Archive for June, 2009

London Bells

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

What do a Broadway play, Jonny Depp, and Venus Williams, and Bruce Springsteen have in common? London!

Though getting here on British Airways was about as excruciatingly painful as any plane flight I’ve ever had, now that I am here, It is a blast.

I was stuck next to a middle aged Albanian man on the plane that reeked of cigarettes for 10 hours.  My movie screen regularly blinked and blacked out for minutes on end.  There were literally 15 children on the flight.  But the Albanian, by far, was my greatest foe.  He was a short man who chose to sit in his seat with an artificially wide stance.  Making sure that his arms spilled over the imaginary barrier of decency.  I wanted to tell him that he wasn’t fooling anyone, and I wasn’t trying to have a show down with him for planes most macho man.  I also wanted to stab him in the neck with a pencil because every time he breathed, I tasted his rotten mouth.

I wasn’t ready for how curious the English, but was more than pleasantly surprised.  All I have ever heard about the English in recent years is how they Kill each other at Football games and how relentless Pikes can be.  I guess the reason I have been hearing all the bad press is it is more interesting than the age old (after they got over the whole imperialism stage) standard of courtesy and manors. This combined with coming from China lead to a feeling of home.

Even though London is a lot different than home for me, it is so much more familiar than China that I must be at Christmas Eve dinner with the whole family.

I was warned that London is one of the most international towns in the world and every time I would think of America’s identity being a melting pot.  But I have to say that this place crushes America in the melting pot department.  On the bus you can hear people speaking a whole slew of languages.  Outside of the Bruce Springsteen concert that I went to, there were 5 different groups of people preaching their beleifes to the passer byers.

I know it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but since I have been here, I have been sneezing like it is the middle of spring.  This place has so much pollen at the moment, and the sun is out in full force.

Yesterday, I went to Wimbledon in full English fashion and sat in the most beautifully orchestrated line for 3 hours.  Once inside, I ate strawberries and crème and watched some of the professionals play ball under the 85 degree heat.  I don’t even like tennis, but I though, “What better way to experience a country then by attending one of their major sporting events?”  It was as classy as you would imagine it, and now I can rub it in all the old men’s faces that I’ve been there.  We had, of course, peasant’s tickets so we couldn’t watch any of the main events like Venus Williams, or that Fedderer guy.  But we were able to get very close to some of the lesser know players.

That night we went to a surprisingly contemporary play by the name of “Avenue Q” which addressed all of the the everyday problems that a 20 something year old might have.  The medium were Muppet characters and the message was right on.  I endorse this play!  But before we made it to the play we stumbled upon Jonny Depp’s red carpet event of “Public Enemies” in Westminster.  I thought to myself, “Wow, everything is happening all at once in this town.”

All in all it has been a great first 36 hours here.  Today I am going to take a walk down the famous spots in the city.  Should be a blast.

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Before You Go to China

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

You might want to know a few things:
#1 Public transportation in the Major Cities is good, not great.

In the major cities there is USUALLY enough English in the ticketing systems and maps that you can get around without even having to ask.  There are often, but not always, announcements in English while on the subways and buses.

#2 Public transportation is nearly free.

Most Buses are 15-30 cents.  Most Subways are 30-50 cents.

#3 Taxis are not that bad

Most Taxis start at 1.5 bucks and you can pretty damn far on 5 bucks.Only take metered ones or you will pay 4-5 times as much as you should

#4 Food can be good or really bad.

Most people freak out about food in developing nations for no good reason.  For instance, the street food in Thailand might be feared by someone who has never been there, but it’s actually amazing.  The food in China is a different story.  Usually if you are going to get a skewer or something, It is going to be mostly fat.  I don’t mean fatty meat.  I mean chunks of Fat.

In the restaurants, food is can have some bold and edgy titles.  Including dog.  Stay away from the dog you heartless bastards! (I’m talking to you)

Wonton soup can be served in a tasteless oily broth, or a tasty one.  It’s really a gamble unfortunately.

#5 You are paying too much!

It doesn’t matter how cheap it seems.  You are paying a premium because you are foreign and they think you are stupid.  So, in China, when people try and rip you off at normal restaurants, they just recklessly ask for a higher number than the total bill is.  If you call them on it, they seem to just piece something together on the spot (another insult to your intelligence).

I had a peaking duck (which is the best meal in China by far, by the way) that they charged me 30% extra for no reason.  Then when we called them out on it, they pointed to the plates that were still shrink wrapped.  Then when we laughed they tried to claim that the duck was more than it was.  We told them to go get the menu and we pointed it out.  They laughed and tried to bargain for just a 15% rip off.  This is all happening in a restaurant by the way.

There are two ways that a new person to China can deal with this: forget about it and just take the rip off or fight them on it (losing your temper).  The sign of a person who has assimilated with the culture is the person who calls them out on the bill, but still doesn’t take it personally.  Something I never mastered in my two weeks here.

#6 Prepare to be nickeled and dimed

Even museums will charge extra for passing the first 100 feet into the damn thing.  They will charge you per camera when you store a bag in mandatory bag storage.  You get the sense that the country is very petty.

#7 It’s hot as balls here

Right now it is 104-109 degrees here on a hot day.  The heat is arresting and when there is a breeze, it feels like a hair dryer in your face.  On one of the hotter days, I drank 4.5 liters of water and only peed about a thimble full of what looked like coca cola at the very end of the day!

There were 3 days strait that I didn’t even really use the bathroom.  That’s weird.

#8 It’s really safe here

For as many death stares as I received, no one ever gave me a physical hassle.  And for as much as these people enjoy screaming at each other, I never saw anything that came remotely close to a fight.  They are all bark over here.

#9 People spit everywhere

I mean Everywhere.  In restaurants, Malls, you name it, there will be a huge hock followed by a huger spit. Male and female; this is one of those places that you really shouldn’t sit on the ground.

While I’m at it, I’ll do my trusty Japan was; China is.

I can sum it up in two statements:

Japan was the most beautiful culture I have ever seen.  China was not.

I’m off to London tomorrow morning to meet up with some friends that I have met along the way in my travels.  Then it is off to Ireland and then Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary………. you get the picture.

In a few weeks time, things are going to start traveling at the speed of light !

And by things I mean me.

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China is a Triumph

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I’ve had the better part of ten days here and I’ve learned a lot to say the least. In the environment of listening to a book about China and hanging out with some foreigners who have been making an attempt at the language, I have seen that the east really unlocks if you can communicate with the locals. They are thrilled if you even have a 15 word vocabulary.

If you unlock the smile of China, it becomes a quite liveable place. Well, I might be exaggerating a little. Part of the reason that I have such a positive perspective on it recently is because since I’ve been here in Beijing, I’ve been hanging out with a true blond from Holland. The locals are no longer interested in my white skin or brown hair, they are stuck on the lady with the yellow hair!

I haven’t had a single stare since. Back to the anonymous life. But before I met her, I did notice that the stares here in Beijing are usually a lot shorter and a lot more of the kind that say “Hey, you look interesting.” and not the kind that say “listen monster, If you eat my only child, I’ll make you into a tasteless Wanton soup (a common dish).”

Speaking of children, I think it might be worth the trip out here to see them in action. As almost all of us know, there is a cap on the amount of children you are allowed to have here in China, due to a population explosion issue from the communist days where Mao encouraged families to have as many children as possible.

Children here are gods walking down the street. Your only blessing walks down the street holding the hands of both you and your spouse during a much deserved day of rest. Quality time is apparent all around you. Your prized reason to live goes everywhere with you and is spared nothing.

This is a sight to see, but I can’t wait to see what type of society it creates. You know, a society full of only children. This must be a sociologist’s wet dream. Perhaps the biggest inadvertent social experiment of all time.

you can easily walk down the street and see the older children (this one child policy has been around for a while) and they aren’t terrors. It’s just strange to know when you see 5 boys running around, that they represent 5 families and the lucky window of birth that was close in proximity.

But enough about kids, I hate em! Beijing was the first place on my stay in China that I could actually see the sky. As soon as the first sight of blue skys occured, I whiped my camera out. Now I know how the English feel when they sit under a cloud for so long. At least their cloud isn’t made of silt and smog.

I went to Tienanmen Square and the forbidden city the first day I was here and was able to swiftly pass through the touristy areas easily. There were people trying to scam me here as well. This time the scenario was art students who wanted to show off their art with the foreigner. I wanted to turn to them and say “Do you have any Idea how much damage you are doing to your country? You would really run your own name through the mud for a few bucks?” Says the American ….. How ironic?

Speaking of Americans. I saw a huge group of 30 who were following their guide who was holding up the standard “hey idiot, follow the yellow flag so you don’t get lost, or even worse, think for yourself.” You can find a line of people marching behind these types of flags all over China. the tour guide will have a microphone and a hip mounted loud speaker as well. As I saw this scene I flashed back to a backpacker who had said he took a tour through China earlier in his trip because it would have been impossible without a guide. This made me chuckle.

I went through the forbidden city at my own pace. When I found a nice perch, I had a sit (not seat) for about an hour without a care in the world. One other American saw the scene I had created and instantly saw the value. He was here with his wife, the standard retired white legged male with short shorts and cinuey ligaments. His health was somewhat gone, at least not the same as someone in their prime, and this was the precise reason I am here today. His wife quickly got in his face and told him about all the other places they had to see that day. The scene when a little like this.

“What are you doing!?”
“Come on honey, look at this. I just want to soak it in for a while. You know, have a seat for a bit.”
“Well how long is this seat going to take?”
“I don’t know, as long as it takes” (In an inspired tone)
“Well how long is that, we have to get to three more sights today you know!”

And there it was. The man looked back at me but it was too late.

At this point I kept going and ended up meeting the yellow haired girl who would be my buffer and travel buddy for the next few days. She was the ultra independent type who had been on the road for the last 9 months all through Asia. She had met her boyfriend while abroad and adopted his English accent. This threw everyone for a loop when she told people she was from Holland. Normally it would make my head spin as well, but you see weird situations with language while abroad.

I met a couple in my hostel who tipped me off on a truly secret portion of the Great Wall. They gave me some loose directions on which bus to take, travel times, and landmarks for this spot and me and the yellow haired lady thought we would take a crack at it. While other people were paying 50 bucks to go on every tour from the standard “follow the flag” tour to the “secret wall (but really have 100 people there)” tour, we were on a series of public buses following what was little more than a hunch.

The first bus was easy to catch, but the second took over a hour of asking and dumb luck to find, seeing as it was only marked in Chinese characters. The second bus was so local that I thought they might not even tell us when to get off. This lead to a bit of a Great Wall safari. I just had to keep my eyes peeled (hoping it wasn’t bad information we were going off of. For something as big as the great wall, for that moment, it sure seemed illusive.

Finally, after two and a half hours of public transport, the bus driver told us to get off at the next stop and turn right. We could see that the place was being developed into the next big tourist spot, but the large government sign that said “not open to the public. Don’t come any further.” Let us know that we were in the right place. Once we crossed that sign, there was a single man with a metal sign that said 2 quai (30 cents). We happily paid the man 30 cents each and proceeded up the path. eventually we saw the wall and climbed it for the better part of 3 hours without another soul in sight. Well, we met one other lonely traveler from Saint Louis who was out here on a 1 week vacation from his job in South Korea. He made a great addition to the group.

There is nothing like being at one of the 7 wonders of the world without a single tourist or idiot flag in sight. The Great Wall largely made my entire trip worth it, just like the Great Barrier Reef did for me in Australia. Once we got to a pinnacle point, we just attempted to chill out in the high 90 degree weather.

The wall snaked along the mountains with sharp switchbacks in an impossibly illogical design. It was as if the architect wanted to see how many people he could kill in the process of making his masterpiece. All I could think of was how hard it was to even climb this 15 foot high leviathan, let alone build a thousand miles of it. Some portions of the wall might as well have been a ladder they were so steep. But this wall was largely restored. I know that within a year or so, this will be the new big spot where all the tours go. Great timing. I though of how this will be impossible in Roam.

All in all the whole day costed a little more than 5 dollars in public transport. To celebrate, we ate at McDonald’s, somewhere I would never eat at at home. While I sat there eating, I stared at my place mat and sang along with the likes of Averil and Brittany. Chewing my piece of home and listening to the sounds of pop culture, for a moment, I was anywhere. I figured Id give the locals a real reason to stare by singing my heart out. Hell, your only here once.

Later I wondered how many other tours were possible and a world better for a tenth of the price. What other do it yourself situation are right under your nose? This (as it usually tends to do) changed something in me. I though of how I could never travel any other way again, now that I know the secret of how easy it really is. I thought of the fellow traveler who proclaimed China impossible without a guide. I thought of how much richer my life was when standing on that wall alone. How much better off I was, knowing the secret.

For me, China is a triumph.

Great wall

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2099161&id=24501923&l=a913791f23

Beijing

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2099160&id=24501923&l=006acf1bf7

Xian

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2099159&id=24501923&l=2b2d842f4e

Shang Hai

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2099158&id=24501923&l=bab1b155c0

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As the Dust Settles in Xi’An

Friday, June 19th, 2009

I’ve been in China for a little over a week now and I think that it is safe to say that I’ve gotten used to it by now.As much as I tried to deny it, China intimidated me.  It got to me a little and that developed a lens that I’m trying to break as I type.

Objectively speaking, the Chinese are a loud and unpolished people.  That can be seen in how they scream on their Cell phones and spit in the street.  But are they mean?  Are they dishonest?  Or are they just intimidating?

I have to admit that at home when you see someone screaming on their cellphone, you don’t see them as a help resource.  You see them as someone to stay away from.  But if yelling and spitting (just two easy examples) are in the national culture, does it mean that dishonesty and meanness are?

It’s much the same as seeing a man walk down the street in a feminine way and 99% of people assume he is homosexual.  The truth of the matter is, that would probably be the better guess if you we betting money on the situation.  It’s just using indicators.  But it isn’t always accurate.

Also when you see a muscular man try and arm wrestler a professional arm wrestler (often small and wirey), you see the muscular man shamefully defeated.

I walked into a dumpling shop today and the people were completely helpful and didn’t rip me off at all.  I got in and out with a pot of dumplings and a water bottle for less than 1 dollar.  Given, the dumplings in Xi’an have tasted like feet compared to the ones in Shanghai.  Xi’an has one big claim to fame and that is the Terracotta warriors (one hour outside of town).  This site was discovered by a farmer about 40 years ago.  It consists of 3 pits that contain 8000 clay warriors (life sized) to protect the first Emperor of China as he went to the after life.

It is an amazing sight, but if you aren’t an archaeologist, it will soon be shuffled into all of the other exhibits that you have ever seen.  It’s nice, but it’s not the claimed 8th wonder of the world.

Today I was in the Muslim quarter of Xian and it was amazing to get 2 pounds of dried fruit and two pounds of Baklava for only 3 bucks.  That’s amazing!

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They Took Him Away

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

This is, for many reasons as you will soon read, is the post I wished I never had to write. This is the post that in many ways will change or solidify the way you (and I) may see China for years to come. I’d like to first say that when I first got here, many of the travelers seemed hardened, perhaps to a fault.  They would say things like, “Ya, you just got to say Fuck You to these Cab drivers”.  Things like that that made me feel like these travelers were fresh out of the US and didn’t have any international or cultural respect.

I wanted to say they were wrong.  I wanted to prove them wrong when they would make claims about everyone being out to get you in casual conversation.  And lets not forget the awkward hesitation when the subject of national morality arose.  These were the people who had no hesitation about being a hard ass, but when the serious question of morality in a macro level were brought up, they didn’t want to so easily admit their findings.  I along with them, believe in the good in people.

No no, man is not depraved, just mislead.  The good is in all of us, I believe.  I think that people take desperate measures when they are in desperate situations.  That’s how I like to view things at least.

I had balls for lunch.  Wait what?  I took a train to a town called Juan Zoe (spelled wrong) today all by myself.  For what ever reason, I feel really comfortable traveling alone in China.  Anyway, I went into a local restaurant and ordered the only picture of food they had on the menu.  Everything was in Chinese, therefore I couldn’t begin to decipher it.  The picture was of a bowl full of glass noodles and what looked like pork.  What they ended serving me was a bowl with the noodles and what looked like a pork shoulder and what appeared to be one (very large) testicle.  The waitress had a half guilty look on her face.  Believe it or not, I’ve seen what a cross section of what a nut looks like and it isn’t stringy like a muscle.  It’s spongy like fried tofu.  Yikes, why do I know that?  Does this mean I’m not allowed to get married any more?  Far from it my friends, Vermont is a quick flight away (just Kidding, It’s about 5 hours).  Too far? The Joke or the Flight?  Ok, now its dead!

I cut the “nut” in half with my chopsticks and it was not spongy.  Shew!  And it tasted great!  Yuck!  Lets change the subject, shall we?

Time to learn a little about the language.  There are 4 tones in Mandarin.  This means that voice inflection is extremely important in communication in China.  How important you say?  The same word can be said to mean river, drink, and distress.  That’s bad.  in addition, you can just make noises that mean a bunch of different things.  The tea scammers from yesterday were intrigued when I said “uhh hu” and “mmm hmmm” in acknowledgement instead of saying “yes” and “correct” because they were not tout those slang noises, but uses similar ones in everyday life themselves.

Another fun fact is that in China, the months that you are in your mother’s womb are included in your age.  Interesting right ? Not as interesting as me apparently.

While in China, I have noticed that everyone stares at me.  Some people stare like they are about to rob you.  Some stare like you are monster.  And every once in a while, people stare at you like you are a movie star.  I’ll address those three situations now:

On people sizing you up to rob you (remember I still feel really comfortable here alone) There is an exact posture and facial expression to maintain when you feel like the area is dangerous.  On posture: walk like you have a gun in your pocket, better yet an atom bomb (and your not afraid to use it).  This is the same posture as being a drug lord that everyone in town knows not to fuck with.  You wouldn’t bother locking your car doors with this posture, because everyone knows better than to steal from you.  On facial expression: the closest I can say is blank.  Look like you are not looking for trouble.  Look like you are cool as a clam but as alert as a hawk.  All together, walk with an invincibility that simply radiates a humble omnipotence.

That, all of that is what I think of when walking alone in China while everyone stares at me and some follow me.

On people staring at me like I am a monster: Some people will call me a “Quai long” which is word for foreigner which literally translates to strange monster.  I can elaborate on this stare with a funny story today.  In boarding the train back to Shanghai, literally, for 20 minutes, 4 different parties fought about who had to sit next to me.  It made me sad at first but then I found it quite funny.  It started with a Chinese mom and her daughter taking someone elses seat and that set off a chain reaction of 4 different parties bickering.  An old man lost the fight and sat with a body language that would suggest I was a leper.  In Japan, the seats next to me were the last to fill everywhere I went, but no one ever made a scene about it.

On being a movie star: 4 kids were walking across the street today and I oddly understood one word they said “Handsome”.  I thought “That’s funny, wonder if they were talking about me”  and then one of them made their way back to me and said in an embarrassed tone “My sisters think you are a handsome man and would like to take a picture with you.  Is that ok?”  I said, of course!  The perfect confidence booster to make me forget for just a moment that I was a leper here in this strange land.

That was it.  They didn’t steal my wallet or make me pay them.  They were genuine, as far as I could tell.  Then there were the two locals who helped me flag a taxi after they observed me running in circles with no success.  Both of them were genuinely helpful with no expectation of compensation.

Speaking of lines, Chinese lines are the most irritating in the world.  If you are not touching the person ahead of you, people will walk into that small space, right in front of you. “Oh, I didn’t see you in line with the mile of space you left in front of you!”  Once you have made it to the front of the line, two people will side mount you and promptly talk over you.  Are these guys mongrels?  Either way, breaking my personal space bubble in that way is a good way to get popped.  Too bad I fear their Kung Foo Skills.  Bruce Lee is from here you know.  Well, Hong Kong.  Speaking of Chinese enclaves, many of the people staying at the hostel are from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong (who all have ties to China).  All of those people are very nice.  One in fact, came out to dinner with me to help me translate so I could eat authentically.  While out, he ordered a tea and the waiter conspicuously said “who is it for?” as if he was asking the guy if he wanted to rip me off with old overpriced tea scam.

Even the random waiter at the random restaurant was ready to rip me off.  Which leads me to have to really wonder if this was thoroughly ingrained in the culture.  And by the way, the 500 gigabyte thumb drive is a well known scam that has been thoroughly documented on the internet .  Too bad :(

Was it possible that these people were actually depraved?  Were they godless barbarians?  Was this what they meant when they said China would challenge me as a traveler?  I feel that I am being challenged in all the opposite ways that Japan did.

Well I am optimistic, but I want to leave you with this final story for today.  I met a guy who had just arrived in China at my hostel tonight.  He was from England and had been traveling for the past 6 months.  He was very humbled by his last half year. He was only less than a month from going home. He said that someone on his flight was quarantined by the Chinese government because they didn’t pass the temperature test.  He told me how freaky it was to see the men take the other passenger away, but with traveler’s resolve, he didn’t really show how shaken up he really was.

Then, in the middle of his story, 4 men in masks appraoched him and said “It’s time.  Come with us.”  These men were from the quarintine department of China.  He was then escorted away in a van.  I never even cought his name.  Later I found out that he would have been my room mate.  I wasn’t freaked out that he could have possibly spread the disease to me (keep in mind that he was simply on the same plane as someone with a temerature).  I was freaked out that in those few minutes I had made a friend and lost him.  In true backpacker’s speed, he was gone.  In true traveler’s resolve, he never showed how shaken up he must have been.  He just walked down the hall with an invincibility that simply radiates humble omnipotence.

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China Full of Surprises

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Did you hesitate when you heard I was going to China? What was your gut reaction? As much as I try and travel without preconceptions, China definitely came with a anticipated flavour. This place has such a reputation for being a hard place to get around.  A dirty place.  An unsafe place.  A place full of pushy people who are trying to take advantage of you at every corner.  These are all the things that I have heard about China.  A place that doesn’t fuck around.  A place with a standing army in the Millions.  A place that will be the next super power. A place that will challenge you as a traveler.  A place that has questionable moral behaviour.  Even a place that doesn’t have any moral construct that is remotely close to that which we have come accustomed to back in the west.

This is the oldest sovereign nation on the planet.  This place has had many rises to world dominance and many falls.  This is a place that makes nearly everything that we consume.  They have more than 4 times as many people as us.  They invented paper, the printing press, and gun powder.  They were the birthplace of elegant poems and philosophies.  They are a place that kills sharks by the thousands to eat their fins for good health.  They are a place that pollutes their skies to the point that every day is bogged in a thick layer of smog.  The sky is murky.

I was a little jumpy in the Japanese Airport when they were warning passengers to not fly to China if they have a fever because they would be quarantined in China.  It’s so Japan to look out for everyone.

For what ever reason, I was queasy in the airport and felt like I was going to barf.  I don’t think it was nerves, possibly the motion of the subway car on the way to the airport.  Either way, if I showed vomiting symptoms in China, it could be game over.  My number one priority was to mask it to make it look like flying sickness.  I began building the story by asking the flight attendant for some motion sickness pills.  Somehow I made it through the 2.5 hour flight without vomiting.  To my surprise, two Chinese agents boarded the plane directly and began to inspect people.  They were in painter’s overalls, the type of material that breaths, the same that Japanese people wear as face masks.  They also had the face masks and were armed with a laser guided temperature gun (yes, it looked like a hand gun from the future, and yes they point it directly at your forehead).  It was wild to say the least.

If you didn’t pass that test, they would insert a thermometer into your mouth forcefully.  I didn’t pass and the Japanese flight attendants shamefully stud by as their cherished passengers were militarized.  You could see it on their face.  They felt helpless.  They didnt see a need for this.

I passed the thermometer test thankfully.  This really sets the tone for a country.  Unapologetic, do what ever it takes, crack as many eggs as it takes.  The customer is not always right and we do not live to serve you.

Still the most interesting parts were yet to come.  The Shanghai Airport looked closed.  It’s massive columns were all but empty, like the place had been thrown together yesterday and no one has heard about it yet.  The customs agent was completely easy to deal with just as I noticed a large electronic box facing directly at me.  It read “please rate my service” and had 4 buttons ranging from very good to very poor.   What a game changer this little box was.  If the customs agent was mean or indecent, you could just hit the button of your choice as they let you bye.  It wasn’t even facing them.

Next I boarded the MagLev which is officially the fastest train in the world and cost only about 7 bucks to ride.  Short for Magnetic Levitation, this machine travels 270MPH (430km/h) to get you from the airport to the city in a staggering 7 minutes.  It was the perfect way to enter the city that will soon be the centre of the universe.

This city looks like someone got a hold of a shrink ray and reversed the polarity.  The structures that live here are marvels of engineering and design.  Remember the ping pong concentration that the Chinese are so famous for?  The Architects seem to share that innate sense.

These are super high-rises with dangerously provocative sharp edges.  Some buildings look like a space ship standing on its tail.  Some look like they belong in Gothem city.  I live right by the Marriot, a 60 story monument that looks like to belongs in lord of the rings.  It seriously looks like it is going to jump you to a new dimension or blow up a star.  Where 4 sharp edges meet, there is a light that looks suspended in the air, like a evil crystal.

The streets here are surprisingly clean, despite the culturally acceptable hocking and spitting while walking down the street.  The people push vigorously to get onto the subway instead of patiently and curiously waiting at the side like the Japanese.  The people are loud and boastful, making eye contact if not blatantly staring at you.  When the doors close in the subway, a sound more akin to a fire alarm goes off instead of the Japanese tunes that I grew to love so much.

The people here are still helpful, but also looking to take advantage of you.  The streets are completely safe, especially for foreigners in terms of violent crimes or pickpocketing.  If you are going to get robbed here, its just because you paid too much.

The cab driver from the train station wanted 5 times as much for the short cab ride as I paid for the Train Ride.  I told him that he was crazy and eventually we settled for 3 times as much, only ripping me off by 300%.  Either way, this was my first day in a new country.  My rule is, I am fine with taking a rip during the first day, the damage is controlled and I can handle it.  But tomorrow, there will be a new street wise.

China seems to be an inconsistent nation.  Where as everything was important to the Japanese, the Chinese seem to ignore big pieces of the puzzle and perfect others.  An example of this is in the subway where there are giant plasma screens hanging down from unfinished ceilings.  Power cords hang in-front of the screens partially.  China seems to be a rushed empire.  Skipping the steps in-between, the profisizers who claim that China may terribly fail at this attempt of world super power appear to be right.  I call it reckless ambition.  Like taking a company from 3 employees to 12000 in one year.  They seem to be moving forward at such a rate, that they never plan to look back even a day.

This, as you can imagine, is increadibly exciting witness.  You can feel the resources being consumed.  It’s a lot like if Las Vegas was not just a strip and more of a 200 mile radius.

It’s not that cheap either.  Well, I guess it’s what you make it.  Today I had a fine pasta with marinara sauce that was top 5 I’ve ever had.  It ran me back about 13 bucks.  Tonight I had Brazilian Barbecue with ended up being 20 bucks.  But my hostel is only 8 bucks a night.  Go figure.

Who have I met so far?  Some Spanish people, a Brazilian, and an Italian.  Oh and lets not forget the three Chinese people visiting the city from a city about 3 hours away.  They just bumped into me in the park and took me under their wing for the better part of the day.  Teaching me Chinese and showing me the sights.  They also complied a list of must see places in China.  They talked my ears off, showing off their proficiency in English.

They invited me to try some traditional teas out and I agreed to come. The teas were expensive, about 8 bucks a go, but I though who cares, I’m only hear once, and I was being so entertained by them that I didn’t mind being ripped off.  They were all paying just as much too after all.  Well, after a bunch of teas, we got the bill and the girls of the group tried to get me to pay for their purchased teas which amounted to 110 bucks (the teas that they would take home) and the male of the locals would pay for all the tea tastings which amounted to over 150.  I hesitated and they said why don’t we just split everything 4 ways which ended up being 70 bucks.  I felt raped, but it sure was fun.  Did I just say that?  But this was fine, it was all part of my first day in the country, my screw up day.

That night, a man in the hostel told me about the expensive tea scam that he had read in his lonely planet book.  I’d like to think that it wasn’t a complete scam, seeing as they exchanged email with me, and didn’t try and ditch me after.  They all paid as well (easily staged admit ably).  The real part that makes me wonder is that they warned me when it got a little expensive. “Do you want to stop now?  We have tried quite a few teas.”  They also insisted in giving me some teas since They had purchased some themselves and we split the bill 4 ways.  Who am I kidding, I got ripped off royally.  Ignorance is a bliss that I don’t often have the luxury of and it was a nice change.

Next I went for a wonder and found a back alley store that has 500 gig thumb drives.  I’ve been hopefully searching for these on my trip the whole time since I knew this technology is scheduled to hit the market in 2009.  This is nano technology that has the capacity to fit 2 terabites in a thumb drive (that’s 2000 gigs).  The price for 500 gigs in a thumb drive is 25 bucks.

………Wait for it………

I’ll now be taking orders.  I’ll start the bidding on these little devices for 100 bucks a piece, and that’s still probably 4 times cheaper than they will be when they hit America next year.  That is, of course, if it is actually true.  If they actually have the technology yet.

They said it was out in Japan and I could check.  “it just came out”  I replied with, I was in Japan This morning, Its not out.

There is a roomer that they have a software implanted in the thumb drive to fool your computer into thinking that it is 500 gigs when in reality it is only 1 gig.  I will put it to the test soon enough.

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My Heart Might Stay

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

On this final day, I fear goodbye.  This land of gold they call Japan.  I’ve met the best people and eaten the best food,  but the best thing about Japan may have been how random things can be here.  How you can point your walking feet in a direction and be guaranteed a story that you will remember for a lifetime.  Not a story of trial or tribulation, or violence or heartache.  A story of random acts of kindness; a story of how everything is important in this land and therefore everything is done with the highest level of precision and care.

This is a land of stories where people didn’t just have great ideas, they did great things.  This is a place where ones quality of life is always a stronger contingency than the necessary investment to get there.  These are a people who are kind and polite, yet excited and enthusiastic about just about everything.

Japan is the place that will make you question your own motivations.

It has been a while since an update, due to my recent website difficulties, so I have alot to cover.  I met up with my London friends in Osaka and we shared an amazing night of Karaoke!  The Tunes I rocked were of course strait out of Whitney Huston and Phill Collins.  Don’t forget Weezer’s “del Scorcho” which is a song about a Japanese fan of the band.  Singing that in Japan made me take a step back and pinch myself.  “Oh My God, I’m in Japan!”

Next I came back to Tokyo to meet up with the three photographers from Melbourne.  They were eager to reunite like old friends.  The day before I met up with them, I cut strait through the greater Tokyo area on foot.  This is the best way to get to know a city.  As you all know by know, I don’t have a sense of direction, but that isn’t an issue when you are having a wonder.

As soon as you are looking for something specific, you are lost.

It took me 4 hours to cut across the city and in doing so, I stumbled upon the royal palace that sits in the heart of the city. This is a picturesque place that is really quite famous for photography.

Next I found a giant tower that must have been 50 stories high just outside of the city.  I found it just as the sun was going down and decided to get to the bottom of this misery tower the next day.  I was beat, but excited for what the next day would bring.

The Next day, I met up with the Aussies and took them to the tower.  We went into the adjacent building and prodded some employees for some answers.  They all said that it was a tower where they burn trash. You heard it here first, that answer is bullshit, and I’m going to blow the lid off of this cover up.  They have to have some sort of time portal in there.  I swear.

Later that day, we went to see a band play some instrumental music sets.  The band was all business.  Very Well behaved and concentrated on the music more than the obligatory head bang.  The audience was just as well behaved.  I know it wasn’t a hard core show, but their last song definitely warranted some rocking by the crowd and I don’t think anyone broke a sweat.

On the way to the venue, we witnessed a man throwing up, silently, into a clear plastic bag.  I was amazed.  I didn’t think it was even possible to do that silently.  Speaking of strange behaviors, I’ve seen sever women fall on the escalator during my time in Japan and each time, people just get out of the girl’s way.  They don’t step on here, but they definitely leave it to themselves to get back up.  These are clumsy little falls, not the type that break your hip, but i am still surprised.  I think its a issue of not touching each other.

Next we went out for a night on the town and tried to find a club that would meet our tastes.  All of the subways and trains close at 1am so we were stuck walking for about an hour before we got to the place we desired.  On the way, though, we found some super amazing things.  We found a bar that was on a cart (like a coffee stand) that just had a few candles, a boom box, and some drinks on it.  There were only 3 people there.  It must have been the bar tender/owner and his wife and friend.

We really had to pee and found some bushes.  Those bushes ended up being something special because we had to have ninja like skills to avoid all of the cops that swarmed the area as soon as the first one radioed us in.  Somehow, we emerged without a scratch.

They were really nice (of course) so we hung out with them for a bit.  Next we got to Repungee (spelled wrong) which is a major westerner hang out.  We went into a club and began to observe the exception to the rule.  The only place that people are not absolutely perfectly behaved is in the club.  Quite literally, guys were grabbing girls by the arms and forcefully pulling them in for a dance.  This was not my style at all, but the girls didn’t seem to mind.  They seemed to take it was a show of the man’s machismo.

I watched it for about a half an hour and finally said “Fuck it, when in roam, right?”

One girl walks by and I reach my arm out like a draw bridge and she walks through it like a turn style.  Ha Ha, who was I to think I could be that aggressive.  It was like when I failed in asking someone for directions just 5 hours earlier in the streets.  I was a great laugh, but not the place for me.

We left the club at 4 am to a bright twilight.  we continued to sit at the corner and watch the show until about 6:30am.  The city never slept, never even skipped a beat.  There were a bunch of African immigrants, mingling with middle eastern immigrants on account of their similar religious views.  There were a few rare overweight Japanese girls dressed and speaking like Latina gangsters hanging out with the Africans.  It was truly an amazing sight.

I realize already that I am going to miss this place dearly.

China is my next stop on the old trip.  It should be a perfect proving ground for contrasts to this phenomenal land.

It`s on

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2098124&id=24501923&l=ebc2c1ea7d

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2097857&id=24501923&l=7b14385d53

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Back in Black

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

Sorry everybody.  Some technical issues, but I will be back in action in Just a Bit!

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On a Bike

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

It`s the best way to see Kyoto.  I really love it.  I met 3 guys from Melbourne (who new Aussies could be so much fun, JK).  Sorry, I`m in a funky mood because at the moment that I am writing this post, I m surrounded by a bunch of snobs in an Osaka hostel.  From every nation it feels like, none of these guys get a drop of my humor.  It`s ok.  The streak of amazing travel buddies in Japan can`t last forever. 

But seriously, one half raw octopus, one half yellow watermelon, and one liter of Orange Juice.  That would be my dinner tonight.  Funky, but I`m in Osaka, the funky capital of Japan.  Already I can see that more people are making eye contact here.  It was a short Rail ride from Kyoto and I am here. 

Apologies if this is harder to follow than usual. 

Since I`ve been in Japan, I`ve met a ton of Awesome Aussies.  All of them happen to have been from Melbourne.  Three of them are photographers who I rode bikes with (in Kyoto) for the better part of two days.  We went to a ton to temples and they got all of my sarcasm to a tee.  We even had a language of discrete rings of our bells when riding our bikes and seeing beautiful locals.  It was amazing because each one of our bells was a slightly different tone, so when there was a beautiful girl that we all agreed on, it made a sort of song. 

 At about 5pm the locals came out in force and we were practically ringing our bells non stop.  It didn’t stop there though, when we were on foot, we would just say “Bing” or “ring” when we walked by beautiful girls.  Boys being boys:)

I spent two days with three guys who might as well be from my home town.  We got each-others humor nearly flawlessly and now I`m in a hostel were the best complement that I have received was from a east coast Aussie, and It was backhanded :)

It`s alright though, because I am already going to meet up with two Londoners who I had previously met in Tokyo. 

I`ve got something to say about hostels in Japan.  They don’t consider skimping on any amenities.  All of the ones that I`ve been to assume a certain standard of living (which is very good).  They all would be rated as a top level hostel by international standards and they are all concerned with the well-being of the guest.  I talked to a local girl who was working at the one in Kyoto and she said that its just the hospitality that Japanese people have.  Half assing anything is just not acceptable. 

Japan for me feels like a regular 2 week vacation.  I am dreading the end of it almost every day.  But the rest of the day is filled with awesome people, foreign and local, fantastic food, and beautiful scenery. 

In the wake of their culture, the beautiful land scape and architecture seem trivial. 

I love Japan!

 

 

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Now, Life is Living You

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Kyoto is Japan`s old capital. It is a mash up between the old world and the new. The city is beaded with temples that are in many cases over a thousand years old. Here`s the wild part, you might see the most incredible temple with a moat filled with coy fish and a crane walking through it, only to find a main street next to it. Ok, that was a run on, but what I am trying to say is that the old world and the new world live hand in hand in each other`s midsts. Only Japan is a polite enough country to accept the two conflicting worlds.

More on the politeness of this nation; I got to speak to a bilingual local about how helpful everyone is and how clean the place is. He said that its more or less in their religion to put yourself in someone else`s shoes when they ask for help. How could I forget? Japan is largely a Buddhist nation. But in addition, they have the local religion of Shinto, which is something new to me. I asked him why there was no crime. I remarked how the ATMs have a maximum of $10K USD that you can take out of them. I said, this is the only country that I would actually feel safe carrying that much money on me. He said that it`s not that it isn`t tempting, Its that people don`t want to lose everything over a few bucks.

He said that if you get caught for robbery, It`s 5 years in prison and you pretty much lose your job and family after that. People`s whole life is over if they commit a crime. The same is true in America, but usually the people who steal are the ones who don`t have much of a life in the first place. So success is the durant of crime? Sounds about right. How does every one get into that spot though?

This is the first place I have been that I could actually see myself living in. Such an amazing culture that I can so obviously see how much I have to learn from. Such a pleasant place to be as well. My endorsement to everyone reading is: if you want to see a place with beautiful nature that is easy to travel in, go to New Zealand. If you want to go to a place with beautiful culture that is easy to travel in, go to Japan.

Getting to Kyoto via overnight bus, I was able to save money on that night`s accommodation. Even though I swore off overnight buses, I was luckily enough to get a spot with an empty seat next to it. I was able to get some sleep while sticking my feet on the ceiling of the bus and in a bunch of different funky positions. The rest stop was spotless and had a vending machine at the cafeteria instead of a waiter. It was amazing for efficiency but a real job killer in western eyes. You get green tea served with every meal and it actually tastes good with the given meal. Real green tea alone tastes like pond scum. But some how, heat that shit up and it goes very well with all Japanese food. I don`t even like regular tea at home, but this stuff is great, as long as it is hot. Some places serve it chilled and it is almost unbearable.

Kyoto station is incredibly huge. Inside is a full mall and underground is one of the coolest fish market cafeterias Ive ever seen. Well, Its the only one Ive seen, but still amazing. Here you can just get as much octopus as you can handle along with everything else that is customary to make in Japan. This station is so big though, that I failed in getting from one side to the next 5 times. Literally, it was an uncrossable object. It kept spitting me out on the side I started. I was forced to walk around it, and if you could see how big this thing is, you would wince!

I found out why the cities are so clean though, they are cleaned by an army of government employees over 3 shifts during the day and night. This place is Disney Land clean.

Wondering down the streets of Kyoto, I stumbled upon the largest wooden structure in the world. It is a castle/temple that is findable by just strolling down one of the major streets. It was earth shatteringly large. And empty, which is why I like to travel without tour groups. I was able to find it as a mistake. I was able to feel like I was the first to discover it. This is why I don`t read guide books. Because I can form my own opinions about things as they come, not what some Ivy league educated Journalist thinks of the place.

One this major structure was a sign that read “Now, Life is Living You”. And I thought about it, and thought about it. What does that mean anyway? Does it mean that we aren’t in control after all? Does it mean that there is a great power that is playing with us like a bunch of chess pieces? Just think about it.

Does it mean that “Now” is for life and not us and that the only thing that we get a crack at is interpreting the past and obsessing about the future? Does it imply that “Now” is something that we have no control over and we might as well enjoy the ride?

I travel alone and largely ignorant, making my own conclusions of where I am by being there. I don’t read the guide books. I don’t pre book my accommodations. And I don’t take guided tours. Is that something like the statement?

Here are a few sets of photos that I owe everyone:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2097279&id=24501923&l=99c4d023c0

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2097278&id=24501923&l=1a1fff879b

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2097277&id=24501923&l=b8123f0497

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