeque sauce, but we don't know that it will taste like combined, we better not risk it, let’s just eat another ear of corn and some mashed oats, we know that combination wont kill us. God I miss barbeque.

No one was very hungry, so we just kept driving. We made pretty good time and hit the outskirts of Beijing around 9:00 pm, where we immediately hit a show-stopping traffic jam.

With all the creativity stifling crutches removed from my life, these are the times that I have begun to turn to the pen and paper. It has been surprising outlet and a purging process that I think everyone should experience at some point in their lifetimes. Remove the television, the Internet, communication with the people around you and see what happens. Will you wither and die, or will you learn to gleam new and useful things from your surroundings? See what you’re made of. This whole experience has definitely changed me in strange ways, but the jury is still deliberating on my verdict of changing for the better or worse.

It is very difficult to write in the car, especially if the topic of your writing is sitting next to you. I’ve also noticed that writing is a very intriguing action for people around me. “What are you writing about?” “Is that for work?” “Poetry or something?” “Will you read something to me?” No. No. No. I’m writing about you and you would never speak to me again if you saw it. Just leave me alone. I can only write if I’m in a particular mood, which usually correlates with non-complacent emotions; anger, sadness, happiness. I rarely experience the third. This mood does not hit me very often, and if I don't ignore the rest of the world when the feeling hits me, it will be gone and I don't want you to be the reason that I let my emotions disappear into the air like your words do.

Out of nowhere, Mattie turned to me and said quietly “Are you ok?”

“I guess so, I’m just sad because we had such a good weekend and I don't know what will happen when we get back. You are a very different person today and act like I have the plague.”

“Don't be sad, every day is a new day!”

“What the hell does that mean? No it’s not, every day is a result of the previous days. You’re saying that our actions of yesterday have no effect on today. You’re full of shit.” That is what was in my mind, but what came out was “I know, but I’m still sad.”

“You know you don't even really know me.”

“I know, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't get to know each other more. It’s ok, I’ll be alright, don't worry about me, I’m just tired and dirty from horse sweat.”

But just breaking the bonds of silence seemed to loosen her up some and we continued to talk. The bottom of the feelings came from the fact that she was really nervous about being with a foreigner and it feels like everything was moving way too fast.

Hey, I’m cool with that. That’s not an insurmountable issue. I’m a camel when it comes to girlfriends, taking our time is no problem; we’ll just play it cool. She put her arms around me and gave me a hug and then grabbed my hands and held them. A little communication was all that was needed.

Eventually, I leaned over to her and whispered “Thanks, thanks for letting me hold you, thanks for letting me put my arms around you, thanks for looking at me. It means a lot and I appreciate it, regardless of the future. Thank you.” Totally gay.

She looked at me with her beautiful eyes and looked away in embarrassment. Those eyes could start a war and stop a war at the same time; they could melt iron or level a forest. They are deep pools of dark ink that should be used for writing poetry or inspiring art. They do those things to my heart every time she looks at me.

By the time we got back to Beijing, we were happy pappy again, smiling, holding, she even kissed my cheek (the lips are still taboo, but that’s ok). We were all starving, so we dropped the girls off at Sherry’s parents house and Xinlei and I went off to get a table at a restaurant and wait for the girls.

Right before dinner was brought out to us, I got a phone call from someone in my company from America. Since the average Chinese restaurant has the noise level of an Iron Butterfly concert, I bounced outside to talk. After about ten minutes, I turned and saw Mattie in the doorway giving me a very naughty look. Hands in her pockets, arms held close to her body to stay warm, legs crossed, hair down over one of her eyes, the other eye the beautiful eye of innocence and wonder. I walked up to her, still on the phone and she put her arms around me and held me tight and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to whomever I hung up on that night, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

After dinner, I assumed, once again, that I was soon to be on my way home. Once again, I was wrong. Mattie wanted to go out dancing, just do something to get some energy out (apparently the Kentucky Derby yesterday wasn't enough). I’m a decent dancer when alcohol is properly applied, but I had spent the last three days either on the back of a horse or in the back seat of a car, so there was no way I’d be getting my moonwalk on that night. On the other hand, I had no idea when, or if, I would see her again, so I wanted to spend what time with her while I could. Keeping in mind that we still had a minimum of a one-hour trip back to Langfang before our day would be over, I told Xinlei that I couldn't do another 4:00 am night and he vehemently agreed.

We went back to Mattie and Sherry’s apartment and they disappeared to go change clothes, actually Sherry wasn't going out, it was just going to be the three of us. We were told to wait outside; it would just be a few minutes. A few minutes actually was 45 minutes, and Xinlei and I passed the time by nearly falling asleep in the car. We were standing around outside, stretching our legs when Xinlei uttered, “Holy shit man!” as he was looking over my shoulder.

I turned to see Mattie walking down her stairs in a shirt and skirt that made my jaw drop and my heart stop. I was speechless, and also suddenly very aware that I hadn’t showered in four days and I still have horse sweat on my arms and mutton under my fingernails.

The first stop was a Latino bar somewhere where Mattie was supposed to meet her cousin and some of her friends. Her cousin is a manager at the Beijing Hyatt hotel and suffers from the ailment of dedicating too much of her life to her job, thus is single and trying to find a husband but it totally unwilling to sacrifice any part of her 80 hour a week job. I wanted to pull her aside and warn her that I’ve tried that same method and failed miserably, but she was not hearing any of my nonsense. We stayed there for about 15 minutes and left, Mattie wanted to dance, but not salsa (just like I want ketchup, but not salsa).

Xinlei hates dancing, he just wanted to find a place to go and drink and guard the table. We went to about four places, but nothing was worthy of Mattie’s hot legs on the dance floor and our search continued. Then we found Babyface.

At first glance, I thought Babyface was a typical house-music type of club, thumping shitty techno, wild music screens, neon, mirrors and people overflowing into the streets. It was huge, two floors with twenty or thirty private rooms. Xinlei immediately told us he’d be waiting in the car and left. I felt bad; he was pretty wiped out (much like me). Mattie’s skirt gave me a second wind, but just made Xinlei miss his girlfriend.

With the man gone, Mattie and I walked around to try and find a seat (which was a futile effort). I kept hearing these strange noises that just didn't seem to flow with the music, the kind of noise that seems to always be coming in from the corner of your ears, but when you turn your head, it’s gone. This is when I gave the tables a closer look.

The floor was littered with bar height clear plastic tables at even intervals throughout the room, each with about seven people crowded around it. There were no chairs because the tables were barely two Citizens apart (1.2 Americans). All of the guys were drinking beer; all of the girls were drinking juice (the vast majority of women of China simply don't drink, no wonder it’s so hard for me to make any headway with the ladies). The people at each table were all dancing at their tables, off in their own little worlds, but the were paying very close attention so something on the tables. Yahtzee! The game, not the term for excitement, like Topeka! or Hot Damn!, the actual game. The people at every table were playing Yahtzee. This is the strangest thing I have ever seen. People were shaking their cups and dancing, rolling the dice and dancing, counting their scores and dancing.

I could barely take my eyes off this stupid phenomenon, but Mattie took me by the hand and we headed to the dance floor, which was packed. The music was horrible (even more horrible than normal house music), the fog machines smelled like piss and seemed to be pointed at my face, but I determined to dance like I was alone in my room. I’ve got my own dance I use when I’m listening to unfamiliar music, kind of a big-guy shuffle where I have just enough rhythm to move with the beats and crap like that. We ended up dancing for about 20 minutes and decided to leave. Mattie is a really good dancer and was kind of off in her own little world, and surprisingly not really into the Donkey-slappin’ grinding that we do at the thug clubs in America.

Xinlei was waiting in the car, ready to get the hell out of Dodge and I was pretty tired as well. We took Mattie back to her apartment, but she left her key inside, so we had to wait another half hour for Sherry to come over with the key. Xinlei busied himself in the car while Mattie and I chatted outside.

“Mattie, I had a really good time with you tonight, despite the horse related injuries I’ve received over the past couple days. You make me smile and feel good. When can I see you again?” I said, with a hint of self-confidence.

“I have a good time with you too, I think maybe you can see me tomorrow if you like. Xinlei is going to drive me to my parents house and you can come too.”

Sweet, I thought, second date, meet the parents, I’m in. The goodnight kiss consisted of me leaning in and giving her a peck on her earlobe and saying goodbye. I know I’ve said it before, but those eyes, damn.

It was hard to believe that the day started out in Inner Mongolia and ended up at a techno club in Beijing and me staring dreamily into the eyes of one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met in my life. Not bad for a vacation. The entire trip cost me about 1000 RMB ($120 USD) which included three nights in hotels, renting a horse for a day and splitting the car rental down the middle with Xinlei. I’ve still got three days left of my holiday and I’m going to spend it dreaming, reading and writing. Those may be three of the best things in life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

My Horses! My Horses!

October 3, 2005

I have never been so cold in my life. I was woken up at around 7:30 am by the sound of a jackhammer outside. It was only after I remembered that there was no electricity here that I realized that the jackhammer was actually my teeth. My bed had three quilts and three sheets, plus my two pairs of pants, two pairs of underwear, three shirts, two pairs of socks and gloves are no match for the climate here. It’s almost as if there were no walls. What walls there are, are paper-thin, so I can hear every conversation in the whole place, every disgusting sound, every footstep. I think the entire country of China wakes up, clears their throats and spits on the floor every day. It sounded like the guy next door to us had a hedgehog stuck in his throat.

I knew that if I took a shower I would either have to stand in the toilet or risk pneumonia so I decided to just wash my face and brush my teeth. I fired up my computer and wrote for an hour or so while I waited for everyone to get up. Around 8:30, Xinlei woke up to the same jackhammer sound. To wake Mattie and Sherry up, he simply knocked lightly on the wall and they were up (these walls are so thin I wouldn't be surprised if my typing had woken them up.)

The wind was heavy, but the sun was warm on our faces as we walked across the parking lot to grab breakfast. The food was stunning. First was the warm goat milk tea. It may sound kind of odd, but with a little bit of sugar, tasted really good (plus, this is China, please leave you inhibitions at the door). There was some bean porridge soup, which I tasted but didn't eat much of, that stuff made my intestinal radar light up like a Christmas tree (colon regulation is a 24-hour job), plus a bowl of birdseed. There were about six plates of various Chinese danishes on the table. I grabbed the butter (or what I thought was butter) and started laying it on like grommet in a shower. Mattie told me that it was actually some sort of tofu. I’m through with this stupid game people! If it looks and tastes like butter, I’m calling it butter. I’m tired of people telling me I don't know my business. That’s not broccoli it’s celery. Those aren’t supposed to be worn outside of your pants. That’s not a toy; it’s an electrical outlet. Just let me learn the hard way, the lessons just stick better that way. Breakfast was great and we all left happy, ready to wrangle us some horses on the wild frontier.

Mattie, more and more concerned for my safety, was convinced that I wasn't wearing enough clothes; by this time, I was wearing five shirts, two pair of shorts, two socks, cargos and a stocking hat. But we went to the general store anyway and her and Sherry bought coats, but they didn't have anything in my size (gasps of surprise). Finally, after I promised to put another shirt on and another pair of pants on, Mattie released me from further humiliation of trying clothes on in front of the locals. I went outside and Xinlei videotaped me changing clothes in the middle of the street. When it was all said and done, I had on seven shirts, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, one set of skid marks, and my trusty Adidas stocking hat.

The horse rental agency was about fifteen minutes away from town. We got out and abandoned the relative safety and warmth of a four-wheel vehicle to four-legged animals that don't understand English. We stepped out of the car and were filed into line with the rest of the tourist cattle, until they saw me. Leading me by the hand, they pulled us aside and took a couple pictures of me and fitted us with these horseshit mudguards that came up to our knees. They barely fit me, but they had duct tape if it was necessary. We were all put in front of a horse; my horse’s name was #66. I impressed everyone with my graceful mount and immediate dismount onto the ground, but I was soon strapped in and ready to go.

Here’s the problem. A typical Chinese person is about 5’6”, maybe. That means that they don't need Clydesdales. A basic law of nature states that all things will seek equilibrium; it’s the basis for evolution and population genetics. Over the 4000 year history of China, feeding and horse growing techniques have naturally settled into a perfect equilibrium where the size of the horse is always about the same because every horse gets the exact same upbringing and each horse is properly inbred with it’s family to keep the genes straight, just like Hitler and royal families in the 1500’s did. Even the horses have been forced into communism. If horses are larger than necessary for Citizen, then you don't have to feed them as much, thus saving money (which is the bottom line of everything in China.) What is that size? What is the result of 4000 years of controlled breeding and feeding techniques? Roughly the size of a Black Labrador. My horse looked like it had its legs amputated below the knees. He was grazing on grass and didn't even notice walking between my legs.

It goes beyond that, there’s no reason to make stirrups (those are the little thingy’s that you put your doggies in) that adjust to fit people over six feet tall, they would just drag on the ground. Nor is it important to waste extra leather on saddles that fit American asses, which would make the hose look like it has one of those government airplane radio towers spinning on it’s back. The stirrups at their maximum length hang to about two-thirds the way down the horses neck and the saddle is the size of a dinner plate (with a steel lip around the back side that lines up perfectly with my tail-bone). Every time the horse ran, my ass-bone kept hitting this metal bar, all day long, thump, thump, thump. I kind of look like a jockey-riding Lassie in the Special Olympics version of the Kentucky Derby.

It’s ok, I thought to myself, how long could we be out here? Two, maybe three hours?

The four of us were off, Xinlei heading the pack, dressed in a woman’s leather cowboy hat, leather jacket, mudguards, Timberlands and fingerless blue weight-lifting gloves. This is his first time ever on a horse and the guy is a natural. His coordination and grace piss me off, mainly because I’m embarrassed by my lack of both. We had a tour guide with us who held the reins of my horse while everyone else ran free. It could be easy to see how I don't look like a typical Chinese cowboy, but I’ve ridden horses before man, let me go, this doggie wants to run!!

Eventually, after about half an hour, Xinlei convinces the guy that I’ve ridden a horse before (true it’s been 20 years ago, but it still counts), and the guy lets me go. The horse takes off like he was escaping from prison, nearly making me bounce off the back end of the little guy.

Once again, I was unintentionally kept in the dark about our destination (if I understood Chinese, all of this would be much more simple). We rode for about an hour, running our horses as much as possible, my ass taking a beating the whole time (if you have made more than three gay jokes so far, you are out of turns and must sit this chapter out, thank you). After an hour, we came upon what looked like a restaurant. We all got off the horses to give them a break, especially mine, poor old 66. Instead of going inside to eat, we walked behind the building to a farm pond and spend about half an hour snapping pictures from an extremely unstable deck. By this time, we were about as deep into the heart of nature as you could possibly get in China. The light green hills rolled off in all directions, every now and then broken by a couple of trees or herd of sheep. The sky was clear and blue as I have ever seen it. The wind was still strong, but thanks to about thirty pounds of extra clothes, I was not cold. It was very relaxing, minus my locked up knees and broken ass bone.

I assumed that this was our destination and we were soon to be heading back, but I was wrong, again. This was the halfway point; we were on our way to a mountain called Five-Colors Mountain that was supposed to be breathtaking. Holy crap. This Chinese power-vacation is going to kill me. I hope my legs don't fall off before then, plus there’s the trip back, that shit is going to smart.

We mounted up (“That means ‘get on your horse’” Steve Martin whispered to me) and were off again. As we circled out from the building, we noticed a camel standing in the pasture. If my memory serves me right, I thought camels were supposed to be desert animals, but there he was, loud and proud, giving the horses the stink-eye. Horses and camels are the cats and dogs of the equine and dromedary worlds but not the feline and canine worlds (as any fool can plainly understand). Sure enough, all of our horses made sure to go the long way around. I can understand their animosity; camels have the best toes, yet horses are still picked for any non-donkey sex movies. There was another small group of Citizens on the same pilgrimage nearby. One of the guys was on a horse that started to go totally ape-shit and knocked the rider off then stepped on him. It happened about five feet away from me and it looked like it hurt. I made sure he was still moving and got the hell out of there, I didn't come here to play a clown in a damn rodeo and Inner Mongolia is no place for a honkey to be a hero.

Continuing our journey through the hills was quite relaxing when I could keep ol’ Gluestick from taking off into a run (all I really had to do was put my feet on the ground like Yosemite Sam). We rode through a herd of cows, which was a real crowd pleaser for everyone except me; these are probably the largest pieces of continuous meat in the whole of China. I was raised in Kansas; I’m not impressed in a cow unless he’s on a plate with a baked potato next to him.

After another hour or so, we finally arrived, Five-Color Mountain. Apparently, large hill and mountain translate the exact same. Five-Color Mountain was about the same size as the other 200 hills we rode across on our way here, the only difference was that this hill had trees on it. There were flocks of Citizens around the mountain, snapping pictures, ohhing and ahhing.

While I wasn't taking posing with trees or making leaf impressions in my diary, it was quite enjoyable. I wasn't impressed like seeing the Great Wall or a dentist or in awe of the trees, but that there actually existed this much open land in China that didn't have taxis, prostitutes or bicycle shops on it. I was actually standing on ground that was more than empty dirt, ground that wasn't littered in trash, breathing air that was not polluted, under a sky that was clear as any sky in the rest of the world, not blocked by a thick cloud of smoke and pain.

We got off our horses and laid around for a half hour, everyone took pictures (except me), I just laid on the ground and looked at the sky. This place really isn’t much different than the Flint Hills in Kansas, but it is sure a nice change. Who would have thought a place with so little to see could be so beautiful. Eventually Mattie joined me and asked what was wrong; I just smiled and told her that the rest of China should be so beautiful. I just didn't have the energy or desire to go frolicking in the trees or to take pictures of something so common throughout America, I just wanted to lay there and think about why I have never done this in my own backyard back home. We laid on the ground together for a while longer and then got ready to take off, back to the corral, the car, and the civilization we left behind.

Before setting back, our ‘tour guide’, who was off shitting in the woods, told us that these horses know the way back and that they will run hard and don't like to slow down, so be careful. This turned out to be a true warning, Xinlei and Mattie took off like champs on their steeds and poor little #66 tried to keep up with them, but his little stumpy legs just couldn't seem to cope with my weight, but it sure didn't keep him from trying. In the meantime, I felt like my ass was going to explode, it hurt so bad, just thumping up and down with all 250 lbs of my body on it. My legs were made useless from atrophy of having circulation cut off from the Chinese leg style stirrups (it was like having your ankles tied tightly to your thighs). Sherry wasn't faring much better, so we tried to hold back our horses as best we could, but it was a losing battle. Eventually the tour guide comes to my rescue and grabbed hold of the horse, I looked down and realized that my horse had broken out in a massive sweat and there was a heavy rabid-dog like froth dripping from his mouth and was probably about to die. Reluctantly, I dismounted and tossed 66 over my shoulder like a fireman and carried him in the rest of the way.

The ride out to the mountain took about two and a half hours, but the trip back took right around an hour, but it felt like about six. We rode up to the corral to see Mattie going toe to toe with the corral-master on the price, I just wanted to go home and soak my ass in the broken toilet. So far this trip, Mattie has haggled the price on everything we’ve bought; hotels, horses, her and Sherry’s coats, she’d probably haggle Jesus for some better sandals if she had the chance. I don't like to haggle that much, but I have no problem letting others do it and cashing in on the benefits of their efforts. The stuff here is so cheap that sticker cost is still half the price of anything in America. She vehemently denied it, but she loves haggling.

I was sure everyone was as worn out as I was (maybe without the throbbing ass, but still tired), I probably would have been better off jogging alongside the horses. We got back into the car and drive in the opposite direction of the dorms. This is strange; maybe Xinlei just doesn't know where he is going.

“Hey dude, you’re going the wrong way.”

“No, we’re going somewhere else, there’s supposed to be a lake around here that rents horses.”

“What?! Dude, we just left a lake with horses, are you drunk? I like lakes, but if I see another horse, I’ll be forced to shoot myself in the foot to get out of this army.”

“We probably won’t rent horses, but we’ll go look at the lake.”

“Ohh, ok man, if you guys want to rent horses, go ahead, I’ll just chill out in the car.” These people are just weird. Striving to see everything in as little time as possible.

The second horse place was packed and we didn't even get out of the car, not that I could if I wanted to. By this time, my knees were pretty much locked in the fetal position and my back felt like someone had driven a railroad spike into it, but Mattie’s eyes were still the perfect painkillers. She could see how bad I was hurting, even though I wasn't sure how to explain a broken ass to her, but she let me lie down in her lap and kiss her fingers, which somehow lessened my backdoor pain.

It was approaching sunset, so we headed back to Tourist Hill to see the sun go down. The last thing I needed to do in my weakened state was climb a hill in an where the temperature on the climb down would be at least 20 degrees lower than the climb up, but we went anyway. You wouldn't believe it if I told you, but the sun went down again, just like the night before, but for some reason, Citizens were still going ape-shit.

Xinlei and Sherry started their descent, leaving Mattie and I in a perfect ‘first kiss’ situation; the Inner Mongolian sun slowly dipping behind the hills on the horizon, my ass swollen up like a baboon, snot frozen gently to our lips, our skin smelling vaguely like horse shit. It was perfect in more ways than one.

We were holding each other closely (mostly to stay warm), our heads swaying slowly together, whispers; it was close to contact time.

“Lucas, I want to, but I just can't have this right now, I’m sorry. I just have to be honest with you, we can not do this.”

“That’s alright, I’m sorry, I wasn't trying to pressure you in any way.” I said. I really wasn't too sorry, but the opportunity just seemed to present itself. We had spent the last day holding hands or embracing each other in some way, I just assumed that this was going in that direction. I wasn't really hurt, maybe disappointed, but it happens. Mattie is very cool and our time together has been fun, but that post-turndown car ride tomorrow was sure to weigh heavy on my mind for the rest of the day.

These thoughts rolled through my head, like the hills in Mongolia, as we made our way back to the car. My legs were limping, my heart was wounded a bit and my ego was back to it’s normal deflated self.

As we pulled away, Mattie said that her stomach was hurting. She told me that she has had stomach problems most of her life, sometimes they were worse than others. Often the problems come from a cold weather and physical exertion. Wouldn't a boat ride on the Nile be better than horseback riding in Inner Mongolia? She was quickly doubled over in pain and there was nothing I could do to help her except be there for her, and I wasn't sure she even wanted that. We drove to the dorm and sat in the car for a while with the heater cranked, but she was just getting worse and worse.

We drove over to the local drug store (which is the same store I bought gloves, milk candy and tried on a Mongolian-princess wool hat.) Sherry went in and bought her some medicine, which did no good. Eventually, we realized that she needed some sort of medical attention. Ba Shang had a small clinic that served the city’s medical needs, so we carried her into it.

I was not prepared for this. If you were to ask me ten years ago when I was flunking my freshman year of college in western Kansas what I’d be doing when I was 30; carrying a beautiful Chinese woman to a hospital in Inner Mongolia would have been the last thing I’d have said. How did things turn this quickly?

This place was a trip. The beds were like beds from MASH, the room was worse. It stunk like piss, it was freezing, the windows were part open, there were ashtrays on the nightstands. Mattie couldn't even open her eyes (lucky her). There were two other people in the room; one bed had a guy getting acupuncture in his face, a man laid in another bed getting an IV because of a horse attack. Both were smoking. Eventually, a doctor came in and said that they were going to give her a shot. Mattie’s painful moans in the background were unbelievable.

“Xinlei, make sure they give her a clean needle. Don't fuck around on this one.” I insisted. I’ve always heard horror stories of unclean needles in other countries and this was the perfect place for that stereotype to come true.

After her shot, I sat with her, holding her head, stroking her hair, trying to be comforting, but not sure if I was doing a very good job at it. She looked up at me with her big brown eyes; it was like she could see into my soul. She felt really embarrassed and apologetic for ‘ruining the week’. Why do people do that? Xinlei said the same thing after that guy sideswiped him a couple days ago.

An hour later, she was much better and even ready for dinner, of course I wasn't. I was still in a haze from what happened from the Sunset Letdown to the Mongolian hospital, plus my stomach was talking to me and I was frightened of the bathroom still. We went to the same restaurant from the night before and ordered a bunch of food. I barely touched mine; my spirits were as broken as my tailbone. I just wanted to go to sleep.

The food helped Mattie quite a bit and before long, it was as if she was never even in the dangerous hospital/bar and grill.

We were leaving town tomorrow and I was ready to go. Xinlei said that it was about six hours home, but I knew better, I’d give us ten at a minimum (maybe he’s measuring in metric time units, 100 minutes to an hour, 100 hours to a day, 100 days to a month – Isn’t that how the Chinese calendar works?)

That night I tried to write for a bit but it was just no good. I just needed sleep, good hard, non-horseback sleep. Let tomorrow be what as it may.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Second 10 Hours of a 6-Hour Drive

October 2, 2005

I awoke Sunday morning with that familiar feeling of not knowing where I was. It has happened to me many times since I’ve been in China and will likely continue to happen. I took in the surroundings as I tried to clear my head and figure out where the hell I was. I’ve started treating these times like an international traveler’s game of sorts. My clock said 7:00 am; I was in a strange room, an old hotel, very high ceilings, and a large window facing a parking lot with mountains in the background. Definitely not Kansas, no, I’m not in Kansas, I’m in China, Langfang. No, Langfang is ugly and flat, definitely not Langfang, I’m in Chengde. Where that is, I have no idea, I believe it’s north of Beijing. My legs were cramped from the previous days drive, but I had a flutter in my heart. Mattie. We were going to meet around 8:30 to continue our journey north.

I took a quick, cold shower (not by choice) and decided to see what this city had to offer in the early morning hours. I always enjoy roaming the streets of new cities in the morning, I’m not sure why. I think that they feel less intimidating or more peaceful. Mornings are when love poems are written, mornings are when the air is the cleanest, the rising sun represents things to come and adventures not yet seen. I lived thirty years of my life before I could appreciate the goodness of a sunrise. Thirty years before I realized that only at that time of day is my mind fresh enough to look equally on the past the present and the future, without being tarnished by the days actions. Anger and sadness is best confronted at night along with the rest of things that make life frightening.

This is a beautiful city; across from the hotel is the summer mountain palace of some Chinese emperor. It was built a long time ago and is very big. There were many people already walking around the city migrating to the palace entrance, so naturally, I went the other way. I walked along a river boardwalk for a while, snapping a few pictures, but mostly breathing in the fresh morning air and letting the sun warm my face. I haven’t felt fresh air on my face for months now and it was nice. I watched a bunch of old people dancing, played basketball with some strangers for about 15 minutes and dominated.

By the time I got back to the hotel, Xinlei was out in the car planning out our trip for the day. He’s our own little Clark Griswold. He was having a good time planning and I was having a good time letting him.

It was about 9:30 by the time we got on the road. Sometime during our morning driving session I decided I needed to know where we were going. It turns out, we’re going to Inner Mongolia to a mountain plateau grassland national park called the Bashang Grasslands. They have horses to rent and we can go riding around for a day. I began to think that I didn't pack nearly warm enough.

We got to the park entrance around noon, with over three hours of driving under our belts; I felt relief that we had arrived. We drove on until 1:00 and stopped for lunch. By this time, we were in a wooded area that was really nice. My dreams of good toilets and rest stops fading, I ate a very light lunch of some beer and milk tofu in sugar sauce. It was good and I knew I shouldn't eat it, but my mind, my mouth and my chopstick hand operate on different circuits.

Soon we would be pulling into a hotel parking lot, unloading, and taking a walk around the countryside or something like that. The woods were stunning and I was glad that we were in an area like this. It had been about 4 hours of driving, so I thought we had to be close, but we kept driving. One hour, goodbye woods, two hours, goodbye pavement, three hours, goodbye civilization, four hours, goodbye feeling in my ass. We had been driving through circling dirt roads through a hilly area for hours already, every now and then, a small sign of life would peek through on the horizon; a couple tents, a horse or two, but mostly there were just big billboards describing our destination (in Chinese of course). Finally, around 5:00, we arrived.

Mattie and I are not quite all over each other, there’s still no kissing per se, but we’re definitely holding each other much more and it’s great. If I was on a 6-hour road trip that took 22 hours with only dudes, I’d be livid and looking for the quickest way home. She lays her head in my lap; I stare down at her and stroke her hair. I’ve started to kiss her fingers and the back of her neck, which makes her smile and blush and she’s started doing the same back to me, but still no ‘official’ first kiss. So far, it had been a great day, despite Xinlei’s 14-hour time misjudgment.

Appearing out of nowhere, sitting on the side of a hill, a small village with no name and maybe 1000 people came into view. Only one of the roads was paved. There were tourists everywhere. Apparently, the Bashang Grasslands are a very popular tourist spot, there were Jeeps and knock-off Jeeps all over the place, each one with pounds of camera equipment (knock-offs) and five or six ‘adventurers’ dressed to the tips with bright yellow jackets and goggles, like people at a Colorado ski resort.

I was silly to assume we would have made a reservation, that’s too American. We spent about an hour driving around looking for a hotel room, except that there weren’t any hotels. Everything was bungalow-style actually more like teepee style. All the showers were public, all the toilets were holes in the ground, and nothing had heat. We were in the boonies and I was frightened. I have no problems not showering for three days, I do that all the time, it’s the bathroom and warmth issues that had me worried. I’m really not interested in displaying my poop-balance when I’m courting a lady, which could prove very uncomfortable for the rest of the trip. Prices ranged from 50-100 yaks a night (about $4-$13 USD).

Finally, we found a place that was fairly similar to a hotel. Somehow, Mattie finagled us a couple rooms, Xinlei and I in one, Mattie and Sherry in the other. I knew there were three beds in each room, but that’s all I knew. We didn't have a chance to go in because we had to rush off to see the sunset. By this time, we had about 15 minutes before sunset and the ‘cool’ thing to do is run up to the top of this hill, watch the sun go down and take pictures.

The hill had nearly every tourist in the village on top of it taking pictures, pushing in front of each other to get the prized ‘picture with no people in it’ shot. This is the first time I knew for sure that I was very underdressed. On top of that hill, with the sun disappearing, the wind cuts through you like a knife. I had on three shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of pants and a stocking cap and I was still shivering. The sunset was really beautiful, but I was so cold that I barely noticed it.

There are four of us and three cameras; each person wanted every combination of pictures possible of the four of could make up - one at a time, each of us with each of the other three, each of us with the other two combinations of the other three, all four of us. In case you are wondering, there are a total of 15 combinations of four people per camera, which means 45 pictures. Many of them had to be taken twice because of rude tourists walking in front of the camera and such, so we ‘quickly’ snapped about 75 pictures (if I’m not able to keep my hands and feet warm, at least I can work on my brain warmth with a little statistical permutation analysis in Mongolia).

I was also pretty preoccupied with Mattie, but in my snot-frozen nose state, I didn't think it would be very appropriate to try and get a good ‘sunset kiss’ and she didn't appear to be much more willing than I was, too bad, because it would have been a great romantic and beautiful and all that mushy bullcrap story to tell at parties to other couples (while I’m playing Playstation).

By this time it was dark, the tourists were scampering down the hills back to their rented SUV’s and headed for certain warmth and we were close behind. When the sun went down, the temperature dropped with the quickness and I was ready to go to sleep. I wasn't sure what time it was, nor did I care, I just knew that our three-hour driving day had lasted nearly ten hours so far and I was worn down. I wasn't really hungry, but everyone else was, so we headed to a restaurant. I was hoping we’d at least go to the rooms and scope them out, maybe ‘freshen up’ a bit, but that’s not Chinese style.

Still unsure of the bathroom situation for the rest of the trip, I ate extremely light at dinner. I had a bit of a wind-blown headache and my hands were swollen from the cold wind, I was truly feeling finished for the day. For dinner, Xinlei ordered each of us a whole sheep leg; these things came out looking like some real Flintstone-type shit. It was awesome, it tasted like it was soaked in butter before they grilled it. We all ate our whole brontosaurus leg and I thought we were finished, little did I know that there were still about four more dishes coming out. You would think that after four months here I would remember this, but I still forget it. I think a big part of it is that I don't understand what they’re ordering, so I cant take a subconscious count of the rounds of food we’re going to be getting, in my family, it was always kind of fight for yourself at the dinner table.

Finally, after about an hour and a half, we were ready to head to our rooms, or so I thought. Xinlei wanted to go some place for a couple beers. You have got to be kidding me, I finally had to pipe in “Can we at least go check in first, see the rooms and stuff.” The suspense over the accommodations was killing me, I just had to know, good or bad, just give me one less thing to question. I’m already in a car where 90% of the conversation is in Chinese, I only found out where we were going three hours ago, I never know what kind of food I’m going to get (it’s kind of like being a child again). Everyone was in agreement, so we headed to the hotel. The restaurant that where we ate was in the same parking lot as the hotel, so we were already there practically, let’s just walk the extra twenty feet people.

The ‘hotel’ was basically a dormitory. It had that loud echo sound in the hallways from the tile and cement covering every inch of the place. There were only two floors with a metal staircase in the middle of the building that resembled a parking garage. The place was sold out, packed with tourists from all over (China, not the world, I was informed that I was the only foreigner in the whole town). The rooms unlocked and I walked into my room expecting the unknown, knowing that I would be surprised at something.

Here’s the breakdown of the hotel room: No heat, normal toilets - but that doesn't matter because there’s no water in them and no toilet paper, a shower that points directly at the toilet, no shower curtain, three beds, one pillow filled with seeds on each bed, about six blankets on each bed, 14-inch television in the corner and that’s it. I was thrilled and let down at the same time about the toilets, curious about the shower and greatly confused about the heat. Why the hell would you have a place without heat in Inner Mongolia? I can understand that if you lived in Egypt, but this is Inner Mongolia. You people are tough as nails. I was about ready to make a mattress-stuffing fire in the room to thaw out my toes. Mattie and Sherry are in the room next to us in a room exactly the same (except that Mattie is beautiful, which makes their room better).

After a bit, we took off to grab a beer. We never did find a bar, but did stop at the local General Store for some supplies. This was a 1/10th scale version of a Langfang shopping center. It was about the size of two of my hotel rooms and packed head-to-toe with stuff. One room was all overprices warm weather gear (overpriced for China, still dirt cheap by worldwide standards, provided you’re not taller than 5’6”). The food isle consists of about 1000 variations of the same thing, this milk/cheese/sugar/tofu stuff. It tastes decent, but it’s kind of like salt-water taffy, more of a gimmick than anything. Sherry and Mattie bought into the shit hook, line and sinker and bought about twenty pounds of it. I bought four pairs of gloves for about 12 yaks ($1.50 USD), thinking that they may be of some use in this midget tundra. I also had a couple pictures taken of me, but the people here were genuinely nice and happy to help and oblige. Everyone that I’m with is extremely fun loving, so it’s had a tendency of rubbing off on the people around us.

The town was still crawling with Chinese outdoorsmen in fake Columbia jacket and fake Oakley goggles, all hauling expensive camera gear out of their various Jeep and pseudo-Jeeps. The roads were all dirt, most with cattle and sheep mixing with the people. Looking at these people, I begin to get a sense of a people desperate to have a good time, almost forcing it too much. The holiday seems almost forced on everyone – “You’re going to take a trip, relax and have fun. You will leave at 8:27 am Saturday and may not return until between 4:34 and 6:21 pm Tuesday night.” I’m sure I’m wrong, but I just get a feeling of ‘power vacation’ - holiday your ass off and worry about the details of fun afterwards. Maybe it’s that to most of these people, holidays are not a very traditional pastime, and they’re kind of going through the motions based on some badly translated version of a 1960’s Disney comedy about a family vacation.

While trying to sort out the Chinese Holiday Puzzle in my head, I realized that we were on our way back to the dorms. I was tired and ready for a cold sleep.

I got back to my room and put on all of the clothes I brought to stay warm overnight and everyone else was doing the same. Mattie came down to use our shower, because their shower didn't have hot water. She kicked me out of the room, as expected, so I went down and chilled in her and Sherry’s room while waiting. Pretty soon, Sherry went down and joined Mattie in the shower (whoa, kinky), but it was just a matter of speed and another example of how Chinese people are used to being around a million people whenever they do anything.

By the time they came back to their rooms, I was nearly asleep and ushered down to my room. I was hopeful for a kiss, but not in much of a mood to chase it down and face the inevitable turndown, so I laid down and immediately fell asleep. Monday morning was going to start around 9:00 am and feature horse riding. I’m no John Wayne, but I did grow up in Kansas, and my grandparents did have a couple horses that I occasionally saw, so I wasn't too worried.

The final goodnight consisted of Mattie sticking her head around the corner and saying goodnight and quickly leaving. Pretty anti-climatic, but that was fine with me, I was determined to not let my normal relationship practices ruin a potential good thing, plus, we still had two days, and being around her for 48 hours after rejection would make me miserable, it’s best to have dreams of ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what really is’.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The First 10 Hours of a 6-Hour Drive

October 1, 2005

The time has finally come. This week is my Chinese Vacation Extravaganza (or ‘holiday’ as everyone here calls it). This seven-day break is to celebrate something called ‘Chinese National Holiday’. The name is pretty typical of China, straight and to the point, but without really giving too much information away. I spent much of last week trying to find out exactly what we were celebrating, everyone just said that it was National Day.

“You mean the day China was founded?” I kept asking.

“Yes, yes.” Was the typical reply.

“That’s like a 4000 year old holiday, hasn't China changed calendars like 10 times? How the hell have you been able to keep track of the day? How do you even know that China was actually ‘founded’?” With every response, downpours of additional questions soaked my mind. I just felt that if I was going to celebrate something in a communist country, I really think I should know what it is that I’m celebrating.

And cant anyone in this place just say something straight?! It’s always like a police interrogation with a criminal mastermind to get anything figured out.

After several hours of painstaking questions and even more painful responses, mixed with a bit of Internet time, I finally came to the heart of the matter. I felt like I was trying to piece together a shattered windshield. October 1, 1949 was the founding of the People’s Republic of China. China itself was never actually ‘founded’ it just kind of grew over Asia over the course of about 3500 years. The holiday is the Chinese version of our 4th of July, with one minor difference. This year is the 58th anniversary of the PRC, while the good ol’ Red, White and Blue celebrated their 229th this year. So in my mind, the United States of America is about 175 years older than China. The people in the hotel had no idea what I meant when I spiked a football while standing on the piano, just simple mathematics my fine little friends, you young countries just wouldn't understand.

Even though Chairman Mao declared China a “People’s Democratic Dictatorship”, some people (like America) overthrew some other people (like America) and created a democratic dictatorship (like Texas). Basically, Chairman Mao built the “People’s Jumbo Shrimp”, a 1.2 billion person oxymoron and no one called him out on it until it was too late. But he did band the country together to overthrew the same body that built the Forbidden City, now that’s a dictator I can wave a flag for. People are so boring when they band together, it’s what we do on our own that make us interesting.

Now that I understood why I was awarded a week off work, I felt free to enjoy the week. The only problem was that I really didn't know what was in store for me. The previous week consisted of Navigations Expert Xinlei planning and plotting various trips deep into the heart of this vast country. As with most Chinese-based plans, they changed on a daily basis. Originally, we were going to some mountains, then to some beach, then to some forest, then to some jungle, after that I just quit paying attention; I was running out of climates. All I really needed to know was how to pack and a rough estimate of how many days we’d be gone (the response – “Pack some clothes and we’ll be back later in the week”, thanks my friend). But then again, I figured, why should I worry about my destination with all the land ahead of me and the countless unforeseen events waiting and hiding to surprise me and make me glad to be alive to witness?

Joining us on our adventure would be two ladies; Mattie, whom I met the previous weekend and Sherry, whom I’ve never met, but she’s studying to be an English teacher, which bodes well for my communication skills.

Mattie and I had exchanged a few text messages throughout the previous week and I was very excited to spend some time with her. For the next four days, I will be exchanging my computer, my job and the hotel for a small car, an unreadable map, two ladies and an unknown destination. At the very least, I knew the trip would promise something to write about.

Saturday morning Xinlei and I left Langfang around 9:00 am to pick up Mattie and Sherry in Beijing. Xinlei said it would take us nearly six hours to reach our vacation playground, the location of which was still unknown to me, all I had been able to figure out was that it was ‘North’ and something about horses (I hope I’m not going to be forced to make another video that will leak to the Internet, that gets so old.)

The highway to Beijing was closed down due to fog, so we had to take the back roads into the city. So our one-hour trip to Beijing took us three hours, most of which was spent stopped in traffic. Saturday was the actual ‘holiday’, so everyone was traveling. The roads were packed with people traveling in much less comfortable means than us; busses were packed with hundreds of people, cars had seven or eight people spilling out the windows, motorcycles had up to four people on them. Everyone was going somewhere, if you weren’t in Beijing, you were going to Beijing, if you were in Beijing, you were leaving.

We finally got to Mattie’s house around noon and loaded the car up. You will be happy to hear that Mattie is still beautiful (good to know, I was pretty drunk when I met her), Sherry is cute as a button, but, considering that she’s studying to be an English teacher, speaks very little English. Ok, it’s finally time to hit the road into the great unknown.

Or so I thought.

We drove across the street, everyone got out of the car and Xinlei locked it up.

“Hey man, that was a quick six hours.”

“Ha-ha, no dude, we’re going to eat lunch real quick.”

See, this is going to a problem for the next unknown days. The honkey is left completely out of the communication loop. Everyone has complete understanding of where we’re going, everyone knew how to pack, everyone knew about lunch. Except me. I didn't know about lunch people!

When traveling into the unknown in a country known for their strange toiletless bathrooms, it is important to choose your food very wisely. I have known this for quite some time and have actually managed a technique where I can send my stomach into hibernation, so I can go for several days feeding on minimal food, maybe one-half meal per day. Somehow, I didn't think we would be going to a worldwide known resort, so I knew that I should be very careful. Of course, we ate Korean food, which is known for it’s spicy and greasy nature. I was still pretty satisfied from breakfast, so I didn't eat very much, and it’s a good thing. Everyone else attacked the food like a pack of wild wolverines on a moose carcass. Lunch finished, time: 1:15, time to hit the road.

Or so I thought.

Once again, we drove across the street and stopped in front of a market. I was told that we needed more food. More food? How are you people so skinny? We piled into the grocery store and began filling up the counter with food. We bought enough food and bottled water the storeowner asked us if we were in the preparing for a nuclear war. Now with the trunk stocked like a Georgia hillbilly fallout shelter, we were on our way.

Sherry gets carsick, so she latched onto the front seat like a barnacle on a fishing boat and Mattie and I were banished to the back seat like a couple of hunting dogs. If this trip was four guys, I would have been livid, but looking across the seat to see Mattie somehow changed my bitterness into a strange inner warmth that I haven’t felt in years.

It was 1:45 pm, total distance – two blocks. But this time we were off for sure.

Or so I thought. Just kidding, we actually did leave this time.

We headed north out of Gotham at the wicked and dangerous speed of 30 miles per hour on the highway. I could already tell that there would be no cruise control on this trip. Even outside of the city, we had to share the road with cows, horses, fruit carts, bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians, and any other number of indescribable vehicles. This definitely was not my family’s vacation of back seat fighting, highway chases, The Beatles and clean rest stops; it was my Chinese family’s vacation of swerving, honking, dodging, honking, flashing headlights, slamming on the breaks and dark roadside ditches for bathrooms.

Throughout my life, I have been the person to fall asleep the quickest in a car. I have many memories of hitching a ride back home from college with one of my roommates and falling fast asleep to the gentle sounds of Pantera in the background like a metal lullaby. Much like me, Mattie is a car-sleeper. While I was still too scared to fall asleep, she had no qualms with it. The problem was my body took up about two-thirds of the backseat, leaving her very little room for slumberous comfort. Being a gentleman, I offered her the only help I could, the use of my oversized lap to rest her feet or head on. At first she shied away and said no, but eventually she caved and rested her head in a pillow on my lap. After she was asleep, I gawked at her face for about half an hour in amazement. Finally, after the comfort of human trust had relaxed me enough to forget about the madness going on between Xinlei, the steering wheel and the world outside the car, we were both asleep.

Sleeping in a car is never really that great to begin with. I always open my eyes a bit every five or ten minutes, mainly to make sure that the car is still there. I had no idea how long I was asleep, it felt like an hour or so, but couldn't be sure. My surroundings were the same, same car, same people, same beautiful woman sleeping in my lap, same Chinese pop music blasting my ears, same car horn punctuating the gaps between my ears, same donkeys and chickens and three wheeled blue trucks in the road.

Except … wait … that three-wheeled blue truck next to us seems to be a bit closer to us than normal. Wait … it seems to be getting closer! Holy shit!!

“Xinlei! Some dude is about to…..” I don't know how to punctuate both surprise and not being able to finish my thoughts the same time.

…Crash….

We both saw it at the same time.

Metal on metal makes a sound similar to slowly breaking celery, especially when it’s along the door you’ve been sleeping on, inches from your head.

The poor guy has only had his driver’s license for about a week. I should have known this was coming after my experience driving with him the day after he got his license.

We pulled over to the side of the road and jumped out to assess the destruction to the rental Elantra. The damage was fairly minimal, good scrape down the side, starting at where my head was extending to where my arm was resting.

As it turns out, the guy that hit us (he was trying to cut across the street in the middle of traffic) had no license (I am Jack’s total lack of surprise). He got on his cell phone and started to make some calls, Xinlei got on his phone and started to make some calls, Mattie got on her phone and started to make some calls, Sherry got on her phone and started to make some calls, I played blackjack on my phone.

I made the stupid assumption that someone was calling the local law enforcement official. As it turns out, China McCrashy was calling every person he knew to come and help him and my companions were all calling various people for advice on what to do. Before long, the guy had about eight friends there, all of whom had something to say to us. Eventually, Xinlei or Mattie called the police, but we knew it would be a long wait so we all settled down into a comfortable argument with the opposition.

While we waited for the fuzz to show up, everyone decided to argue for about an hour about whose fault it was. The guy that actually hit us, hung back and didn't say much, but his friends really got up in our faces. These pricks weren’t even there, yet they were trying to tell us that it was Xinlei’s fault. It was all very confusing. I was the outcast of the conversation, and it’s probably a good thing. These upper-middle class Chinese men are real assholes and I’ve been ready to throw-down with one for weeks now. These guys were no different, getting up into Xinlei’s face and yelling at them, then turning away from him when Xinlei was trying to reply, total lack of respect. Oscar Zeta Acosta would break a bottle of tequila across their faces and I was just praying that Buffalo Brown would show up, high on bennies with a Harley chain hanging from his back pocket.

While Mattie and Xinlei argued with McCrashy’s friends, I made myself useful by taking pictures of all the license plates on every car that pulled up, which made many of the other guys uncomfortable, but no one would approach me. I’m kind of like an angry bear when I wake up and you don't need knowledge of English to know when it is a bad time to get in my face. The fire in my eyes is universal.

Finally, after about an hour, the cops showed up. This was my first real good look at the police of China. In my dealings with police, if you’re close enough to read the badge number, you’re too close. They rode up in a kind of paddy wagon; it sort of resembled a white and blue airport shuttle.

I was reminded of an article I read recently. In 2004, the People’s Republic of China sentenced over 3,500 people to death. In China, if you are sentenced to death, the punishment is carried out the next day, if not sooner. To put that in perspective, the United States had 59 (23 in Texas alone); in fact the entire rest of the world had 369 death sentences carried out. That means that Big Red has nearly 1000% more death penalties than the rest of the world combined.

In China, it is possible to be sentenced to death and not actually be in the courtroom. In fact, you can be sentenced to death and not even be under arrest yet. This has naturally created some difficulties finding and bringing the unknowing fugitives to justice. The death penalty in China is big business, so, rather than changing their death penalty processes or flat out decreasing the number of death penalties, the good people of the Chinese government found a simple way to streamline the gavel to the grave process a bit. Introduce the Chinese Mobile Death Vans (which will be the name of my first alt-rock album I think). This van would simply pull up to the living quarters (house, apartment, ditch, hole in tree) of the condemned and strap them into the back seat, quick ‘flu’ shot, and it’s on to the next house. This process has brought rave reviews throughout the government and now China has a fleet of mobile death vans that travel around the country like bounty hunters locating people and dropping them on the spot, armed with only a needle, some Drain-O, a CB radio and an itchy plunger-finger.

As I tried to casually move around to the back of the death van to see the straps but I was ushered to the front of the vehicle by the fuzz, where they could keep an eye on me (I really cant do any thing ‘casually’ in China). I would probably survive as a fugitive in China for about thirteen minutes before being discovered crying in a ditch like a baby with a snot-bubble coming out of my nose.

So I hung out at the front of the ride waiting for the outcome and the continuance of our journey to nowhere. After about an hour of deliberations, the perp’s friends pooled up two handfuls of money, one was given to Xinlei, a sum of 1000 yaks to fix the car, and one pile to the police for release of their friend. In case you missed that previous sentence, I witnessed the most lackadaisical police bribe in the history of corruption, but what the hell, we were back in business.

I have never seen poor Xinlei so mad and upset. Not so much for the accident, but for the inconvenience that it may have caused us. He was convinced that he had ruined our trip. None of us were upset in the least, we just felt bad for him. We cheered him up by having him pose for some pictures by the dented door and were back on our merry way.

I would like to say something about the beautiful countryside of China, but at this point I still couldn't find anything positive to say. It’s dirty and smelly, flat and barren, everywhere that could be of some use is being put to some use. Whether that is to dry corn, to sort bricks, to have a mud-pit, to live. Everything has a use and it’s all being abused. My dreams of beautiful skies and rolling forests were dwindling rapidly.

We drove on for another hour and were finally starting to see some relief in the land. You could only see about half a mile off the road due to the pollution and fog, but every now and then we began to see hills and mountains emerging from the distant grim, there were even a few places where we could see part of the Great Wall snaking across the mountains. Every hour of driving in China feels like two hours. Random traffic jams would stop us for a few minutes here and there plus we had to stop and ask directions about every 15 minutes (probably because the map was in Chinese).

Around 5:00 we found ourselves in the middle of another traffic jam, but after about 15 minutes, we began to feel that it would be a longer jam than the previous ten. We got out of the car to stretch our legs and Xinlei forged ahead to ‘get to the bottom’ of the mess. We were driving on a road that paralleled a much larger highway-looking road that looked to be much faster for our travels, my mind was trying to figure out why we weren’t on it when the man returned to tell us that all traffic was being stopped because the Chinese Prime Minister would be traveling through here in a few minutes and that all traffic must stop when someone that high in the government passed through.

Get a damn helicopter dude, you’ve got more stolen money than Al Capone, you can afford it.

So we waited. We snacked on our bomb-shelter food. We waited. We snapped a few pictures. We waited. I stared at Mattie. We waited. We waited for about 45 minutes before hearing word that ‘he was on his way’ and that it wouldn't be long now (the ‘word’ was in Chinese, so it had to be translated for me). Despite the wait, I was interested in seeing how one of the most powerful men in China traveled. I ran back to the trunk to get some water and put my book away and turned around to see everyone getting back in their cars.

“Come on dude, it’s time to go.”

“What? What about the Prime Minister guy?”

“He just drove by, didn't you see him?”

“Um, yeah… I just thought that might have been someone else.” Stupid Dumas book.

By this time, it was starting to get a bit darker and I couldn't help but think that we were getting close (even though I still didn't know where we were going). Mattie and I were leaning a bit closer together, our hands occasionally brushing against each other, each time sending a shudder down my spine.

Once more we stopped to ask for directions. We were about 180 kilometers away from our destination. We were approaching a semi-major city, Chengde when Xinlei posed the question to us: “Do you guys want to move on or stop for the night?” It was about 7:30, which meant we’d be rolling in about 9:30 according to my liberal math calculations.

“I say we push on man, we said we’d get there today in six hours, ten hours ago. Another couple of hours isn’t going to kill us. Forge on! Right guys?!! YEAH!!”

“It’s about three hours from here, plus the scenery is really nice. I would like to do it during the day.” Xinlei said. Why did you ask then?

“Me too.” Mattie and Sherry piped in.

“Like I said, let’s do it in the morning!! Woo-Hoo!!!” I shouted.

We pulled into Chengde around 8:00 and found a nice steam bowl restaurant to eat at. Dinner was really good and the city was really nice (but I don't trust things as much under the cover of darkness anymore). Chengde features a Summer Palace that one of the old ass emperors built a long ass time ago and is rapidly becoming quite a tourist spot granola expatriate honkeys.

After dinner, we went to a river boardwalk and snapped a few pictures of ourselves, many featuring me holding Mattie on my back. By this time, we were holding hands in the car. It was starting to feel a bit like sitting in the backseat of your parent’s car when they took you to the skating rink. We talked a lot during the day and I thought she was really cool. Her English is excellent and she is very smart and strong willed.

About 10:30, we got to a hotel right across the street from the Summer Palace and Mattie somehow negotiated us rooms for 180 yaks a nigh (about $22 USD). The hotel had quite a few ex-pat honkeys in it, all dressed in sweaters and Birkenstocks (I think we stumbled on Colorado, China). I had been somewhat curious of the sleeping arrangements, I’m not sure why, mainly I was wondering if we would all be in one big room or not. True, Mattie and I had began to get a bit closer, but, come on, lets be real people, nothing like that’s going to happen after eight hours in a car without alcohol involved. In the end, Xinlei and I both had our own rooms; Mattie and Sherry shared a room.

So off we went to bed. It sure didn't feel like I spent 12 hours in a car, but my imagination was somewhat distracted which helps to pass the time. Not bad for a day of driving, a car wreck, a death van, a handful of traffic jams, a couple soft hands to cup gently and some beautiful eyes to look into. Sunday was going to start at 8:30 with a three-hour trip to our destination into the unknown.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pre-Holiday Preparations

September 27-30, 2005

Limey Dave is on end-of-trip cruise control now. He’s leaving in three days and his work is done so the rest of the trip is just a formality. That meant that the rest of my week was going to be a formality as well. Dave’s trip has been a fury and blurry sex extravaganza. He’s got a local girlfriend and goes to the Slutty Chick District several times a week. He’s got a sex escapade folder on his computer of all the pictures he’s taken of the ladies and has it down to an art. He says that with prices as cheap as they are, he’d be stupid not to capitalize on it. Well, as long as he has a logical answer, I’m not going to get up in his grill about it. Despite his unsafe and unfaithful lifestyle practices here, I have to give some props to anyone who comes over here and grasps this place by the horns to have a good time and make it worth their time, he has done that more than anyone I have met so far. I somehow doubt that his fiancĂ© in the UK would share my complacent attitude, but you know how women can be.

After drinking for a couple hours on Wednesday, he told me that he hadn’t had a foot massage yet, that’s a shame, I told him. Tonight is as good of a time as any. You just can’t argue with that kind of reasoning, so we were off on another foot massage extravaganza. I will resist the temptation of writing the details again, just for the sake of laziness. Long story short, the second was every bit as good as the first. Because I had been drinking, I had to piss the whole time once again, but it was still great.

In the middle of our foot massage, I got an interesting text message from Mu Duo. She doesn't know a lot of English, but we have still text messaged each other back and forth quite a bit over the past couple weeks. Most of them are the basic ‘how was your day’ or ‘it sure is cold out tonight’ messages. This one was different; she said, “You are very funny and handsome boy!” (Her punctuation, not mine) This totally threw me for a loop; it appears by that message that she may be interested in me. This gives me a nice feeling. I showed it to Dave and he was impressed. Needless to say, the rest of the evening was spent in a slight post-foot massage hot-chick-interesting-SMS-messaging daze. I didn’t even want to think of the consequences of getting into an adult relationship with a 18 year old Chinese girl who only spoke about ten words of English, but I came into this trip with a ‘try anything’ attitude and this definitely falls under the ‘anything’ category, so what the hell.

China is the mobile phone text message capital of the entire world; it’s unbelievable how much it is used here. It has been gaining in popularity in America for the past year or so, but it is a damn national phenomenon here and I can see why. People have their mobile phones with them 100% of the time, so you can guarantee that they’ll get the message immediately and you don't actually have to have a conversation with them. Plus, the typical email excuse of ‘I just never got your message’ doesn't hold true, if you have the persons phone number, they’ll get the message, their only excuse is being to stupid to know how to check their messages, quite an embarrassing admittance of stupidity in this high-tech world. It’s the perfect form of communication. I may poke fun at the Chinese for the things that I consider them to be ‘behind’ on, such as styles (tassel boots and stirrup pants? Come on sir, you look ridiculous.) And shortcomings in western luxuries like boneless food and air conditioners, but there are things that this country is leaps and bounds ahead of the western world on and cellular technology is a big one.

After our token visit to the PetroChina office Thursday morning, Mr. Feng gave us the rest of the week off. I spent the afternoon finishing the end of my work and preparing to get wasted. Now, I could officially slack off for the rest of the week, both in body and in mind, which is good because having body and mind internal conflicts when getting wasted can be a real buzzkill.

Xinlei joined Dave and I at dinner tonight where we had the pleasure of meeting Dave’s local girlfriend (that just means she’s the one he doesn't pay for sex, otherwise, he hates her and calls her ‘Crazy Bitch’ when she’s not around). He’s giving me his bicycle when he leaves and I got the sneaking suspicion that he was offering to give his local girlfriend. I’ll have to pass Dave, but thanks anyway.

Jenny and Xinlei were rambling on to each other in Chinese and, all of the sudden, he turned to me and shouted “Man, what you tell these people about me?!”

“What dude?” I replied, innocently. I tried to scan my memory for anything stupid I may have said about him, I came up with nothing (for once).

“They know about my girlfriend and where she live and where I live!”

“I got news for you Holmes, they know a lot about all of us, Jenny is gossip central. I’m sure I talked to her or Sky at one time or another about your girlfriend, I’m sorry dude. These guys ask questions about us like CIA interrogators.”

He was aghast. I’ve known for a while that anything that deals with either of us is prime discussion fodder for these scamps here. It doesn't bother me too much, but I do get somewhat tired of the hotel network keeping tabs on me all the time. I think Xinlei was enjoying the fact that they all think he’s a single guy. This could explain the recent interest I’ve gotten from the lovely Mu Duo.

Xinlei left not long after because he had an early morning and Dave and I got down to business drinking. I was screwing around with Jenny playing waiter for her tonight, which always gets a lot of crazy looks from the locals. I took her wait tray and put it on the manager’s desk on the other side of the lobby, of course gay Tony was sitting there and he got really freaked out by it and followed me back into the bar and ensued about half hour of uncomfortable conversation between me him and Dave. It’s ok princess, you’ll be back on your knees in no time. Serves me right I suppose.

Eventually, Dave’s local’s mother started calling, worried about her because she was out past 10:30, so they left. She had to get home and Dave was on a mission to get a little farewell-chunk of local ass before he left. I didn't realize that I was invited to their last night date night. I wished him good luck because we were both having difficulties walking.

Friday afternoon, Dave and I went to the driving range. Langfang has China’s largest golf course, coming in at a whopping 99 holes with an additional nine holes planned to be built every year for the next five years. The golf course is actually quite a ways from the hotel, about 8 kilometers northeast, past the Oriental University, the gigantic college here. Laura and I had gone out to the course a couple weeks ago, her father is a huge golfer and she wanted to get him some Chinese golf hat or something. Somehow, they thought we wanted a membership, so they called their English-speaking manager, a girl named Rainbow who showed us around a bit and gave us her business card. This card would come in handy for Dave and I, I’m surprised I still had the damn thing, I’ve probably gotten about 200 business cards since coming to China. We successfully negotiated a taxi out there.

Luckily, Rainbow’s business card included the course address on it, so that eased the transportation aspect of our afternoon’s journey (which is always a pain in the ass if you don't speak Chinese). We wanted to hit some balls on the driving range, but we had no clubs or communication skills (but I did have some golfin’ skillz back in the day). We showed someone Rainbow’s card and they called her. Her English was actually pretty good, so we got straightened out with the quickness. We ended up hitting balls for a couple hours with rented clubs for about $5 and Rainbow hooked us up with unlimited range balls. I haven’t swung a club in about 3 years and it showed.

Chinese golfers are a trip. Much like my previous exploits on the basketball court, I was at first intimidated by them. They were pimped out in the latest golfing gear, awesome clubs, dressed to the T, not just one or two people, but everyone at the range. It was like a warm-up tee for a tournament. But, alas, upon further review, these guys really sucked. It didn't take a golf-pro to see that there were an inordinate number of balls in the 10-50 yard area, in a wild shotgun pattern. Citizen would step up to the tee, get all serious looking, take a practice swing, check the mirror to make sure they still looked professional and then swing away. If they even hit the ball, it would either trickle off the tee or hit the heel of the club and go in any direction. It was quite amusing and I wish I had taken a video camera, Bob Saget’s dumbass would have to pay up. Our size and comparative skill got us quite a bit of attention as usual.

On the way back we walked through the Oriental University campus, which is about the size of the town I grew up in. The school has a maximum capacity of well over 100,000 students, all within the campus (there are no non-traditional students in China, if you go to school, you live on campus). Currently there are a mere 50,000 students, a virtual ghost town. Since Saturday is a Chinese national holiday (that’s actually called National Holiday), students were lined up in droves to catch buses home. Which meant that the onlookers were already all standing out in the streets in packs when we came through.

The university also has about 300 basketball courts. As we walked past one, I told Dave to hold up for a second while I went in and grabbed the rim. The basketball court has been the only place that I enjoy the attention, probably because I get no attention playing ball in America and here I am a high-top god. As I soared through the air, I assumed that the backboard was metal, which soon proved to be another in my long string of incorrect assumptions. It was wood, probably the oldest wood in China and as soon as I grabbed the rim, a loud snap began to echo through the crowded streets of the university. The sound of the backboard breaking was like lightning striking a tree and I left the rim dangling from one lone screw. The sound was loud enough that everyone in a two-block radius was now looking at me. You want attention? Here it is.

Dave and I made haste away from the courts, because we were on foot, a quick get away was out of the question. White people hide guilt and embarrassment very poorly, it has to do with our beady eyes and the knack our skin has for turning a bright red at the drop of a hat (or drop of a basketball rim or drop of a fart in church, whatever). People were totally shocked and kind of following us with a strange awe and I wanted to crawl in a hole (mainly to avoid prosecution). The place it so big, we had to walk through crowds of people for about 45 minutes to exit the vicinity of the Oriental University and Golf Resort to get a taxi and make our way back to the hotel.

Afterwards, Dave and I were sitting in the lobby, where we kicked our shoes off, which happens quite a bit and that bitch that ruined my drinking a few nights ago came over and made us put our shoes back on, of course she knows no English, she just pointed at our feet and kept repeating ‘please’. It took me a minute to really understand what she was saying, then when I figured it out, it just pissed us off. It’s probably because of the Tony thing the night before. I should have pointed out earlier that the reason the girls hate her is because she slept with Tony for a promotion. This is a good example of why white people never get stopped by the police around here, they’re not stupid (technically speaking) and know that if the cracker doesn't know Chinese, he will be unable to pay the bribe and, to complicate it further, they will have to call someone on the force that does speak English and pretty much ruin their afternoon. If someone is being a prick here who doesn't speak English, they’re doing just that, being an asshole for revenge or something similar.

Niall came back that evening, which is great because he’s leaving for good on Monday, and I’ll be gone on my road trip, so we spent a couple hours having some beers. Mu Duo came in and hung out with me and was extra flirty and I loved it. After she left, I text messaged her about taking a walk some night, she replied that it’s too late tonight, but soon yes. Pretty sweet. Her and I have been messaging each other quite a bit, she wants me to keep our messages secret. I think she knows how much the people in the hotel gossip, it’s ok baby, I can do it on the down low, no doubt. What the hell am I doing? Ignoring the fact that I’ve also been on a text message flurry with Mattie and their names are just too close to each other on the address book not to make me nervous of a miss-sent message, I am just too desperate for my own good I think. As a side note, I think their names are too close to my mother’s mobile phone as well.

Niall, Dave and I finished the night with a foot massage at Rocks. Niall had not had one yet and Dave and I were fired up at the chance to get another cheap massage. Like usual, they brought us massage pajamas, which we normally pass up. Unfortunately, Niall was in the mood to get into the whole experience, so we all put the shit on. They fit all of us differently. Dave is a pretty normal sized guy, so his fit the best. Niall couldn't get the top buttoned over the top of his beefcake chest. My pants fit me like a spandex bodysuit. It was quite amusing. Once again, it was awesome, I had to have a guy ‘do me’, but I didn't really mind that much, I mainly felt sorry for him for having to touch my feet.

Around 1:00 am, the three of us said our good byes. Dave and Niall are leaving Sunday and I am leaving tomorrow for my holiday weekend extravaganza with Xinlei, Mattie, and her roommate. I still do not know where we’ll be going, he just told me North, far north, about six hours away. So I’m packing warm and filling out my will.

The foot massage signaled the end of the first session of the United Nations in Langfang and I have a feeling that this place will never be the same. All in all, my spirits are high. The stress from the past weeks has quickly dissipated and been replaced by good feelings and strength. The company has been nice, but it will also be nice to be on my own again for a while. My life is a series of alternating flashes of companionship and solitude, both have their places in my world, but both need to be tamed by the opposite from time to time.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Work Is Lame, But It Pays The Bills

September 25-30th, 2005
(if that gives you an idea of how far behind i am on posting this crap)

This week was one of the busiest and most stressful weeks of my professional career. Next week we get a 7-day holiday for National Holiday (clever name?), but before the break, I had a ton of work to finish, nearly all of it for the Beijing Gas project. We are delivering the project on Wednesday and I was having quite a few problems with the software/data/database. For most North American counterpart projects like this one, our company does the all the legwork for getting the stuff ready to go. But for this project, Beijing Gas hired a conversion vendor to do all the work and deliver the data to us by a certain date. This greatly complicates matters for several reasons.
First, the language barrier. They speak no English and the Beijing Gas project has not been blessed with a translator of Xinlei’s quality. This makes it very difficult to explain our anything technology or requirement based. Secondly, they are located an excruciating twelve hours from Beijing. This means that we can’t simply visit them and help them as they work; we are limited to phone calls and a once-a-week visit from their project coordinator, Mr. Liu. Thirdly, Mr. Liu is an idiot. He suffers from the great sin of pride and has difficultly admitting when he doesn't understand. This means that he takes our thrice-repeated requirements, which he doesn't understand, and communicates these to his staff, thus complicating the misunderstandings. Fourthly (is that a word?), they know nothing about GIS or pipelines. This means that they are just flying blind.
This past week has been a three-way tennis volley of emails, conference calls, visits and faxed tears between us, Beijing Gas, and the vendor, all in an vein attempt to get the data right. It just hasn't gone well and the above-described barriers tend to only magnify problems. If our staff found a problem, we would tell the person to fix it and it would be done in an hour. If we find a problem here, it’s a minimum of 24-hour turnaround. I had Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to fix my problems and prepare a demonstration that would prove to Beijing Gas that we are deserving of the bill that we will be sending them. I realized by the end of the week when I sat down to write, that I was just piecing bits and piecing of my thoughts together, so this comes across like reading a businessman’s version of Naked Lunch.
Laura and Chris had stayed in Beijing trying to get their loose ends tied up - finishing documents, installing databases, drinking without me. Upon Mr. Feng’s requirement for Xinlei and I to stay in Langfang and dedicate my time to his project, I was in Langfang doing the double project tango. This week, we were required to be in the PetroChina offices for 8 hours every day (because Mr. Feng doesn't trust us to stay in town, so we have to ‘check in’ every day), then I go back to the hotel and work for about 10 hours on the Beijing Gas project, fighting the temptation to swan dive from my 15th floor suite. Even after three months, we still haven’t established any form of trust and it has worn me out, I am already frustrated, this just concentrates my anger on a simple target.
Sunday, Xinlei told Mattie that I didn't have any plans for the upcoming holiday and asked her to take me somewhere. That’s pretty a pretty forward request in my opinion, but I’ve learned that being forward is pretty much straight poker around this country. Later in the week, she actually did invite me to go on a holiday trip with her, but it was such late notice, that most mass transit means were completely booked. I was pretty flattered that she even thought to invite me along. This is the hottest chick to ask me to do something with her in my life. Instead, she asked Xinlei to rent a car and drive her, her roommate and myself on a holiday trip. She said she’s trying to set him up with her roommate. With the recent turmoil between him and his girlfriend he was pretty acceptable to the opportunity. Plus, he just got his drivers license, so he’s fired up about driving for four days. He’s been doing the real deal long distance relationship (she’s going to school in the States) and the rocky shores of a relationship are even more jagged when you can’t talk face to face with a loved one in times of trouble (at least that’s what I’m assuming, I’m not in love nor do I live a long distance from someone willing to have sex with me).
The day Xinlei got his drivers license, he rented a car for the day. Total cost of a one-day car rental here is about 150 RMB (less than $20 USD). You don't rent from Hertz or Enterprise; you just rent some guy’s car, which means that you’ll likely have to clean the stuff out of the car before determining it adequate for putting your ass on the seat. He rolled up to the hotel in Volkswagen Golf like a Formula-1 driver, squealing the tires and smiling from ear to ear. Security guards and bellboys were diving out of the way and I was laughing my ass off. He picked me up and we were off on all four wheels, at least at times. Over the course of the next hour, my good friend knocked over two bicycles (thankfully unoccupied, but the fact that they weren’t even moving is somewhat disturbing) and scraped his mirror down the side of a brand new SUV. All three of these incidents brought little more than a blink to his eye. In Kansas City, if you’re not white and have to talk to the police, you better wear a vest because they come in with guns blazin’. Over the weekend, I’m going to get a heavy dose of Chinese driving, so I knew I had to get used to it, I just hope I can get it out of my mind before stepping behind the wheel of my car when I get back home.
Monday (the day after organizing a trip with a girl), Xinlei and his girlfriend patched things up. He was in a great mood. Of course, I knew it may be interesting next week with this Mattie’s friend coming along on our holiday trip with the sole purpose of meeting him, but I suppose that just adds to the excitement. Plots can be layered over a story like rubber bands around a golf ball, if it’s tight enough, that thing will bounce for the rest of it’s life. He’s pumped about setting up a trip and driving us around the country for a few days. He’s going to be my Clark Griswold next week and it’s great to see him smiling and happy again.
Dave and Niall are leaving this weekend, which means I get a bike from Dave. Having a bike will make me instantly mobile. When you can’t communicate with taxi drivers here, you’re pretty much tied to anything within walking distance. It’s difficult enough to go grocery shopping without piling two hours of walking on top of it through groups of scattered ass and pimps in my neighborhood. Langfang has about 450,000 people in it, but it’s about the size of a 50,000 person American city, so if you’ve got a bike, you can go anywhere in the city provided you don't mind riding like a madman through traffic, which I don't. I remember when I was a child; living in Cheney, Kansas, my parents would let me ride my bike anywhere in the town, except on Main Street. It’s too busy and dangerous, they kept telling me. One day I let my friend talk me into riding down Main Street to save some time. Reluctantly, I rode down the road, staying as close to the curb as possible, when I heard a horn honking behind me. I turned, and there was my dad, or a ghastly devil version of my dad, with eyes like lasers and a face red as a tomato. Needless to say, my lesson was learned about riding on busy streets: Watch out for your father, he’s probably the worst driver on the road.
Monday evening, one of the hotel assistant manager girls came and talked to me for about one hour in the western bar, she doesn't speak English and it was painful. She’s about 19 years old and looks crazy as a loon. On top of the international psycho chick implications, the rest of the girls absolutely hate her and they just assumed that I was hitting on her. She had the mannerisms of a ten-year-old and was keeping me from drinking, so naturally, I despised her. After she left, Jenny and Sky wouldn't talk to me for the rest of the night, so I just left.
Later in the evening, I told Dave and Niall about what transpired earlier with the Western Bar Girls versus the Assistant Manager Girls and how none of them talk to me. They laughed and as soon as I left the room, told Jenny that I was so pissed that I was moving out of the hotel. In reality, I was a little pissed at them, but I’m not in high school anymore and in the grand scheme of life, I don't give a damn. I know this girl was a bitch, you could just see it in her eyes and my theory is that the only reason she spent that time talking to me was because she knew how much the others hated her (I dated a girl for four years just like that, lived with the bitch for two).
Jenny pulled me aside to apologize, she really felt bad because I didn't really talk to her all night. I explained that I wasn't pissed off, just a little upset because they were really cool people and it sucks when people just quit talking to you for being a nice person. Only with an open heart and free mind will you be allowed to float freely between people. Throughout the night, I got a couple phone calls and text messages from them apologizing again and again. Luckily, they weren’t waking me up because I had to stay awake all night working on my Beijing Gas presentation. Just another lame little distraction and side story that happens from time to time.
Mattie and I continued our text messaging throughout the week and she makes me feel nice, like drinking a glass of warm milk. She was very cool to me when I told her how stressed out I was in preparation of my presentation, she told me to relax and look at the stars and to remember that she was looking at the same stars. Now that’s some nice shit to say to a fella. I’m looking forward more and more to our trip and have high hopes for chemistry (once again, I feel myself setting my standards and hope higher than a reasonable level of attainment, but that’s par for the course for me).
By Tuesday night, I was still having work problems and had to abandon my problems in lieu of preparing for my demonstration Wednesday morning. Xinlei and I were to leave at 7:30 am for Beijing (we had PetroChina’s approval to leave Langfang for Wednesday only). I stayed up all night working on the demonstration. For me, there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to figure a problem out. The combination of dwindling time, sleep deprivation and frustration-sanctioned hate had put me into a 24-hour haze, a kind of continuous partial attention to everything with blurred edges; incoming data and stimuli enter into my head through my eyes and ears and placed in a growing pile marked “Data Backlog: Process Later”.
First thing in the morning Wednesday, I went down to get some breakfast and ran into Niall. He didn't recognize me because I was dressed ‘like a bloody businessman’ and got a good laugh. These guys here are used to see me running around the hotel in shorts and sweatshirts, tennis shoes and stocking hats, so when they see me with my shirt tucked in, painful ribbing ensues. He was leaving that day for another city in China for a few days, but will be coming back over the weekend and then leaving for good. We’ll probably have one more barnburner, spirit waking, rugby discussion night of drinking over the weekend, which I’ll be in need of by the end of the week. Dave will be leaving Saturday, so the two of us still have a few days of drinking left.
Nearly all the rest of the United Nations have left; the South African, the Austrian, the Swede with the Irish scotch that will curl your toes, the sperm sorter, the assistant sperm sorter, the deaf American, the guy from Uganda. I’m starting to feel like the last guy at the party who is waiting for a ride that is running late. Despite all of the stress these past few weeks, I’ve still been having a really good time with all things not related to work.
By the time Xinlei and I fought through the morning rush hour traffic in Beijing on Wednesday morning, it was nearly 9:30. Thinking back to my Data Model Unveiling meeting I had with PetroChina a few weeks back, I really had no idea what to expect. I was sure this thing would be overdone in some way, but I didn't care one bit, all I knew was that after today, this project is over, at least over for me (and that’s all I gave a shit about).
As it turns out, the only way it was overdone was in the size of the meeting room. The room was huge, which I think is just typical of Chinese business style, but there was only about seven people in there, and four of them were my colleagues; Marlow, Laura, American Chris and Mystic-Crackpot Translator Chris (who entertained me with stories of astrology last time I was drunk at Lotus Lane).
They were in the middle of discussing why the data was completely fucked up and things didn't appear to be going particularly smoothly. It seemed as though we had arrived in the nick of time; Xinlei and I know leaps and bounds more about this stuff than anyone there, if only from sheer repetitiveness with our other client and their child-like attention spans.
Laura spent quite a bit of time writing a document as to why the data was messy, with all fingers pointed safely away from us (and rightly so for once). Our job was not to capture the data; it was just to put it in the database - to polish the turd - if you will. But we also need to make sure we don't completely send the vendor up the creek (there’s a high likelihood that we will be working with these guys again somewhere down the line). We have to be honest without being brutal and hope that the facts will speak for themselves. While putting together her document, Laura was extremely frustrated by this point (as were we all), so I had to make sure she understood this, she was ready to write a scathing letter of anger as her project summary. Cool heads prevailed and the result was a good report.
Mr. Liu was trying his best to say it was our fault and it simply wasn't. Laura has not had much experience with these kinds of conversations with clients and the translator that was working with her was pretty worthless. Plus, Marlow was in the back row, checking his email and surfing the Internet. He was leaving that afternoon and his mind was already three time zones away.
I immediately wedged my way into the conversation and started explaining. Xinlei pointed to Mystic-Crackpot and told him to translate for me. I talked for about two minutes and waited for Chris to translate, but he just sat there. The guy is pretty worthless and as soon as he saw Xinlei, he thought he’d be able to just chill out and let Xinlei take care of everything for the morning.
“Chris! Pay attention! Translate everything I just said!” I nearly yelled at him from across the room (stifled giggles from Xinlei in the background).
So he started talking and explaining and was immediately cut off by Xinlei. Xinlei took the bull by the horns and took over for the Mystic-Crackpot, who was just clueless. After about five minutes, Xinlei and I had everyone in the room straightened out and we were kosher.
Note to anyone who will be doing work over here, get the best translator money can buy and stick with him or her, it pays huge dividends in the long term. Invest in them with industry knowledge, spend time with them outside of work, get to know them, become friends with them if you can (hold and caress them if necessary). Comfort between two people is important. Xinlei and I have that, and it goes a long way.
Laura looked over to me and whispered “Thank you so much.” I felt so bad for her; she has gotten thrown around this project and has weathered the storm admirably. In the past three weeks when working with me she has shown me how good and smart she can be (and has made me realize how lazy and angry I can be). Marlow has been a negative force against her the whole time because he didn't want to lose face, difficult to the point where it almost seemed personal. I tried my best to defend her and keep him from totally burning her down, but it’s difficult to do without starting an out and out fight. He had his own problems to deal with on the project management side, but he really didn't help the technical side of the project very much. I’d still like to deliver a horrorshow tolchok his gulliver.
Next was time for me to do my demonstration. Everything went as well as could be expected. I had about 90 minutes of material to go over, but after about 25 minutes, they had enough and stopped me. They liked what they saw and were happy. I know more about this stuff than anyone in China and I can talk about it all day long, I have a tendency to get to in-depth too quickly. I completely expected them to say that they were happy, and with the inner-knowledge that they would have no idea what was going on in reality, but I also knew that all of this will come back up when they’re deciding whether to pay us or not.
Pride and saving face in front of others here is a full-time job, they’ll always tell you that they understand and seemingly let you off the hook. But it will come back to you when they are having their internal meetings and trying to impress their managers by burning us to the ground. They have to save face there as well, but it will be in the ‘hard-ass supervisor’ fashion. I say that it happens everywhere in China, but it’s also very prevalent in the rest of the world as well (it’s just so much more pronounced here than the rest of the world). People spend so much of their energy trying to look important, hoping that their superiors notice it and promote them, if they would only spend that same energy learning and doing their job, everyone would be in a better place. People are also really quick to point how difficult their job is and not wanting to explain it to the next in line in a lame way to gain some sense of self-preservation. That’s fine with me; I’ll learn it anyway and roll them over. I prey on the weak and selfish.
After the meeting, Marlow took off to the airport and Xinlei, American Chris, Laura and I went to have lunch and bitch about work for an hour. Laura and Chris were leaving Friday or Saturday, but I was going to be in Langfang for the week, so I wouldn't see them, so we said our goodbyes and Xinlei and I headed back to Langfang, the city of smiles.
I’m going to get pretty drunk for the rest of the week.