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The Great Wall and More

We left Shanghai, a vibrant, twitchy city sporting both imperial architecture from the early 20th century and provocative new skyscrapers from the 21st, with the iconic Pearl Tower as an unmistakable exclamation point.  At 23 million, it’s China’s largest city, with 6,000 people per square kilometer (New York has only 1,800 but Singapore is twice as dense at 11,100).

When we arrived in Beijing on the bullet train, we saw a slightly dowdy city (only 17 million, 5,000 per km/sq), a little run down, maybe even a little down on its luck. Not as clean as Singapore, not as stylish as Shanghai, not as noisy as New York.  And under grey skies.  Maybe it was just the weather system – probably not – but the sky was grey and low all the way from Shanghai to Beijing. It wasn’t yellow like Los Angeles, but it didn’t smell good or feel good in the throat, either.

After we arrived and unpacked, we met Sam, our new Beijing guide, for a trip to the roasted duck restaurant for Peking duck in Peking.  As we passed to our table, we saw a chef using a long stick to hang dozens of raw prepared ducks in a big oven with a big fire.  When they came out, they shone a beautiful deep golden brown.Image

The first challenge of ordering a Chinese dinner is deciding on the dishes.  Meats, cold dishes, hot dishes, dim sum, soup, variety, contrast, quantity, likes, dislikes, things to reject on principle (no snake, no intestines) all have to be considered.  And the menu is typically a book that has to be browsed front to back and again to understand the range of choices. What we invariably discover is that no matter what group, a group decision is just impossible.  Someone has to play the host, order for the group, and hope that it all works out.  In this case, even though we were only three (Nancy, Sam the Guide, and me), the rule held. Sam played host, but only until the check came, when it became my turn.  Dinner was: a duck, of course; a cold dish – needle mushrooms; two hot dishes – Chinese broccoli with tree fungus, and pumpkin with lily; rice – the one invariant for a Chinese dinner; and a bottle of Great Wall cabernet sauvignon, which, contrary to all reasonable expectations, worked out just fine.  Good, but Nancy and I agreed that we’d had better Peking duck years ago in Atlanta.

The next morning’s sky was grey and cheerless with a threat of rain.  Our driver and Sam picked us up to drive out of the city to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. After an hour of passing through Beijing’s first through sixth circles (beltways, but might be described as circles of hell), we passed through countryside and finally stood at the foot of a steep hill of hawker stalls.  Everyone wanted to sell us a tee shirt and every other souvenir we wished for “only one dollar.” As we worked our way up the path, the rain started.  Slowly at first, but soon falling quite steadily.  Never mind, this might be our only chance to see the Wall, this section constructed in the 15th century by the Ming dynasty, and renovated in the mid-1980s.  This section stands along the ridge of a very steep hill, so we rode a modern cable car to get to it. A twisting pathway, a climb up steep steps and then …

… we finally stepped, out of breath but thrilled, onto the Great Wall of China.

Now the rain turned into a steady downpour, with our small umbrellas becoming ever less effective.

While not entirely treacherous in the rain, the walking path on the wall rises and falls sharply; the steps are uneven with tiny tops, huge risers, and no hand rails in the most problematic sections.  We hiked to the first watchtower.  A cloud settled over the hill, so we could see only a short section of the Wall at a time.  I thought it was going to be a disaster for pictures, but, with the Wall going on and on into the cloud, some of them turned out to be quite atmospheric.

The rain fell harder, but we hiked on the to next watch tower.  The wall was strangely quiet in the rain—few tourists.  By now, my shirt was wet  More rain, more refuge in the maze of mall rooms in watchtowers, more steps with 12-inch rises, more wet clothes. By the fifth or sixth watchtower, we were pretty well soaked, but not miserable because the rain was not cold, and standing where centuries of ancient warriors had defended the empire was enthralling.

Although we wanted to walk the mile to the end of this section, the rain cloud kept us from seeing any of the surrounding countryside, and after about 45 minutes, we turned back.  Most other visitors had done so as well; very few people remained on the Wall as we headed to the cable car for the trip down.  It was disappointment in the sense that we couldn’t see the whole, long, magnificent wall wind its way into the far horizon, nor could we see the forest that stretches toward the distant and once hostile plains.  On the other hand, most tourists had stayed away, and pictures of the Wall with no people are quite unusual.

We ran the gauntlet of hawkers on the way down, jumped into the car, and drove a little way down the mountain to a restaurant where, some time ago, a collection of heads of state ate dinner.  We thought that might mean over-priced and under-valued, but our roast fish (butterflied rainbow trout with a spicy dry rub roasted in an oven hot enough to crisp the skin), celery with lily, green beans with minced beef, and squash with lily was delightful and reasonable.  We said that this was a California Chinese dinner – a little meat and a lot of vegetables; Sam said that Chinese people typically do not eat much meat at a meal.

Since it was still fairly early in the afternoon, Nancy asked Sam about a representative “Beijing” souvenir – I guess the hawkers had gotten her thinking.

“Silk, jade, and cloisonné,” he said, “but this is not a good place for jade.”

We’d already gotten silk in Shanghai, so off we went to the cloisonné factory. We stopped at a government-owned factory, a dozen and a half small rooms built around an antiquated central courtyard.  It looked like it had been built in the early 20th century and had not seen any refurbishment since then.

We watched artisans of each of the major cloisonné construction steps (except for the final glazing steps which we were told is secret), Wired, painted designs undergo weeks of preparation, layer after layer, before the objects are lowered into gas-flamed pits to be fired seven times.  Before the 1970s, the pits held coal fires.  We learned that all these craftsmen are now subsidized by the government to keep cloisonné making alive.   The work is tedious and only a few people older people still know and practice the art.

We ended at the showroom, of course, and saw a mixture of antique and new pieces—large and small.  It took a while to find our treasure, but we finally managed to provide some support to the Chinese artisan economy.

Work in Shanghai ended Friday afternoon.

Next stop:   Beijing, to test the Peking Duck and inspect the Great Wall and Forbidden City. We had tickets for the 9 o’clock bullet train leaving from HongQiao station.

The hotel concierge suggested we get a taxi at 7:30 am, allowing an hour to get to the train station.  With a 5:45 wake up call, we tried to allow time to dress, finish packing, have breakfast, and get to the taxi stand by 7:15, no problem.

And it worked fine.  We were at the stand at 7:18 am, and the bellboy asked for our tickets so he could tell the driver where to take us.  The ticket said ShangHai HongQiao station to Beijing South station in both Chinese and English, and the train was the G2 leaving at 0900.  The bellboy said something to the effect of, “This isn’t the right station.  I know where it is.” After the chaos of getting two giant suitcases and assorted small baggage loaded into the car in the rain, I asked, “Are we going to HongQiao station?” and he replied, “I know where it is.  Don’t worry.”

Those famous last words: “Don’t worry.”

We piled into the car, and with the bell boy’s instructions, our driver pulled into light traffic. Through the winding streets of Pudong (new Shanghai).  Through the tunnel under the Pu river.  Through the winding streets of Puxi (old Shanghai).  And we were at the train station by 7:45, very comfortably early.

The taxi driver loaded all our baggage onto a cart run by a pair of energetic boys who charged us 80 RMB to take the bags from the taxi drop into the station.  We followed them at a quick trot through car traffic, through foot traffic, up an escalator, across the square in a light rain, and to a place where they could study the huge electronic departure board outside the station.

“Ticket.”

They looked at me, and it took a moment to figure out what they wanted.   I handed them one ticket, and they looked, handed it back, looked at the board, conferred, waited for the board to update, studied it, looked at their watches, and conferred again.  I began to study the board, too.  No G2.  Maybe I didn’t understand the system.

“Ticket.”

They needed another look.  After another consultation with each other, one of them began explaining the situation to us. Unfortunately, his English was almost as limited as our Chinese.  Frantic hand signals.  Nancy asked, “Taxi?  Wrong station?”  Pointing to his watch, one of them shook his head saying, “No.”  Everything came into sharp focus when they grabbed our bags and began to RUN across the drizzly plaza to a subway station.

We were at the wrong station.

Taking a subway anywhere was going to be a challenge because we were not travelling light.  In addition to two large rolling suitcases, we had my heavy computer bag, my small camera bag, Nancy’s handbag, Nancy’s travel bag, and a heavy bulky package consisting of one silk duvet, one silk duvet cover, silk sheets, and three silk pillow cases—all extra-king sized.

Back into the rain at another quick trot, following our bags into the station, through the halls, down the escalators, through more halls, and to the entry turnstiles.  It was still not obvious what the official position of these guys was, and a variety of unpleasant possibilities began to play in my mind.  Given that the clock was ticking down toward our departure time, our options were painfully limited.

One of the guys materialized two subway tickets, used one, encouraged Nancy through the gate, and followed with her bag.  As the gate closed behind them, I had only one choice left.  The second ticked opened the gate, and I passed through.  We were irrevocably in the hands of the Travel Gods. The trailing guy shoved my bag under the gate, hoisted himself over it, and we all were RUNNING through the station again, dodging and weaving around busy commuters.  I cannot begin to express the anxiety that Nancy felt as I tried to encourage her to “have faith and enjoy the adventure.”  Yeah, right.

When we got to the train platform, “Money.”  Boy 1 asked for 400.  OK, S$80 ought to cover the cost of subway tickets and leave them plenty for their trouble.  Fine.  He took the money, motioned that Boy 2 would go with us, and disappeared.  Boy 2 stayed, wrestling both big bags and half our carry-ons.

Now we noticed the subway stations for this line were listed above the entry door.  Nothing even close to HongQiao.  The subway arrived, and Boy 2 and bags hopped aboard.  Of course we followed.  Nancy was beginning to look pale.  She was now aboard a crowded subway car, in a strange city in China, surrounded by people and signs with whom she cannot communicate, heading in some unknown direction, with a very good chance of missing our 5-hour trip to Beijing.  From her perspective, not good.

More hand signals between me and our guy, and I finally worked out that we were going to transfer to a different line at the third stop.  Nancy also does not like making subway connections in the best of conditions.  Our train stopped, we piled off, bags and all, and began RUNNING again, up one escalator, down a couple of halls, a pause while our boy worked out whether to go right, left, or down, another escalator, and onto a second subway.  With some great relief, I saw that this one ran to Hongqiao Train Station – all the way at the end of the line, one stop beyond Hongquiao Airport!  The clock began to tick even more loudly; it was now 8:10 am.  A trip to the airport in thirty minutes seemed very optimistic, and we had to go one stop further. The car sped along, door opening at a dozen stops, and arrived somewhere near our train station at 8:42 am.

Hongqiao Station is a big place.  Very big.  A major terminus for trains from all parts of China to Shanghai.  We RAN again.  Up more escalators, down more halls.  Our boy paused to look around, try to get his bearings, and off we went with him pulling both bags, smaller parcels balanced atop.  Tick, tick, tick.  He stopped at an information desk to ask for directions.  This way.  RUN.

8:46. Tick tick tick

He stopped at another information desk.  That way.  RUN.

8:48.  TICK TICK TICK

Finally, we came to the transfer hall and saw the door for G2 at the far end of it.  RUN, dodging the crowd, through the door, and we finally saw the entry gate to our bullet train platform.

“Money.”

He typed a number into his cell phone to show me.  600.  Another S$120. Ow!

Sometimes, a graceful concession to the demands of the moment seems the best option.  It was 8:52.  This boy had managed to get us here in time, against all odds, with all our luggage.  In truth, he was asking for an outrageous payment, but I was grateful and didn’t have time to dicker, quibble, be outraged, or negotiate.  I paid. RMB, not dollars, but still a lot, even for the services rendered. He probably expected less than he asked, expecting me to haggle.  Sometimes, the role of the American businessman is to spoil the market.  I did.

He got us on the train, got our luggage put away, and got us settled into our seats by 8:57 am, at which point he waved and disappeared.

At exactly 9 am, the train pulled smoothly out of the station , as our heartbeats and breathing gradually returned  to normal.

Flying silently through Chinese countryside, the speed, prominently displayed in our car, vacillated between 300-315 km/hour.  That’s roughly 180 mph.

We pulled into Beijing South on time five hours later, primed to start our Beijing adventure.

Two Chinese Guides

In chatting about Mike and my recent trip to China, a Singaporean friend (of Chinese descent) commented about his tough experiences doing business in China:  “They don’t think like us.  Maybe in another generation.”

Some of this may be language barriers – few Chinese speak English, and Mike’s business meetings in Shanghai all have interpreters.  To complicate things further, dialects of different regions are incomprehensible to other Chinese.  The only Chinese nationals we really converse with during our 12 days in Shanghai and Beijing are our two English-speaking guides.  Each has a degree in Tourism and Hospitality and 10+ years of tour-guide experience.  Both know dynasties and dates, heights of buildings and bridges, silk industry, agricultural past, industrial present  – amazing factual knowledge, but little unscripted – they have to pass government tests to keep up their licenses.

 Heidi is our Shanghai guide.  Proud to be Shanghai-born, Heidi is cute and stylish, wearing silk dresses with matching jackets and heels – aged 32 but could have passed for early twenties.

First, we definitely pick up a Shanghai-superior attitude toward Beijing in her contrast of these two metropolitan areas:

Heidi:  Shanghai is center of finance, shipping and commerce, media, technology, fashion, and largest city in China with over 23 million people.  Beijing is center for politics.  Many people say Shanghai is Asian Manhattan with so many skyscrapers.  When you go to Beijing, you will see it is low with mostly four-story buildings.  And what we eat is different.  Here in the south, we eat a rice-based diet – lighter food.  In Beijing diet is flour-based because it’s colder there.  Beijing people are taller and fatter, and men have big bellies from drinking.

The best bits are her few “off-script” comments.

Nancy:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

H:  It must have been something Mao did.

After Heidi expresses disgust with cigarette smoke in one restaurant . . .

N:  Is the government doing anything to encourage people to stop smoking for health reasons—like they do in Singapore and the US?

H:  Not really . . . government doesn’t care what we do. (Later we notice “No Smoking” signs in restaurants – largely disregarded.)

Heidi shares extensively about her latest “cute boy” problem – lamenting that Shanghai boys are only interested in drinking, gambling, making money, and having fun with girls.  She thinks they’re spoiled from the one-child law.  (Heidi herself is an only child who lives with parents, and mother does all her cooking and laundry.)

N:  My brother once dated a woman from China, and she claimed that Chinese women today don’t like Chinese men for the same reasons you mention . . . and prefer Westerners.  Is that true?

H:  No, girls in Shanghai want a Shanghai boy because we speak the same language. . . . (thinking pause)  Your brother . . . is he married yet?  (Later our Beijing guide will tell us that the Shanghai dialect is very distinctive.)

Once we leave a silk museum in the rain and duck into a taxi.  The driver and Heidi in the front seat chat away in Chinese until Heidi turns around and says . . . our driver asked if you are film stars here for Shanghai Film Festival.

N:  Do any drivers speak English?

H:  No, if they could speak English, they wouldn’t drive taxis.

Sam takes over as our Beijing guide.  Married, he moved from a rural area 11 years ago and now lives in a high-rise with wife, mother, and nine-year-old daughter.  Like most Beijingers, Sam is less stylish and savvy with electronics than Heidi . . . and with a heavier accent, but he’s more measured in his responses and shows a bit of intellectual curiosity.

N:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

Sam:  It’s because of wars – the Anti-Japanese War [WWII], the invasion of the Eight Allied Powers [Boxer Rebellion], and other wars.  China was invaded many times over centuries. Thousands of Chinese people die in wars and also in many terrible earthquakes and floods.  And most provinces have agricultural economy until recently, and people needed children.

We ask Sam about the frightening driving we’ve seen.  Drivers regularly drive down the middle of lane markers, speed along expressway shoulders, and blare horns continually.  Stepping into pedestrian crosswalks with the “green man” is risky business  . . . cars sail through red lights, tooting and nudging pedestrians out of the way.  We explain that in both Singapore and the US, pedestrians have the right-of-way, but here cars seem to take it.

S:  No, in rules here also pedestrians have right-of-way.  But so many drivers are new here, and people with cars think they are more empowered than pedestrians.  When I move to Beijing eleven years ago, cars are rare – bicycles are everywhere.  Beijing is adjusting to so many drivers, and police start to enforce laws.

Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace – all are swarming with tourists, but mostly Chinese nationals, and Mike and I do stand out (height,  coloring, clothes).   Student groups, often in uniforms, ogle us, and Sam tells us they often visit the capital city between junior and senior high.  He also says that rural citizens now can save enough money to travel to these revered sites, once hidden and now open to the public.  Older rural tourists frequently sport mismatches of patterns and prints along with colorful “group” matching hats.  Each place, Chinese tourists ask Sam to take pictures of our exoticness.

One time we watch a rare group of Caucasians emerge from a small tour bus, and I ask Sam what country he thinks they’re from – since he’s an experienced tour guide.

S:  I think from Sweden or Norway . . . because of their skin. 

N:  Really . . . you can tell from that?

S:  Oh, yes.  Weather is harsh there and show in their skin and hair.  Americans are special with good skin and hair because air and water are so good there.

N:  Since both you and your wife are English-speaking tour guides, do you speak English with your daughter at home?

S:  We mostly speak our home-town dialect – our daughter mostly understands, but can’t speak.  She speak Mandarin, and we have language tapes to teach her English.  In time Mandarin will become more common throughout China . . . television is making a difference.

N:  Have you yourself traveled much outside of China or to other parts of China?

S:  No, but I hope to go to Shanghai someday.  If I travel outside China, I want to go to Egypt to see pyramids before the writing on them disappears.

China is definitely catapulting from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first . . . we saw it everywhere.  Sam proudly stated that the standard of living is now on par with 1970s U.S. . . . a fair assessment from what we witnessed in Shanghai and Beijing.

Language barriers – swelling of cities – rapid industrialization – revolutionizing economy – national pride – no wonder they don’t think like us!  Mike and I are learning so much from Asia . . . and we’re looking back over our shoulders to the U.S. from this new perspective.

Monkey See Monkey Do

Singapore is consistently ranked as a city with one of the densest populations in the world.  Paradoxically, it is also one of only two cities in the world with a nature reserve consisting of rain forest;  Rio de Janeiro is the other.  Of the two, only Singapore’s is original, natural rain forest – Rio’s was hand planted to preserve threatened species.

Singapore’s jungle covers 163 hectares (403 acres, not quite two thirds square mile) of a hill in the center of the city / island / country called Bukit Timah.  (You can’t live in Singapore without learning at least a little Malay – bukit timah: hill of tin.)  There’s not a lot of jungle, but it’s the real deal.

A jungle wouldn’t be much of a jungle without monkeys, and monkeys we have.  Monkeys that will steal your groceries as you walk home from the market.  Monkeys that will root through your garbage can and make a monumental mess.  Monkeys that will steal the ice cream cone out of the hand of an unwary child – and then stand and lick it.  Monkeys that will earn you a fine if you get caught feeding them.  In addition to about 1500 long-tailed macaques, a tribe of about 40 banded leaf monkeys (larger and darker) lives very shyly deep in the jungle away from curious eyes.

“Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Visitor Center,” we told the taxi driver who pulled up to our condo.

“Where’s that?” he replied.  Hmmm.  I always worry when the taxi driver doesn’t know where we’re going; I’m certainly no good at giving directions. “Bukit Timah, is it? Some kind of park?” I had naively assumed that every resident of Singapore, taxi drivers included, must have gone to the nature reserve at least once.

We needn’t have worried.  He knew how to get to the nature reserve; he just wasn’t sure about the visitor center.  And Singapore drivers have sharp eyes once they get somewhere close to the target.  We got there without a single wrong turn.

Even though the visitor center looked like it was from 1975, it had interesting information on the flora, fauna, and biodiversity of the rain forest.  One exhibit displays the man-eating Malayan tiger, a fearsome presence in Bukit Timah until it was intensely hunted and finally completely eliminated in the 1930s.  Two of them are on exhibit, a little worse for wear after 80 years, but big enough to get your attention on a dark jungle path. A video of the Malayan culogo shows a vaguely bat-like creature stretching the membranes between its arms and legs and gracefully gliding from one tree to another.  We learn that the hottest, and least rainy days in Singapore are in June.  All this and more, but not a single word, as Nancy noticed, about the monkeys, Singapore’s largest wild animal.

Once a month, the Jane Goodall Institute Singapore, sponsors a “monkey walk” to find the monkeys and watch them in their natural habitat.  Tonight’s guide is a working researcher at the Institute. Starting from the visitor center, we walked with her along a pleasant path to a spot where monkeys regularly congregate in the trees.  On the way, we saw a mama culogo clinging to the side of a tree, cuddling her baby firmly within her “wings”.  The first monkeys we saw were a pair very high in the forest canopy.

Then, one brave soul worked his way down to a tree limb just a few feet over our heads.

As the afternoon faded into early evening, a few more monkeys showed up until we saw a dozen or so. They ignored the three-foot long water monitor and the two large turtles in the nearby pond.

The monkeys sat quietly grooming each other, fussing over the babies, nibbling fruit in the trees, slowly moving from one tree to another, gradually working their way away from us and toward their nightly roost.

By 6:30, our necks were sore from looking up, and we’d had enough.  It was time to imitate monkey social behavior and find a place to have dinner with new-found friends from the walk.

We all followed the trail back to the nature center, working our way from one familiar landmark to another.  Just like the monkeys. And we finally came to a very familiar place.  In fact, it was exactly the same spot we’d stood to watch the monkeys!  We’d just discovered that in the jungle,  it’s easy to go in circles even if there are no tigers to avoid.

My body still rocks and sways from all the days and nights on the sailboat—and the flights home.  Flying home (Singapore home) was intense, with an eight-hour layover in Istanbul in the middle of it.  And then, of course, the endless flights it takes to cross the globe.

Two years ago our family planned a bareboat sailing trip in the Greek isles, long before Singapore became a possibility for us.  Now seven of us would furl sails on a 50.5-foot monohull, headed for the great unknown, high-seas fun and adventure, with brother Scott (All hands on deck!) as captain.

One minor disaster was over early—Mike and I missed our tight Istanbul connection on the way out and got stuck in Athens overnight.  We needed to get to Kos, island birthplace of Hippocrates . . . but more importantly .  .  .  our launch spot!    You’ve missed the boat took on frightening new meaning.  Fortunately, someone had seen our urgent email that we were still coming, so the rest of the crew unpacked onboard and provisioned and waited in the Kos marina for our late arrival.  Unfortunately, our luggage did not make it; we had essentially the clothes on our back.  (A week of carefully packing two large, matching duffels with onboard essentials mocked how much we really needed—a lesson in here somewhere.) Stores close on Sunday, but one marina shop netted us a few toiletries, a pair of sox, underwear, and sweater each—and we were off!

Mediterranean waters look so different from tropical waters we’d sailed before—deep, deep, almost navy blue—sometimes gentle glassy swells, sometimes choppy surf, sometimes brilliant whitecaps.  These latter are the best because they mean we’ve got wind or “puff on!” as first mate Lauren frequently alerted whomever was helmsman of the moment.

Greek islands rise rocky and mountainous out of the deep blue—quaint Greek villages, medieval fortresses from times of the crusades, ancient ruins from the Golden Age and Hellenistic times, and seafood!  We ate squid, octopus, sardines, mussels, and whole fish of all sizes–all freshly caught.  We sailed the Dodecanese (twelve islands) closest to Turkey in the Aegean Sea—the very waters Odysseus wandered, lost for ten years—and now I know why!  The morning air was always heavy with dew and mist, small islands and Turkey’s jagged coast just barely hints on the horizon.  Without GPS and our modern sailing charts, we’d still be wandering the Aegean too!

On Nisyros we rented a car, drove up to the still-bubbling volcano caldera, and hiked, some all the way to the bottom, but Mike and I enjoyed the sulfur aromas from only partway down. We strolled through tiny, old-world villages with residents scrubbing and painting for the tourist season—but we, the only tourists this early . . . friendly Greeks happy to see us, and we delighted to see islanders in their homeland.

We sailed through the narrow channel where the legs of the Colossus of Rhodes (one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) would have spanned over us in 300 BC.  With Rhodes a larger, more populated island, we stayed two overnights onboard there.  We explored the extensive, walled medieval Old City and took a side-trip (via two taxis) down to another coastal town and climbed its high acropolis, 400 years older than the Parthenon.

Several days held glorious sailing—the winds, sun, and temps were just right.  Only one day we had to motor the whole way between islands—but the weather sparkled, despite the lack of winds.

Another day was WILD at sea—big waves, loads of wind (20 knots), and several of us suffering degrees of sea sickness—me worst of all, my motion sickness wrist bands safely tucked in lost luggage. We all learned do not go below when the waves are like that.  We heard glasses/dishes crashing each time we’d tack—and we were heeling over so far we had to fight your way to the other side of the boat each time we shifted directions.  When we finally did go below after mooring, things were tossed all over, but nothing broken.  I was really glad I experienced this kind of sailing—sickness and all—because now I can much better imagine a storm or high seas in all these books I read.

Since docking sailboats is the norm on Greek islands (different from Tahiti), we shared several exciting experiences learning to back in, set anchor, and tie up in a tight spot between other boats (translation – lots of shouting, panic, and redos).  Only once were we able to anchor out in the water, at one remote harbor on Symi–much easier.  That night we slept to gentle lapping against the boat and distant bleating of goats from surrounding hillsides.

We agreed that if we do this again in another few months–instead of two years between trips–we might remember some of the sailing tricks we learned.  But this trip stands–an experience of a lifetime.

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Only 24 Hours to Home?

Piercing Monday’s 6 AM darkness, Super Shuttle’s headlights showed up right on time. A quick goodbye to Dad, and I was off . . . well, after two stops for other riders . . . off to Phoenix International and my mega economy-class flights . . . back to Singapore and Mike after two months in the US.

In an hour I was standing curbside with three large suitcases plus laptop, purse, and jacket . . . and I had to get inside to check-in at the United counter.

Where can I get a luggage cart?

Go down to that crosswalk, cross to the island, cross the next road, go into the parking garage. You should see carts for rent in there.

Yet in little more than ten minutes of lugging and hauling, I was all checked in and wondering why I had to be at the airport at least two hours in advance for an international flight.  The good news was that I could check three pieces of luggage for free.  More good news:  a United Gold card (and international flights) entitled me to the United lounge for my two hours waiting. Much more pleasant than the gate area, and I knew I’d have no lounge time at SFO where I had a close connection.

Luckily, Flight One (Phoenix to San Francisco in two hours) was on time, and the walk from arrival gate to the International Terminal and through security again took only twenty minutes.  By early afternoon Monday, I strapped into the center section of a 777 for 11-hours to Narita International in Japan.  At this point in Flight Two, I still felt fresh and eager.

And this is where I entered the Twilight Zone a few minutes later:  You may want to set your watches for local time in Tokyo . . . that would be 5:45 AM Tuesday.  Weather there today will be sunny and 25 degrees Celsius.  OK . . . tomorrow . . .  right now?!

An hour after take-off, attendants served a hot lunch (beef or chicken, of course) and, if you were savvy enough to ask, complimentary wine. A disembodied voice said we would have another snack lunch 90 minutes before landing at Narita.   I tuned into Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy as each seat has individual monitors with on-demand movies, TV, music, games . . .  anything to keep the sardines quiet and packed in.

By late afternoon (Phoenix Monday), the cabin lights dimmed to dark, and we were all supposed to sleep, I guess.  I took Tylenol PM and tried to doze . . .  but not really.  Most monitors flickered movies in the dark, so I wasn’t the only one with trouble sleeping.  Some hours later (3, 6, 9 . . . who could tell in the dark), attendants showed up again with a beverage cart and chips, pretzels, cookie, and a miniature Kit-Kat.  Thinking we must be 90 minutes to landing, I tried to rouse myself and eat all those carbs . . . grumbling silently about United’s cheap lunch.  Turned on Tinker, Tailor again . . . but then we sank into darkness again.  Finally after 2 or 8 more hours (who knows in the Twilight Zone?), the lights came up bright, and the voice offered a lunch of vegetarian noodles with pot stickers or a turkey sub sandwich before landing at Narita in another 90 minutes.

By the time we landed in Tokyo, I had lost all sense of day or night, right or wrong.   All I knew was Flight Three was some hours away, it was Air Japan (ANA), and I didn’t have a boarding pass.  Standing in the middle of an intersection, I tried to get my bearings and read Japanese.  Narita’s departure board flashed continually, alternately languages—Japanese, English, Mandarin, other mystery langugues—pausing only a few seconds on each. 

After staring at it for many minutes, I gave up and headed for United Connections where people were getting boarding passes right and left.

Polite Japanese Girl:  Ah yes, your flight has a UA codeshare number.  But I cannot give you a boarding pass.  Please get your seat assignment from ANA.  (Studying her screen) Your flight will leave from Gate 58 at 17:45.   But (looking at watch) they won’t be there yet.

Me:  I think I have a seat assignment; I just need a boarding pass.  Does ANA have a connection counter?

Polite Japanese Girl:  Ah, yes.  Go toward Gate 50 (pointing down one of the hallways), and you will see ANA connection counter.

We concluded with some head bowing back and forth.   In a slight haze, I passed bright lights, glitzy duty-free shops, people wearing white face masks.  Signs featured Japanese characters, and some had smaller English beneath.  No signs read To ANA→ and no arrows pointed to “ANA Connection Counter,” but I had faith.

Sure enough, soon another smiling, bowing Japanese girl took my passport and paperwork, and I was in business!

Me:  Do I have a good seat?

Smiling ANA agent:  Ah, let me look.  Row 18 G.  The airplane has 2 seats and 3 seats and 2 seats (shows me with her fingers).  That is a window seat.

Me:  Yes, thank you.  That is a good seat!

Smiling ANA agent:  Ah, yes please.  You are invited to ANA lounge. (The invitation actually appeared on my boarding pass!) Up this escalator, please. More head bowing.

Snacks in the ANA lounge were decidedly Japanese, and I had time for Miso soup, rice cake, and a glass of white wine . . . thankfully, universal.  The lounge toilet had electronic controls alongside a gently heated seat, and surprising water sprayers somewhere that gets your attention!  Boarding started at 17: 10, so I kept close check on my watch, finger counting to keep track of when to set off for the gate.

By 17:30 (ah, but what day is this?), I contorted into my narrow window seat designed for little people, next to a nice Japanese businessman who was headed to Singapore where he also lives.  We chatted, and he lent me his pen to fill out an immigration card the attendants had passed out.  We had dinner (beef and complimentary red wine), and this time I slept on and off through my on-demand movie, BIG.  (I never did find out if Tom Hanks finally returns to his preteen body!)  As I leaned against the window dozing on this 7-hour flight, I thought of something the Japanese businessman had said:

Me:  Do we have to fill out this form if we have a permanent pass like a DP? (I show my Dependent Pass.)

Man:  I don’t have one of those, but I fill out form just in case.

Me:  But you have an EP—Employment Pass—right?

Man:  Yes, I have EP, but I want one of those (pointing to my DP pass with a laugh)—someone to come home to.

Me:  You’re probably just working too much.  Do you want me to fix you up with someone?

Later, as we exited the ANA gate to a line of bowing flight crew, it dawned on me.  Sure I had my own DP in hand, but I also had a living EP holder waiting at home for me.  Lugging three heavy suitcases and laptop around didn’t matter.  Twenty-four hours cramped in the uncertain twilight zone of airports and airplanes didn’t matter.

All unpleasantness vanished after midnight when I saw Mike waving to me through a glass wall at Changi International in Singapore.  I was home . . . so eager to see him . . . and his treasures from Chiang Mai.

There are three things that I never thought I would do in this life: jump out of an airplane and hope that my parachute would open; jump off a bridge and hope that the bungee cords won’t break; ride a motorcycle through traffic anywhere in Thailand.  I guess I’m now down to two.

I walked out of the antique store and met the motorcycle.  And twenty-year old driver.  I wasn’t sure exactly what was the proper etiquette for this.  “Hi.  Nice looking bike,” didn’t exactly capture the moment. “How fast does this thing go?” seemed to be suggestive in the wrong direction. I probably just looked stunned – is this really happening?  But, safety first, they handed me a helmet.  Ha! Safety first, I would have turned around and walked straight back into that shop.  I got on, the engine roared, and we launched into one of the non-existent spaces in the continuous stream of traffic.

How much clearance is there on a motorcycle? After my foot rubbed against a neighbor car, I couldn’t even bear to think how far out my knees were flying.  On the way to the hotel, we picked our way through traffic, dodged a couple of cars that unexpectedly pulled out in front of us, leaned our way through turns (left, right, and U) at full speed, and I had to shout and point directions.  It’s times like this when its wonderful to have training in improvisational theater.  When you don’t know what you’re doing, when you have absolutely no idea of what’s coming next, when your guts are trying to decide whether to turn to ice or explode, that’s when you paste a grin on your face, hope you don’t catch too many bugs, and enjoy the ride. Whew!

We got to the hotel without incident, and I hopped off the motorcycle, praying to any god that would listen that my knees would not turn to water and buckle.  I ran up the stairs, stuffed my passport into a pocket, snapped the pocket shut, and

… thought about it. There were two choices: take the return ride, or hire a tuk-tuk.  I’m not sure I would say that I really enjoyed the ride, but it didn’t scare me completely silly, either.  Tough decision.  I buckled my helmet on my head and hopped on.  We instantly dived into the street traffic, unfortunately going down the wrong street. Quick U-turn, quick left turn, and we were headed back.

There are times when it is good to follow the Buddhist precept of non-attachment and seeing through the curtain of maya.  In this case, it just meant not holding onto the fear and taking the ride for what it was.  Five minutes later, we were threading through the same traffic-choked, shop-lined lane, and two minutes after that, we were filling out the Buddha paperwork, passport in hand.

Motorcycle in Thailand.  It wasn’t on my bucket list before, and now I’ll add it and quickly cross it off.  Been there, done that, don’t need to try again.

For my celebration dinner (celebrating being alive!), I went to the same neighborhood restaurant to return the umbrella, and to sit with a large beer and my open notebook, in the open, across the street from a beautiful temple, watching the traffic and channeling Hemingway.  This would have been his kind of place.  Cheap, friendly, exotic, exciting even if all the tigers are long gone. I started thinking this might really be a good writer’s place.  Good food, friendly people, lots of stories to see and tell.  As I wrote, slowly drifting into a reverie of words, the wind began to blow.  The sky darkened.  That old tap-tap-tap on the awning began, and then the rain came down like thunder, lit by stroke after stroke of lightning. At the restaurant, the girls hustled to tie down the awnings and to keep the settings from blowing off the table. The lights flickered.

“Don’t worry.  We have candles.” As if a candle would stay lit in this weather. One of the girls was completely soaked, but still smiling. And then the other side of the street went completely dark. “Happens all the time. No problem.”

Well, maybe a little problem.  This was supposed to be the night when I picked up my jacket, or had a fitting for any final adjustments.  Not only was the street dark and flooded, but it was still raining like crazy.

“Could I borrow your umbrella again?”

“We gonna call you Rain Man.”

After 20 minutes searching for a way to cross the street to the tailor, I finally rolled up my cuffs and sloshed. The tailor was happy to show me the jacket by candle light, but we agreed that an inspection in the next day’s light might be a better idea.

And then, back to the Night Market. I had had my eye on a particularly lovely carved wooden reclining Buddha, but I finally decided against it in view of the risk in taking it with me.  Had it been seized at the airport, I would have been heartbroken to leave without it. My consolation was the very nice bronze reproduction I’d earned after my motorcycle adventure. There was, however, a particularly iconic Thai painted word figure of …well, it’s hard to describe.  “Thai girl riding a bird while holding a lotus” is pretty accurate, but it doesn’t convey a very good sense of the figure.  I’m still not sure how I will ultimately get these treasures home to Arizona, but I’m sure enjoying the search for them.

One more tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel, where the lights were back. I immediately fell into a deeply satisfying sleep and was surprised when the alarm rang 8 hours later.