Thursday, December 30, 2004

Hong Kong, Part I

[New photo album: Hong Kong]

I already know this is going to be another multi-part city...we spent almost as much time in Hong Kong as we did in Beijing. After spending way too much time at the airport in Guilin, we arrived in Hong Kong after dark. Hong Kong doesn't use Kai Tak airport much anymore, which is a shame because it's right in the middle of the city. Literally. Find a National Geographic from 5-10 years ago or so and you're likely to find a picture of a 747 descending into the skyscrapers. I'm sure this was fun for both the occupants of the buildings 10 yards away from the wingtips as well as the passengers. The new Hong Kong airport is about 30 minutes outside the city and is built on reclaimed land, meaning garbage. Hong Kong is a strange city- half of it is built on the mainland (though not technically "mainland China") and the other half is on an island that juts up rather sharply from the water. [There are a couple other islands that make up the greater metro area. Macao, also recently reverted to China from Portugal, is about 30 minutes away by high-speed ferry.] Now ask yourself, given the choice of building skyscrapers on the relatively flat mainland peninsula or the inclined hillside of the island, which would you choose?

We stayed at the JW Marriott, a fantastically beautiful hotel on the island with easy access to dining, shopping, and the metro. Hong Kong, unlike the other cities we've seen so far, actually has a pretty useful subway system with several lines snaking through both the mainland and the island and even tunnelling under the world's busiest natural deepwater port. In addition to the metro, taxis are abundant and the Star Ferry is still in operation carrying thousands of people each day on the 5-minute ride across Victoria Harbor for less than US$1 each. The native language is Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin in the People's Republic) but English is abundant here, owing to both the amount of western business conducted here and the fact that it was officially a British colony until 1997. Cantonese and Mandarin are close enough alike that your "Please" and "Thank You" will still work here, but you'll probably need to update your swearword flashcards. The official currency is the Hong Kong dollar which floats on international currency markets but is worth roughly the same as RMB (US$1 ~ HKD$8).

Day 1-
We set out walking from the hotel to the lower terminus of the funicular that would take us to Victoria Peak. Quite by accident we walked through Hong Kong Park and into a free aviary with a couple dozen exotic species free-flying inside the dome. The Peak Tram station was nearby so we rode to the top of the hill. My guidebook reminds me that Victoria Peak is about 1300 feet, which doesn't sound like all that much, but the view (if you're fortunate enough to be there on a clear day) is really something and the weather is much cooler (if you're unfortunate enough to be there in June).

On the way down we visited Flagstaff House a beautiful Victorian mansion turned into a tea musuem. The classic white columns make a beautiful setting for wedding photos and sure enough, we saw several couples in taffeta and tails. We crossed the harbor on the Star Ferry and spent the last couple hours at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. This is an unparalleled collection of ancient, classic, and modern art and artifacts from all over China. One of the best exhibits is the chinese calligraphy that, although utilitarian in nature, is truly an art form. I admit I didn't really appreciate calligraphy before seeing this exhibit and afterwards I can really see it for the art that it is. Like medieval illumination, it's hard to imagine so much effort going into writing and the level of perfection attainable. It's a good thing most of my communication is done via keyboard, 'cause ain't no one putting my chicken-scratch handwriting in a museum.

[Next: Take-your-pet-to-work day]

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Paradise Regained

[When we last saw our intrepid explorer, he had bicycled across the surface of the sun...]

I soaked in cold water for awhile back at the hotel to get my body temperature out of triple digits and finally ventured back to West street to find a little dinner around 9pm or so. I picked a place that smelled pretty good and had at least a little air-conditioning. That's where I met Emily. She was a waitress at the Mei You Cafe and when I couldn't decide between duck or pizza (aside: I know they're very dissimilar, but my brain was fried) she recommended the cashew-chicken. (aside: Sorry Heather, I love it.) The place was dead, so she came and sat with me for a bit while I ate, getting up every once in a while so her boss didn't get angry.

Let me digress a moment to discuss oral hygiene. My teeth aren't perfect despite nearly 4 years of orthodontics and, being a tea-drinking southerner, they're not sparkling white. Still, I brush regularly and don't have a problem showing my teeth when I smile. Chinese teeth, on the other hand, are much more utilitarian in nature. In general, they are dingy, worn, snaggly things better left to your imagination than actually seen. I know, I know, it's terribly ethnocentric of me to even mention it, but I'm not saying they're bad people because of their teeth. On more than one occasion I saw a pretty chinese girl who, after smiling back at me, inspired the thought- to paraphrase another popular guy thought- I wouldn't kiss her with your mouth.

Emily's teeth were perfect, straight and shiny. It's funny how you notice the little things. She spoke decent English, having gone to classes, but she's the epitome of small town girl. We talked for several hours and I had to keep my sarcasm in check, since I quickly learned it doesn't translate very well. We exchanged email addresses and occasionally chat via IM, although it's difficult with a 14-hour time difference. (aside: The 1st Yangshuo entry took me nearly 2 hours, since I was chatting with her at the same time.) Her parents are pomelo farmers an hour outside of town and she's socially obligated to send money home to her little brother. She's a beautiful girl, and since I love the "Eww, Mister" response, I'll tell you she's only 18. With barely an 8th grade education, I really don't see much future there, though she always asks when I'm coming back to Yangshuo.

Day 2-
Yangshuo is almost entirely supported by tourism, and wherever there are tourists there are junk stalls. We spent the morning looking at t-shirts and knick-knacks then stopped at a cafe along the Yu Long river that runs through town to sample the local delicacy: River snails. I've never had escargots, so I can't compare, but these were a lot like garlic-butter sautéed calamari. Oh yeah, there was the egg-sac. I don't know if it was the time of year, but the snails were with child. A thin membrane concealed a dozen or so tiny snail-lets with crunchy little shells.

While sitting in the cafe we got to see one of the local fishermen paddling up the river with his cormorant on the back of his raft. For those who aren't familiar, the traditional fishermen of this part of China are fascinating. They raise and train cormorants to do the fishing for them. At the fisherman's instruction, the bird will dive into the water and catch a fish, flipping it up onto the raft with it's beak. Often, the bird has a metal ring fitted around its throat so that it couldn't swallow a large fish if it wanted to. Instead, the bird gives the fish to the man, who often cuts off a piece small enough for it to swallow. This is something worth seeing to believe.

We piled into a taxi to Guilin Airport for a flight to Hong Kong. Since were were officially leaving the People's Republic the departure tax was an extra 40 RMB (US$5). (aside: Although now returned to China, Hong Kong is in what they call a Special Economic Zone. US Citizens do not need a visa to enter Hong Kong.) I don't remember whether we got to the airport early or whether the flight was delayed, but I do remember we spent an inordinate amount of time in this tiny airport. Guilin is pretty far off the beaten path, but there were a number of westerners waiting for the same flight to Hong Kong. One particularly attractive couple waiting for the flight was probably on their honeymoon, and the woman was the spitting image of Missy. I couldn't stop sneaking peeks of her playing with her husband's hair as they waited. One passenger was an American of Indian/Pakistani descent who introduced himself as an economics professor from Columbia University. Having just finished my first macro/microeconomics course, we discussed the chinese economy. Little did I know we would see him again...

[Next: Hong Kong]

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Merry Christmas dammit!

I had this long, thought-out Christmas wish that I wanted to write, but as I got about half of it down on screen I decided it was far too depressing. I don't care how well you know me, whether we're related or not, I will not be responsible for you taking a couple fistfuls of pills the day before the day before. Christmastime is depressing enough for many of us, I don't need you offing yourself on my conscience.

I'm afraid it will have to suffice it to say that I wish you a very Merry Christmas. I'm not going into all the permutations of holiday celebration that some of you may prefer. As far as I know, you're all adults and you're intelligent enough to know that, in 2004, if someone says "Merry Christmas" it's a genuine expression of sentiment, rather than an affirmative assertion of any specific religious belief.

On the other hand, if you're offended by my un-PC, non-secular expression of well-wishes, make sure to go fuck yourself for New Year's too. I don't have time for that shit.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004


[New photo album: Yangshuo]

As I mentioned before, Mom insisted that we see some of China's countryside. This isn't the easiest thing to do in China, because renting a car and driving out of the city just isn't done. Mom found a little resort town called Yangshuo (pronounced Yang-shoo-Oh) and we fit it into the schedule. Yangshuo is basically a backpacker's village- one main road, a couple little hotels, outdoor cafes, and lots of rock-climbing/bicycling "adventure tours". The closest airport is Guilin (pronounced Kway-lin) about an hour or so down the road. Guilin was the main resort a few years ago, but it has gotten overrun with tourists (so they say), so Yangshuo is the new Guilin.

We arrived at the one-terminal, two-gate airport to find it nearly deserted. It was about 6pm or so, well past the time when most Chinese work. There were a few girls in tour-guide looking uniforms standing around the baggage claim so we sought their assistance. They spoke very little English, but generously helped us into an unmarked minivan. We drove around Guilin a bit, which reminded me a LOT of the streets of Ixtapa- square concrete buildings, painted white once upon a time. Instead of colorful awnings advertising Corona, these advertise Tsingtao. The driver stopped at some little place, I have no idea what it was, and honked his horn. A girl, apparently his girlfriend came out and jumped in the back of the van. And away we go, down a lane and a half highway in the dark. We stayed at the Paradise Resort which, once we saw the other hotels in the daylight, we were very happy to have booked. Not that they're bad, but air conditioning is optional out here.

Day 1- Gonna see me some countryside!
We walked down the main street, West Street, and had a little breakfast. Every little place has a sign or chalkboard up advertising tours, so we stopped in one place and set up a bike tour of the area. We didn't want anything strenuous, no mountain biking, just a leisurely tour of the countryside. It was still early, and the temperature was in the mid-80s, the tour arranged for about 11 am. If you see where this is headed, you're WAY ahead of where I was...

As you can see in some of the photos, the area is mountainous. These particular mountain formations are unique to this part of China, and they're called Karst mountains. The Chinese are rightly pround of these mountains and paint them on everything. The roads are relatively level, so if you guessed we were going mountain-biking, you're wrong. A few miles down the dirt road, I'm now sterile, and sweating profusely. We're riding at a leisurely pace, but these bikes suck ass and it's approaching 90 degrees-F now. We're now well outside the village biking past rice paddies, little streams, and long-abandoned cinderblock outhouses. Every so often we pass someone with a big wicker basket of something...Ni Hao! (trans: Hello!) Friendly people.

We pull off the dirt road following literally tire tracks in the grass, when we arrive at a little hut serving as dockhouse to a couple dozen bamboo rafts. We're immediately surrounded by 3 little old ladies who want to sell us squirt guns made from a piece of bamboo. Wo bu yao. (trans: I don't want to buy.) Our cycle-guide arranges a 2-hour float down the river we've arrived at, saying she's not coming with us, but she'll meet us at the other end. The rafts are only big enough for 2 people, and up close they don't look all that seaworthy. We haven't had any trouble yet, why would this be any different? The raftsmen lash our bikes to the back of the rafts and begin to pole us down the river.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves here, except to say this is a fantastic country. Every mile or so there's a tiny little waterfall. They must be manmade as they're too "perfect". Just pick your feet up as you go over, everything's fine. In the 2 hours we only went over six or seven of those, so it's not too disturbing to the overall serenity.

Our guide met us at the other end as promised, and we biked away from the relative comfort of the river into the high-humidity of the countryside now in the low/mid-90s. It was also about 1:30 or 2 pm and we hadn't eaten much breakfast. Our guide led us to a TINY village of maybe 75-100 people where she said her uncle lived. We arrived at her uncle's house (not much more than 1 room, though I didn't see the inside) and she sat us at an outdoor table while she proceeded to cook for us! A salad of cucumber and tomato, white rice, a little diced chicken, and a mound of stir-fried pumpkin chunks. Delicious when you're starving, and not too terrible otherwise. We tried to stay cool, but there was absolutely no breeze whatsoever and the humidity was stifling. The picture of the waterbuffalo up close was taken at uncle's house.

Back on the bikes and back to town. It's now approaching 3:30 pm and the temperature has got to be solidly in the mid-90s. Granted, we're all Houstonians, where the temperature is in the 90s well into November. But we're INDOOR Houstonians. The ride back to town was beautiful, but I was so miserable I really couldn't enjoy it. By the time we got back to town it was well after 5 and I was visibly pink. I dropped my bike at the rental place and let Dad sort it out while I walked back to the room. Dad thought it would be fun to see the local song and dance production, which I had told him all along I wasn't really keen on seeing, so he bought 3 tickets for that evening anyway. I was collapsed on the floor directly under the A/C vent and told them to go without me. They went back to where they bought the tickets and gave one to some toothless 90-year-old woman who the ticket agent said would never have been able to save enough money to see the show on her own. They said it was a great show and the little old lady held onto them and pushed the crowds away like my parents were her own children. That I would like to have seen.

[Note: I'm pausing here for the holidays. Tomorrow's entry will be a Christmas card for you all. Travelogue to resume next week.]

Monday, December 20, 2004


[Note: New photo album entitled "Suzhou" for this entry]

Shanghai, Day 3-
The little town of Suzhou (pronouned Soo-Cho) is about and hour and a half from Shanghai and is billed as "The Venice of China", so we picked out a local tour company and signed up for a day-trip. Originally, Suzhou was the Venice of China. Today, it's a dusty hole with one or two canals still flooded. The main "gate" to the town was a waterway and the townsfolk got around on their little boats. There's no real explanation of why this town used canals and waterways, since it's not right on a major river or right on the coast. But anyway...

Our tour began at Tiger Hill, a beautiful monastery/temple on the edge of town. They say it's called Tiger Hill because the shape of the ground looks like a crouching tiger. My recollection is that it's just shaped like a hill, and I even have a pretty vivid imagination. At the top of the hill is the pagoda which has begun to lean, so everyone makes a point to compare it to Piza. I didn't see one single stupid tourist trying to take a picture "holding up" the pagoda, so Piza it ain't.

Next stop, Han Shan Temple, a beautiful but otherwise unremarkable temple built along one of the canals and the first I've seen to include a pond inside the temple grounds.

Lunch, then the Master of the Nets Garden. The approach to this former residence-turned-garden/museum is down an alleyway with no outward markings whatsoever. I pity the tourist not on an organized tour trying to find this place, but if you wait long enough a guide with her little pennant will march past and you can just follow along. One of the nice things about this garden is that they've maintained enough of the furnishings inside the many buildings that you start to get a feel for how someone actually lived here. The water gate and another unnamed pagoda are near here.

Last stop before home is the obligatory silk mill. A lot of silk is manufactured and processed in Suzhou, though I have no idea what quality it is. It is interesting to see the progression from little worms (aside: They're bigger than you think) chewing away at mulberry leaves, to cocoons, and then the processing. The cocoons are boiled to kill the pupae, then they're whisked to get one thread off. The whole cocoon is spun from a single continuous thread, so the trick when spinning it into thread is to keep the strands unbroken. Mid-to-late 1800s technology is alive and well at the silk mills. The silk mill even put on a runway fashion show complete with boney 6 foot completely disinterested models. Please visit the gift shop at the end of tour, we have many and lovely thing for you to buy.

The whole point of a daytrip to Suzhou is not to see the most beautiful gardens in China (they're not here), the oldest temples (not here either), or even to get a great bargain on silk jammies (nope). It's just a nice opportunity to get out of the city and have someone else drive you around pointing out stuff.

And now a few more repressed memories:
  • When we exited the Summer Palace, back in Beijing, we were looking to hail a cab that would take us to a specific restaurant we had read about and knew wasn't very far away. They all wanted a minimum fare, which we hadn't encountered before, but while we were haggling a young (20-ish) Chinese girl came up to us and asked in pretty good English if we spoke French. I've had 2 years of high-school French and Dad grew up in central Louisiana, so we told her "not really". She pointed out an older woman (60-ish) who looked on the verge of tears so we reconsidered. It was obvious that she'd gotten separated from her tour group, so I introduced myself as best I could and she calmed down a bit. Part of the problem was the throng of taxi drivers crowding in, chattering to each other in what must have been Chinese. With the help of the young girl, we got the crowd to back off and quiet down a bit since, even though we weren't lost, the crowd made us a bit nervous too. We asked about her hotel and she gave us a name that the young girl recognized. She never said more than the name though. The young girl asked one of the taxi drivers how much it would cost and we relayed the information in our broken French. She nodded her approval. As the old woman was accepting the arrangements and getting ready to get into a cab, a younger woman (40-ish) probably her daughter, came running up and hugged her, leading her by the hand back to their tour bus. No need to thank us or even acknowledge our existence. Fucking French.
  • The restaurant we wound up going to was supposed to be dinner and a show. It was a fantastically decorated place, with big fish tanks full of menu-items as well as bird-cages near the door full of other menu-items. We ordered the prawns, which we soon discovered doesn't translate into "big shrimp" in Chinese. You and I know Chinese prawns as Sea Monkeys, and it was served in some sort of pale blue goo. No food, that I'm aware of anyway, is or should be pale blue. That, and the show turned out to be some 50s black & white race car movie. Although both the food and the entertainment sucked, we had a couple of beers, and managed to laugh about it anyway.
  • On the way back from Juyonguan/Ming Tombs/Spirit Way instead of stopping at a cloisonne or jade factory we were taken to a Chinese herbal healing center. Not exactly a University, but the closest thing this type of medicine has. We were shown various charts of the body and shown huge jars of herbs, roots, and fungi. Finally, a "doctor" came in and asked if we'd like a check up. Assured that this was completely non-invasive, we agreed. All we really had to do was stick out our tongue and offer both of our bare forearms for "pulse" checks. There are 3 pressure points at each wrist that correspond to the heart, liver, kidneys (one each), stomach and gall-bladder (I think). The doctor read Dad as having a "hot heart and liver". We have a history of heart disease in our family and Dad has already had 1 heart attack and a quadruple bypass. Dad is on medication for that, and it eventually gets processed in the liver. The doctor read me as also having a "hot heart" but not the liver. I've been off the same medication Dad takes for a couple months due to lack of insurance, so it's interesting that my liver wasn't "hot". After the diagnosis, the doctor asked if we want to buy the pills required to correct these situations, but since he wouldn't tell us exactly what herbs were in the pills, we politely declined. He was visibly disturbed and left rather quickly. If you're reading this, sorry Doc, nothing personal.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


Wow, who'da thunk writing about 3 weeks in China is as tiring as living 3 weeks in China. Don't worry, we're HALFWAY through!

Shanghai - The largest city in China, Shanghai is even more modern than the capital Beijing. I'd wager that more than half the business done in China is done in or goes through Shanghai. THE major port city on the mainland, China is almost as western as Hong Kong and has almost as many westerners to boot. We stayed at the Ramada Plaza, near downtown and right on the pedestrian mall, Nanjing Road. An excellent location (walking distance to the Bund) and a very nice hotel.

Day 1-
Shanghai Musuem - Every major city has it's major museums, and this is Shanghai's. Another impressive collection, everything from stone age to modern China is well represented here. Especially noteworthy is the collection of china (small c) and pottery, detailed through history showing the progression of the art and science. Pay careful attention as there will be a quiz on Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasty vases at the end of this series.

Jade Buddha Temple - A beautiful buddhist temple built to enshrine a priceless 6-foot buddha carved of solid Jade. No photos allowed. The monks here have a tearoom and will show you the art of preparing tea as well as sample a few varieties. Dad asked to sample the tea said to cure/reverse heart disease - bright red and very bitter. I asked for the tea to cure headaches - pale brown, tastes like wet cork. Mom simply asked for the one that tastes the best - pale green and minty sweet. We bought $5 worth (a lot) of this one.

Day 2-
Longhua Pagoda - We stopped at the (unimpressive) Jesuit Church first, then on to a 1300 year old pagoda in the middle of the city. Strangely, the pagoda is actually outside the walls of the temple, so if you want to see it you don't have to pay. Too fragile to climb, it's still amazing that something this old is still standing. Unless you're really a fan, you probably won't mind missing this.

Yu Yuan Garden - Shanghai's answer to Central Park, if Central Park had a cool dragon-headed wall around it and they charged admission. Yu Yuan was originally a private residence, so I guess technically it's a museum now. In any case, this is a great place to escape the summer heat in the shade of idyllic gardens and ponds. Just outside the walls is a teahouse in the middle of a large pond. Overpriced, but still a nice view from the upper floor and there are often musicians "jamming" in the corner. This is where we discovered Chinese "Flowering Tea" - a bulb the size of a large marble is placed in a clear glass teapot and boiling water is poured over it. Within a minute or so, the bulb opens up to reveal the tea leaves tied in the shape of a flower. The taste of the tea appears to be secondary to the show. This neighborhood is also the pedestrian antiques market, but most of the antiques stores have been converted to stores selling silk jammies, cheap jade, and other crap. This is the best place to buy that Faux-lex watch, if you're so inclined.

Jin Mao Tower - The west side of the Huangpu river is the majority of the city of Shanghai with the old historic districts and the Bund, the riverfront promenade that is completely congested with foot traffic 24/7. The east side of the river is the new financial district with the majority of the skyscrapers including Jin Mao Tower, the largest building in China (aside: If you don't count Taiwan as part of China, which they don't but China does) and presently the 4th largest in the world (aside: If you count the twin towers of the Petronas Towers as one, which I do because it allows me to add this aside). Jin Mao Tower also holds a few other records including the world's tallest hotel and tallest elevators (aside: The cars themselves, not the shaft...hehe, shaft). The ride to the observation desk is an awesome, ear-popping ride and the view from the top is fantastic, if the weather is clear enough to see. I took a few time-lapse shots of the river so you can see that there is non-stop river traffic.

[For convenience, I'm skipping Day 3 here to write about it tomorrow.]

Day 4-
Shanghai Aquarium - A brand, new modern aquarium is in the new financial district. Sea life of all kinds is on display here, but the real treat is the moving-sidewalk ride through the world's longest sub-sea tunnels. It feels like a mile of plexiglass tubing while you look up and around at sharks, rays, and fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors. My favorites are the jellies and the cuttlefish. Unfortunately, with all the glass, photos are beyond my skill.

Oriental Pearl Tower - This is the most recognizable landmark in Shanghai, and I'm sure you see why in the photos. It's got another bitchin observation deck and the haze lifted long enough for me to get a few daytime shots. The Shanghai City Museum is in the basement and details the history of life in Shanghai through most of its interesting past. The museum is FAR too big however, unless you REALLY like pretending it's 1938 and the Japanese are invading.

Back to the airport, this time flying to backpacker's heaven...

[Next: Yangshuo]

Friday, December 17, 2004

More Xi'an

Day 2-
I don't remember exactly why, but we didn't arrange an organized tour. I guess the concierge at our hotel convinced us it wasn't really needed. In any case, he called a taxi up to the door and explained where we were going and that we wanted him to stay with us all day. US$20 and he gets to sleep in the car for a couple hours. As we drive off, he picks up his cellphone and starting chatting away, then hands the phone to me (riding shotgun). Ok, a little wierd. "Hello?"
"Hello sir, would you like an English-speaking tourguide? I am a professional tourguide, but it is my day off so I like to pick up work on the side." Crafty. Another $20 (for the whole day) well-spent. I hand the phone back to the driver who immediately veers off into a neighborhood. While we're waiting for the guide to come down we see that there is a dance lesson going on in the park on the corner. At first we thought it was Tai Chi but as we watched it became more like the ballroom dancing we saw in Beijing. In a public park- will wonders never cease?

The Terracotta Warriors
This is the reason to come to Xi'an. Towards the end of the first Qin Emperor's reign he decided that, in addition to the standard complement of gold, jewels, and other goodies, he wanted to be buried with his army. The army, not terribly enthused about this idea, set about making an army out of clay for him to bury instead. Thousands upon thousands of life-size clay figures were molded and fired in massive kilns, production-line style. There are a couple dozen different body styles, with varying degrees of armor and decoration, but they say every face is unique. You can imagine what it must have cost to do all of this, in approximately the year 210 B.C.E. The figures were set in trenches that had timber posts around the edges supporting a timber roof that was then buried. (In other words, the dirt was not packed around them.) The actual burial chamber of Qin Shi Huang himself has still not been found.

Unfortunately, the villagers, in approximately 206 B.C.E. (yes, only 4 years later) ransacked the place and knocked over ever single figure, smashing them. There they lay until 1974, when a couple of modern day villagers were digging a well and came across bits of fired clay. All in all, about 7,000 soldiers, horses, and associated items have been uncovered. When the army was made and buried, they were painted in life-like detail with vibrant colors. As the army was unearthed the colors will still intact, but faded within a year or two. Thus, in another stroke of surprising genius, the Chinese government has halted further excavation until they figure out how to preserve the colors! There are estimated to be another couple thousand figures waiting for us to catch up to 2200 year old painting technology.

The size and scale of the excavation here is staggering. The main pit is covered by a dome that could easily enclose a football field. There are a couple of smaller pits that contained generals and a golden chariot, as well as floor-level displays of some particularly extraordinary figures. The site is about an hour outside of Xi'an and the government is quickly trying to build up the area (including the giant statue of Qin Shi Huang and landscaping) for the influx of visitors sure to come in 2008.

Lunch was back in town at a little place that Houston's TV celebrity health-inspector/consumer advocate Marvin Zindler would have shut down without even entering. Delicious food and a 2 month-old kitten under the table pulling at my shoestrings. I hope to God I correctly ordered the pork.

The Shaanxi History Museum
Shaanxi is the province of which Xi'an is the capital, so this museum focuses on the history of this particular region, from neolithic to modern eras. The collection is very impressive and far too expansive for me to detail. Heck, you're already IN Xi'an, go to the damn musuem. As we approached the museum there were, I don't know, 100 10-year-olds and a couple of teachers practicing some sort of play. You can see in the picture that there are a couple of kids reciting dialog while the remainder have arranged themselves in the form of a temple building. They knew we were watching, so several of them couldn't resisit sneaking a wave and a smile. Very cute.

Back to the hotel for a break before dinner. Dinner was dinner and a show at Tang Dynasty dinner theater. Typical hokey production and rubber chicken, but you're a tourist, so you gotta do it anyway. (FYI- The Tang dynasty was the cultural high-water mark in Xi'an's history, roughly 600-900 C.E.)

Day 3-
Flying back to the east coast (of China) today, but still need to see a few more things.

The Great Goose Pagoda
A rather typical Buddhist temple with a huge pagoda in the middle. Xi'an's flat terrain means you can see for miles and miles from the top. Xi'an's haze means you can really only see for mile. Still, it's a serene and beautiful park. It's at this point that I'm beginning to see the appeal of Buddhism. The twisted tree that I took a picture of was out of the way, completely unmarked and ignored by most visitors. Outside the temple grounds to the north was a 3" deep reflecting pool which you can see in one of the photos. As you can see in the zoomed photo, the watery attraction serves in temporal contrast to the temple's spiritual purpose.

Apart from inconveniently placed ticket counters at the airport (i.e. go stand in this line, then go stand in that line) it was at lunch that we witnessed another of China's bureaucratic wonders. The majority of the People's Buses are electric, with overhead cables running up and down every street. We found a buffet (Chinese food) and sat near the windows people watching. We witnessed a very minor traffic accident involving an electric bus and a regular car. Less than a fender-bender, I don't think any paint was even scraped. But nothing was to be touched or moved until the People's Bureaucracy got involved. Electric buses piled up behind the accident, since they couldn't go around, and this is where it sucks to have to ride the bus: Everyone on the approaching bus would have to get out, while the ticket-taker went around to the back of the bus to disconnect it from the overhead powerlines. Then everyone who had been on the bus had to get behind it and PUSH it around the bus involved in the accident. Once it had been PUSHED clear around the accident could everyone file back on and the ticket-taker reconnect it to the powerlines. If it had been me? Nope, this is my stop. I'll walk from here.

Owing, I suppose, to Xi'an's relative proximity to the middle east, there is a large muslim population in Xi'an. We didn't make it into the Great Mosque, but the streets surrounding it are a haggler's paradise. Anything and everything is for sale here, from trash to treasure in about 1000:1 proportion. There are restaurants interspersed that have outdoor grills right on the street tempting people to come in. The sights and smells are AWESOME here. My parents bought a porcelain figurine, similar to one for sale at the hotel gift shop except far more detailed, for 1/3rd the price of the gift shop. I bought a set of old bamboo and bone mah-jongg tiles in a nice leather case.

Ok, out of time in Xi'an...back to the People's Airport for a flight to Shanghai.

[Next: Hey sailor!]

Thursday, December 16, 2004

If you love dirt, you'll love Xi'an

But first, a few things I accidentally left out about Beijing:
  • When we left for China, the war in Iraq was getting going pretty good, and Anti-American sentiment around the world was rising. We were honestly concerned about this and seriously considered answering those who asked that we were Canadian, British, or anything other than American. (We were guessing that they wouldn't be able to distinguish accents very well.) As it turned out, very few people asked, and those that did were genuinely interested in befriending Americans. They probably didn't get much news about the war from their government anyway. On the street, we were aware that we stuck out, but decided that most people just keep their head down and don't make eye contact. If you do break that "barrier" that people in densely populated cities carry, they are genuine, friendly, inquisitive, and trusting people. You may be tempted to bring one home. Don't.
  • One of the pictures I posted is of the Back Lakes Region. This is one of the more trendy parts of Beijing with lots of night clubs and restaurants. I wish we had known to spend more time here, as it looks like a lot of fun. Most of the restaurants are walk-up, but there looked like a couple on little islands in the lake that required the gondola-like boats.
  • While strolling around the lake at Qian Hai (pronounced Chee-ahn Hi) we happened across the most amazing thing the three of us had ever seen: Ballroom dancing. Don't get me wrong, I've seen ballroom dancing before, but this was 150-200 people spontaneously gathered at this little park after dark dancing to music broadcast from someone's boombox. It was clearly an impromptu gathering, as noone had costumes and the music was running off of a car battery. I caught it on video, but it's too big to post in my usual place. (aside: If anyone knows of a free server that'll let me put a 10M mpg video up, I'll happily share it.)
  • Traffic in Beijing is something else, and you know how much I love traffic. Jaywalking isn't a problem because noone lives long enough to do it twice. But still, sometimes you gotta cross the street. This is accomplished by walking out into traffic, right up to the edge of where a car is, was, or will be. It is Extreme Frogger.
  • Cars in China, similar to those in America and elsewhere, have horns. They are used with great frequency and vigor regardless of whether you or I (or the other drivers) consider it an appropriate time to honk the horn.
  • Trips to the Great Wall and other daytrips from Beijing are common so the hotels generally have pre-arranged tours with local companies. Part of EVERY pre-arranged tour, whether its on the printed itinerary or not, is a stop at either a cloisonne factory, a silk mill, a jade factory, or some combination of the three. At worst it's an excuse to get out of the car and stretch your legs. At best you get a little tour of a factory with people making 50-cents a day. Your driver gets a kickback whether you buy something or not, so don't feel pressured. (aside: I'm not an expert on either, so it wouldn't be fair for me to pass judgement on price or quality. "Average" on both is a safe bet though.) On the plus side, the English spoken here is excellent as compared to street-vendors.
Xi'an- Gateway to the Silk Road
Xi'an was the first true "capital" of China dating from before the 2nd century B.C.E. when the first Qin (pronounced Chin) Emperor unified several warring states. Xi'an is at the edge of the desert and is the eastern end of the Silk Road, the traditional route linking East and West, and has only recently been repaved as the 90% Rayon/10% Spandex Road. (aside: Dryclean only.) When you first arrive in Xi'an, you're surrounded by beautiful farms and fields, which gradually yield to the hole that is Xi'an the city. Dusty, industrial Xi'an is neither beautiful nor beautiful. We stayed at the Sheraton, which is reasonably located just outside the city center, and even more reasonably priced. The Bell Tower Hotel is right in the middle of the city, and looks charming from the outside, but with the 24-hour stream of cars, trucks, and buses I wouldn't want to stay there.

We arrived early enough in the day to visit a museum called the Forest of Stone Stelae. A stele is a stone tablet with either a picture or inscription carved into it. This museum has something like 13,000 stone tablets, most of them as big as a Hummer, dating back a thousand years or more. The inscriptions include Confucian writings, laws, memorials, poems, and a recipe for walnut brownies. There are other carved-stone relics here including buddhas (buddhae?) and various other creatures. A pretty neat (and quiet) little museum.

The Forest is in the shadow of Xi'an's city wall. Like most cities, the citizens of Xi'an built a defensive wall around the city. Fortunately Xi'an's still stands and is well maintained. It's relatively flat, so for a couple Yuan you can climb up (stairs) to the top of the wall and stroll around. You can even rent bicycles, but the bikes don't have shock-absorbers and the cobblestone surface isn't exactly genital-friendly.

That's enough for tonight. I'll create a new album and upload more pictures. As before, you can click on the title of this entry for the link.

[Next: Why'd we come here anyway?]

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

You say Peking, I say Beijing. Let's call the whole thing off.

Day 3-
The Temple of Heaven is a complex of ceremonial buildings that were used a couple of times each year (solstices, etc.) for the Emperor to come and pray for a good harvest, victory in battle, etc. One little known fact you won't find in any guidebook: It was also the site of the annual pumpkin carving contest and eunoch's "sackless" sack-race. Today it is a sprawling urban garden almost as big as the Forbidden City. The treasures here include scrolls and tablets bearing Confucian sayings. For most western visitors they rate a head-bob (a la Chevy Chase at the Grand Canyon in Vacation).

The Museum of Ancient Architecture is right around the corner. I found it hard to muster excitement for this place despite my minor in architecture. Consequently, no photos. Moving on.

The Summer Palace was the Empress Cixi's (pronounced See-She) favorite retreat and it's easy to see why. In late May, temperatures in Beijing were in the low 90s. The Summer Palace, on the shore of the North Lakes was cool and breezy. There's not a whole lot in the way of art and decoration here, but the overall setting is very relaxing. The Marble Boat was Cixi's way of saying 'fuck you' to the Imperial Navy, as she spent their entire year's budget on it. They retaliated by losing several important naval battles weakening the empire to the point that it would collapse roughly a decade later. Oops! If you have limited time in Beijing, don't skip this one.

Day 4-
As I said before, hiring a car with driver and a guide is very easy. We chose to visit another section of the Great Wall, this time at Juyonguan (pronounced Joo Yong Gwan) Pass. This mountain pass was once the site of a battle between the red states and the blue states. Bloodshed, beheadings, yadda yadda yadda. The restoration of the wall here is less authentic as it includes a handrail on the 60+ degree climbs. Chairman Mao once said something like, "He who climbs the Great Wall is a real man." Lesser known is his addendum, "and it's harder on the glutes than Sweatin' to the Oldies and Buns of Steel combined." This is unfortunately skippable.

In the same neighborhood as Juyonguan is the Eastern Ming (pronounced Ming) Tombs, so it makes sense to see them the same day. The Eastern Ming Tombs is a complex of 15-18 burial mounds of Ming Emperors all in the same general area (See also: Egypt's Valley of the Kings). Unlike Egypt's tombs however, the Ming tombs have not been fully excavated...I'm sure I read something about respecting the spirits. Whatever. There is a little museum here that's worth visiting if you're already here. Tough to recommend making a special trip though.

Leading up the Ming Tombs is a "path", for lack of a better word, called the Spirit Way. In usual Chinese fashion it's perfectly aligned along a north-south line, except for a quick bend in the path designed to throw off the spirits from using it as a runway or something. The Spirit Way is lined with huge stone carvings of people and animals, real and mythical. A nice stroll, but also tough to recommend a special trip.

Day 5-
We were 3 westerners in China, going it alone. No tour guide, no fixed itinerary. We knew what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go, which cities we wanted to fly to, and when. Travelocity lists some intra-China flights, so using that as a rough guide I layed out the plan. We wound up buying our international "to" and "from" tickets from a local consolidator who told us that there are tons of flights not listed on Travelocity and we could get huge discounts by buying the tickets once we got there. What an asshole that guy turned out to be. Travel agents in China are not terribly helpful and do not take credit cards. Your hotel can arrange intra-China flights, but be prepared to pay a service charge. We managed, instead, to find both an ATM and the offices of Air China and book the exact flight I had seen on Travelocity for exactly the same price. Sure I would have had to pay a couple of extra bucks to have the tickets mailed to me, but then I would have missed out on all the pointing and grunting fun with the lovely people at Air China.

Tiananmen Square is right down the street from Air China's offices, so that was the logical next stop. A huge paved public Square, Tiananmen is chock-a-block full of hawkers who would love to sell you a kite, bottled water, a copy of Mao's Little Red Book, or any number of other things. On the south end of the square is Chairman Mao's mausoleum where he is on display. The guidebooks say that there is a wax replica so detailed that only the staff knows which little yellow corpse is on display at any given time. Unfortunately the Chairman was being used as a card table for the politbureau's weekly Texas Hold 'Em tourney, so it was closed and we didn't get to see him. But some of the best People's Statues and People's Monuments are here. There's also some history thing about tanks, but I didn't have time to Google it to see what that was all about.

Today was Buddha's birthday, which I think actually changes from year to year, probably based on the lunar calendar. I had planned on visiting Yonghe Gong Lamasery (a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Beijing) but had heard from the girls at our hotel that a big to-do was planned at a different temple out on the west side. The benefits of not being on a set schedule/guided-tour pay off for stuff like this. Dad decided he wanted to just go walk the streets around our hotel, so Mom & I hopped on the People's Subway (about US$1). There are only two subway lines in Beijing: One runs east-west through Tiananmen and the other makes a small loop around downtown. We arrived at the end of the subway line and, per the directions we were given, we went looking for the closest People's Bus Stop for the line that would take us to the temple. We wandered around the People's Ghetto for awhile and several well-meaning, yet unhelpful, people pointed us in circles. We found it and eventually found the temple- It was BEAUTIFULLY decorated and incensed (aside: smelly, not mad). The guest of honor, a 30-something monk who astutely noticed the only two westerners in the place, stopped shaking hands and taking pictures with everyone else to greet Mom and I in very good English. We were very honored that he did this, and even moreso when he explained that his uncle was also a very important holy man. You might know him as the Dalai Lama. Very cool indeed. He explained his presence in China was kind of under-the-radar, so I've chosen not to publish his picture, but I've got his Hotmail address if you want it. (aside: No shit.)

This concludes the Beijing portion of the vacation. Day 6 we head back to the People's International Airport, this time headed deep in-country to Xi'an (pronounced She-Ahn) the ancient capital of China. Intra-China travel isn't all that mysterious or difficult. There is a departure tax you have to pay (50 RMB ~ US$6.25) and there's a whole separate line to stand in for that. Otherwise it's exactly like taking a flight here.


[Next: Xi'an]

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A fake-Scotsman in Beijing

When last we left our intrepid hero, he was hailing a taxi at the People's International Airport...

Here's how getting a taxi in China really works: 30 men of marginal hygiene surround you pushing, shoving, and shouting the only two words they know in English. "HELLO! TAXI!" Over the next 3 weeks you will come to hate the word "HELLO!" Finally, the alpha-taxi-male finally grabs your suitcase(s) and leads you away from the populated area into the parking garage where you are to be beaten, robbed, and perhaps murdered. You won't mind so much, as you've just come off 20 some-odd hours in coach so a bath, even a bloodbath, sounds pretty nice. But to your pleasant surprise you are neither beaten, robbed, nor murdered and away you go. The alpha-taxi-male is no longer with you, as you discover he was just the taxi-pimp. Your driver does not know the 2 English words the other men know, so you flip open your guidebook to point and grunt at the Chinese characters next to the English name of your hotel. Puzzled looks are truly international. Point and grunt again. Yes, yes, he's got it this time. Your pointing and grunting skills are going to get a good workout on this vacation.

A hutong is an alleyway that may or may not be paved, regardless of its proximity to the city center. Expect free-range chickens. Our hotel was down a paved hutong but it was really very lovely. Although the beds aren't comfortable by western standards (think plywood), we felt safe and well cared-for. I would highly recommend it. Wherever you stay, your hotel will have business cards with the hotel's name in Chinese characters so that any taxi driver can take you the long-way back to the hotel. Every hotel concierge will also happily write down the name of the place you're going, in Chinese characters of course, on the back of said business card so that any taxi driver can take you the long-way there. (aside: I'm kidding, actually.) Taxi is definitely the preferred mode of transportation in and around every city in China. I found drivers to be polite and usually took a direct-route. And they're pretty cheap; less than US$10 from one side of Beijing, a huge sprawling metropolis, to the other. Hopefully you'll get a good look at the city- Beijing is a modern world capital with skyscrapers, freeways, and most modern conveniences. The People's Freeways are beautifully lined with fresh flowers, lovingly tended by the People's Gardners. If you look carefully, you WILL see the stereotypical little old man with the pointed hat and dark, round sunglasses. Be sure to point and laugh so he knows you're American.

Having showered, slept, and showered again for good measure, we set off to find the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is only forbidden to those that don't have the 60 Yuan (~US$7.50) admission. If you can help it, don't go to Tiananmen Square to enter the Forbidden City, although that's the "traditional entrance". You will be bombarded by hawkers and lord knows what else, so use the "Celebrity Blogger" entrance (aside: It's unfortunately not marked as such) on the east side. In case you've made it to Beijing without knowing a thing about China, the Forbidden City was the Emperor's residence for about 500 years until PuYi abdicated the throne in 1912 and was finally evicted around 1915. Please watch your step, as each of the 9,999 rooms have a 1-foot high threshhold designed to trip marauding western tourists. I can't say enough about the enormity and the beauty of this place except that you will need to wear comfortable walking shoes. Given that Chinese museums and attractions are only open from roughly 10am - 4pm (even in summer) we spent the entire "day" here.

Day 2- The Great Wall at Mutianyu.
The Great Wall of China, contrary to popular myth, is not visible with the naked eye from space. Chinese astronauts and cosmonauts have confirmed this. The Great Wall is also not a continuous barrier around the border of China. Much of the Great Wall has fallen into disrepair, although the Chinese government has restored several sections that are easily accessible by car (guided tour, not rental) from Beijing. They've also restored the original 5th century ticket kiosks. If you are only planning to visit one section of the Great Wall, this is the one to go to. Your hotel will help you arrange a car and guide for roughly US$20 for the whole day. About 1.5 hours northwest of Beijing, Mutianyu is beautiful countryside, rolling hills, and t-shirt vendors. Yes, hawkers will bug the shit out of you, including standing directly in your path shouting "HELLO!" These hawkers know a little bit more English, including "I remember you!" if you try to explain that you'll buy something when you return from the Wall. You will also pass through dirt-poor stone-age villages that have never seen indoor plumbing, electricity, or western tourists for more than a split second. Built along the peaks of the hills, exploring the Wall is strenuous exercise. Some sections of the wall climb the hills at angles approaching 60-degrees. It's made of some sort of amazing stone though. If it happens to rain, the water soaks INTO the stone and isn't the slightest bit slippery. There's not a whole lot to eat here though, so if you didn't pack a lunch you can get dumplings and bottled water (aside: Repeat, BOTTLED water) at a little cafe.

As I re-read what I've written so far, I feel I should probably stop here for the day and allow you to ask questions. As I get a lot of the basic stuff out of the way, I'll try to go a little faster. In case you hadn't noticed, click on the title of this entry to see pictures in the album entitled "Beijing".

[Next: What, Chinese food again?!]

Monday, December 13, 2004

China, Part I- Getting there

[Finals are over. I'm quite happy about this, as you can no doubt tell by my colorful language and selective use of emphasis.]

I haven't really written about China, so I'll give it a shot and try not to bore you to death. See a couple of photo highlights at I'll post more pictures of the individual cities as I write about them.

The deal:
A couple years ago, before my sister got married, my parents made a deal with her: If she would plan their trip to Spain, doing all the research and making an itinerary, they would pay for her to come with them. I was working for a government contractor at the time, which means I was continually in negative vacation balance and couldn't go. My parents love to travel and they take a big vacation every other year. Russia, Italy, Kenya/Egypt, get the idea. So early this year they started talking about a summer vacation and quickly decided that they wanted to see China. China is rapidly changing, despite its oppressive government, so the decision to go now was also to see it before it becomes completely Westernized.

I not-so-subtlely dropped the hint that since I missed out on Spain, I should get the same deal- itinerary & guide service in exchange for flight. They bought it, even though they knew full well I've never been to China (aside: they're my parents, so they're privy to that sort of personal information). They were also kind enough to wait until the spring semester ended. I bought the guide-books and combed the web for travel info. The People's Republic has a consulate here in Houston, so I stopped by to pick up visa applications. On line at the consulate I was chatting with a Canadian who happened to be here and also headed to China. Turns out China charges US$50 for a visa, but they also charge CDN$50 for Canadians! Not fair, their money isn't worth as much! I came up with a list of must-see places (The Forbidden City, The Great Wall, The Terracotta Warriors, etc.) and quickly realized that I couldn't squeeze it all into 2 weeks. Mom & Dad, ever the troopers, agreed to let me drag them around China for 3 weeks instead. Mom's only requirement was that we get out of the cities and see the countryside. China isn't exactly the kind of country where westerners can rent a car and just drive, so we found a resort town serviced by air & bus and I worked 2.5 days into the schedule.

I've flown across the Pacific (Japan) before and it ain't fun. We flew from Houston to Dallas, Dallas to Seoul-Incheon, Seoul to Beijing. Total time in the air was something like 20 hours, if memory serves. If you haven't been on a long-distance coach flight in the last couple of years, you're missing out. There's TV screens everywhere with a moving-map GPS display that shows exactly how slow 600 mph is. I woke up from my medicated slumber to see the Aleutians and Siberia. I'll save you the trouble- It's white. (aside: Seriously though, it's a stark beauty.) Unfortunately we didn't get to leave the airport in Seoul, so I'm going to have to make that damn flight again to see Korea. Duty Free is my father's heroin and Seoul-Incheon International has EVERYTHING. Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Cartier. Except giant Toblerone, I couldn't find it. Wicked liquors they got, no giant Toblerones.

Once you get in the line for the connecting flight to mainland China, you're immediately aware that you're going to see nothing but Chinese people for the next 3 weeks. Not a problem, I'm a big fan of their food. (aside: Yes smartass, they don't call it Chinese food, it's just 'food'. I never get tired of being asked that one.) Seoul is in the north of South Korea and the GPS display has the DMZ very clearly marked. "Ladies and Gentlemen, if you look out the right side of the aircraft you'll see that the SAM has locked on to outboard #2..."

Arrival in the People's Republic was without fanfare, considering that at the time I wasn't the blogging celebrity that I am now. (aside: Seriously, Houston's paparazzi can be so trying.) The People's International Airport is clean and orderly, as is the People's Baggage Claim and the People's Customs Desk. Chinese currency (the Yuan or Renminbi, RMB) doesn't float on international markets, so whereever you go you get the same exchange rate for US Dollars. We exchanged some money at the airport and hopped into a taxi...

[Next: Beijing]

Friday, December 10, 2004

Coming Soon? You Decide

Ever since Zelda put up an audioblog the other day I've been thinking about doing that myself. Yeah, I've seen them before, it wasn't the novelty that appealed to me. Sometimes just I'm not sure that the right inflection or tone comes across when I write, especially when I write something sarcastic. I try to use bold and italic when I want to put a particular stress on something, but what are the odds you're putting the same emphasis in your mind's ear? Dunno. So I've been kicking around the idea of recording stuff that I've already written, in my voice, and posting it here.

I went and looked at how to put an audioblog post on my page and to be honest, I'm not crazy about that setup. I don't like having to make a phonecall. So what I'm thinking about doing is recording them here at my desktop, saving it as a low-bitrate mp3 (it's monophonic spoken word, after all) and linking to it. If I record it here, it's obviously much easier to edit, re-take, etc.

My initial thought was to have a completely separate blog, identical except that it is only the mp3 clips. Now I'm thinking maybe I should make the title of entries on this blog the link. Since you people are the ones who would potentially listen (or not) to my voice (which I hate), I'd like to hear your opinions and suggestions.

[Edit: Ok, I've done a test recording, and although it sounds like I have a bit of a lisp, I assure you that it's merely the poor-quality recording. Anyhow, this is approximately what we're talking about.]

Thursday, December 09, 2004

I have traffic issues

With apologies to Mr. Letterman, the Top 10 Things Overheard on Houston Roads:

10) Stop signs? We don't need no steenkin' stop signs.
9) Gaa! What are all those stripes on the street?!
8) Like my new SUV? It gets 10 gallons to the mile.
7) Hey officer, you wanna kill those flashing lights? I'm drivin' here.
6) Houston: Come for the construction, stay for the potholes.
5) 98, 99, 100 feet. Stoplight.
4) "School Zone" doesn't apply if you're not in school anymore, right?
3) Dude...I'm soo high!
2) ¿Usted piensa cualquier persona notará que no entiendo las reglas del camino?

And the Number 1 Thing Overheard on Houston Roads...
1) Can you hear me now? How about if I slow down?

Last night was the Clay Aiken Christmas Special and I missed it. Thank you all for not reminding me, since I would have been devastated if I had to watch it.

Finally, I've picked out uniforms for all of us. Please order your size and have them for next week. We'll be taking a group photo for the holiday newsletter.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

So much to say, so little time

Strike that. Reverse it. I didn't leave the house again today, so there's not a whole lot to talk about...

I often watch reruns of M*A*S*H at lunch. I wouldn't say I'm a fan, but there's nothing else really on and that's not really the point. Anyway, today's episode was where one character wanted something hard to get, so he had to do a favor for someone else who wanted a favor from yet someone else who required something of someone entirely different. They've used that plot device twice this week already (it's only Wednesday!) and 2 or 3 times last week. I suppose it's pathetic that I noticed, but it reminds me of this bit from Love Actually....

Here's one from the gourmet files- How to make a really good grilled-cheese sandwich: Sourdough bread, 2 slices American cheese, butter. I'm sure you've got the basics, but the secret is to cover the pan you're making the sandwich in. That keeps the heat in so the cheese gets good and melty without over-toasting the bread. You're welcome.

And finally, today's quiz: Name your favorite cartoon character, living or deceased. [Note: These will be graded.]

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Here in the South, in Texas and Houston in particular, cockroaches are a common household pest. We get these massive flying tree roaches that are the goddamn scariest thing you've ever had come flying at you. [aside: Unless you're unfortunate enough to have been attacked by ninjas. Also scary.] I don't know if they're really good at aiming for and getting tangled in your hair, or if they just close some of their eyes and get lucky. The tree roaches wait until you get out of your car, then they come at you while you're fumbling with your keys at the door. Think Cujo. At least once a week you can hear a neighbor screaming and the familiar *slap, slap, slap* as they beat themselves about the head and neck trying to kill the beast attacking from the shadows.

But I don't have a roach problem, knock on wood. Sugar ants are a common pest here as well. They don't do any harm, they just march across the countertop in their straight lines. But I don't have an ant problem either, knock again. I have millipedes. I don't know what they're looking for or whether or not they've found it, but a couple of times a week I find a curled-up, dead millipede on the floor. They're tiny little things, so I'm not too grossed out. If they were uncoiled, they'd be less than an inch (2.5 cm), but I never see them uncoiled. They're always dead and dessicated. I imagine they find their way through some little crack, but the friendly spiders pounce on 'em and drain 'em like wax-candy straws.

I don't usually see the spiders, and it's just as well because I hate spiders. In the twelfth grade, I dated a girl who got bit by a Brown Recluse (aside: google it yourself) and it put her on crutches for several months and made a HUGE disgusting welt on her leg. Not only that, it delayed my having sex for the third time by at least six weeks, so suffice it to say, I hate spiders. But since I haven't put down any sort of poison to kill the millipedes, I assume there's a couple of friendly spiders that find the milipedes first and suck the life out of them. I guess it's part of nature's contract that I have to clean up after them.

But this week I found not one, but two live millipedes in the house. They were plump little buggers, so I almost didn't know what they were. I shot the first one with Raid and, no shit, it stood up on end and looked directly at me. Had I been closer than 15' (5m) I might have heard its last words. Screw that. The next day I saw a spider, and not a tiny one. I figure I took away two of his meals, so he was forced to venture out during the day to forage. Screw that too. Millipede-killer or not I hate spiders, so out came the Raid again. And here's the best part of my pathetic life: When the can of Raid comes out, I get to pretend I'm an evil Bond villain. I love to say, with a breathy laugh and slight British accent, "No Mister Spider, ha ha ha...I expect you to die! Ha ha ha!" Remember, it's a breathy laugh, not a sinister laugh.

Well, it works better if you've seen some old James Bond movies.

Monday, December 06, 2004


I really wish I had a funny story for you, but I literally haven't been outside my home in a couple of days. I had lunch with my ex- and I went to Home Depot, but neither of those stories has the slightest comedic potential. By the way, I don't think many of my stories are funny when I go to type them in. I see potential in some situations, so I'm able to punch them up a bit as I type. But 'lunch with my ex-' and 'Home Depot' don't hold much promise. So, nothing funny today.

Instead I'll tell you why I wrote the story about Missy the other day. It could have been a lot longer, had I filled-in details like the conversation I overheard between the 3 hot girls as to which one was going to give me the pity-fuck. My motivation for writing that story was not to make you think I'm a great guy for loving a wife who left him. It wasn't to make the guys envy me for getting drunk with 3 hot girls and watching porn. I really wanted to lead into when I learned to appreciate women.

ap·pre·ci·ate [Late Latin appretire, appretit-, to appraise. See appraise.]

  1. To recognize the quality, significance, or magnitude of
  2. To be fully aware of or sensitive to; realize
  3. To be thankful or show gratitude for
  4. To admire greatly; value
  5. To raise in value or price, especially over time

[Aside: Let's throw out #5 right now- that'll just get us in trouble, especially considering my recent joke about buying a Russian Bride...or was it a joke?]

I think if you were to ask 100 men what it means to appreciate a woman, 90 of them would give you a definition most like #3. 6 might give you a definition like #4 and 3 would say something along the lines of #1. Those answers aren't wrong per se, because it's a good thing to be thankful for, admire, and recognize the quality of a woman. But there's something special about #2. Maybe I'm being generous to say that 1 in 100 would say something along those lines. Maybe I'm being overly cynical. And I'm not trying to toot my own horn [aside: because we already know how much self-aggrandizing behaviour seriously irks me] but I think I'm the kind of guy who can honestly say "I'm aware of or sensitive to women." More qualifying: I don't mean 'sensitive' with respect to feelings. It's a strange awareness and maybe I can't describe it to you.

But I remember very clearly having lunch with my wife, after she left me the first time/before the divorce, and I sat across the table from her absolutely transfixed with the shape of her face. A lightbulb had gone on and I've never looked at a woman (any woman, all women) the same. I notice the subtlety of the curve around the top of the jawbone, the point of the chin. The smoothness of a woman's skin, freckles, dimples. Eyelids. Maybe if I had been listening to what she was saying [aside: I wasn't] things might have worked out differently. Whatever. Two years ago I would have been one of the 90 I mentioned above. Now, I'm hyper-sensitive to what makes a woman beautiful. I used to play around with an online dating site, and one of them had (has?) a quiz where you look at different facial features and give your preferences. [aside: It's not a pass-fail kind of quiz, unless you're married and you pick the opposite of your spouse] I don't know how scientific it is, but WOW! It really gave me something to think about.

Long-story long: If I could teach you how to appreciate, to be fully aware of or sensitive to the man or woman in your life, it would be a Christmas present you'd never forget.

Friday, December 03, 2004

More leftovers

I'm thinking about getting me one of those mail-order Russian brides. My finances are a little tight at the moment, but I think they take Discover. I've seen Birthday Girl and yes, it scared me there for a bit. And I'm sorry that I keep going back to the Love Actually well, but I love the storyline between Jamie and Aurelia. They can't understand a word the other is saying but they still manage to fall in love. In my case, as those of you who read my blog and DO understand the words that come out of my head already know, the language barrier is probably a necessity.

I'm also thinking about getting a puppy and a motorcycle, also as soon as the finances straighten out. I'm pretty sure I want an Italian Greyhound and a Harley-Davidson Sportster. They ride a lot of motorcycles in Europe, so I think my Russian Bride would be ok with it.

Last up, 2 more stupid commercials: Much better if you've misplaced reality's phone number.
-First, a series of GMC truck ads where they ask questions like, "If an M1 Abrams Tank can have an Allison Transmission, why can't your truck?" Umm, because an M1 weighs a couple of tons and costs somewhere around $10MM? "If a skateboard can have an independent suspension, why can't your truck?" Dude, the guy who told you that a skateboard has an independent suspension also drinks the bong-water. They even compare their truck to a nuclear submarine. Just how stupid do you think I am?
-Second, the Hallmark store ad for a little snowman doll that plays Jingle Bells. A woman envisions leaving the doll at her neighbor's door, ringing the doorbell and running away. 1- How the hell did she get across the street so quickly to peek through the window? 2- Do you seriously expect me to believe that the old man's mutt wouldn't grab that vibrating, jingling doll and shake it until it's gums bleed?

Thursday, December 02, 2004


[Not enough to make a full meal of any of these, so here's the tidbits I've got left over...]

My finance class group came over Sunday to work on our third and final case study. I cleaned house, so they were rightly impressed. Tina even came over, and she didn't seem too shy. She brought Todd a piece of cake from a restaurant downtown, and I playfully whined about it a little. She brought me a piece of cake to class Wednesday night, and I teased her for a while that it needed a sticker on top that said "baked with love from Tina's kitchen." I was thinking about all the comments y'all left about her having a crush on me. Nothing came of my teasing, of course, and the cake was tonight's dinner.

The Annoying Professor's class is over and the villagers rejoiced (hurrah!) Well, both classes are over, but I'm especially glad to be rid of The Annoying One. Of course she left me with one more tidbit to obsess over, so let me set it up properly for you: Imagine you're presenting something. After the big build-up, you pull back the curtain and say "voila!" right? Not The Annoying One. She says "WALLAH!" and I bet she writes it that way too. I wrote her a polite, but critical, note on her end-of-semester evaluation that if she's going to tell the class over and over how perfect she is, it would help if she were actually perfect.

And if yesterday's entry gave you [aside: I'm specifically referring to Bonnie Heather here (aside aside: bonus points if you know why I always call her Bonnie Heather)] the impression that I'm all mature and shit, I'll tell you how juvenile I can be: In a recent lecture by The Annoying One while describing some analytical process she said, "Here's what you don't do..." and I start giggling. The guy sitting next to me starts giggling too (aside: don't worry, we were in a huge lecture hall, so no chance of getting busted) because we both know what's coming next...wait for it...she finished, "'s what you do do." *snort!*

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

My Wasted Heart

That's a line from Love Actually and I like it. It reminds me of Missy, a secretary I worked with once. She wasn't my secretary, rather the front-desk receptionist at the firm I used to work for, but she could be counted on to do all manner of secretarial duties. And beautiful. Christ, beautiful doesn't begin to describe her. Long shapely legs, a generous handful of ass, two full servings of breasts, and BIG brown eyes. Long dark hair with a little curl, but silky smooth at the same time. Great skin, smooth and unblemished. Gently, evenly tanned, characteristic of her hispanic heritage. And I was married.

I remember the day Missy interviewed for the front desk job. I caught a glimpse of her coming in the front door from my office at the rear of the suite. It was about this time of year, if I remember correctly, and she was wearing a short (but not too short) skirt and boots. I love winter, if for no other reason than the women of this town (and hopefully yours) bring out the short skirts and boots. I prayed and prayed that they'd hire her, and they did. The skirts got shorter after that, and the villagers rejoiced. (hurrah!) Missy was the master of the flirt, and she knew exactly which buttons to push. She'd tell me all about how bad her boyfriend was to her and she sure wished I wasn't married. Hell, I was beginning to think the same thing. She'd tell me how she finally dumped the boyfriend, and now all she had was her rabbit to keep her company.

Fast forward to the first time my then-wife moved out. Missy and a few other girls in the office figured it out and took pity on me. Drinks, dinner, more drinks...we wound up back at one girl's apartment and somebody put on some porn. I was on the floor while Missy sat on the sofa behind me playing with my hair. Guys, I swear it sounds like a Penthouse letter- I'm separated, drunk off my ass, watching porn with 2 hot girls and one REALLY hot girl- but I was there and lived to tell...

But nothing happened. I was married and my wife moving out wasn't my idea. I still wanted my marriage to work out. At some point I stood up and asked Missy to drive me back to my car (left at one of the bars). She did and it was a quiet, tense ride in her little pickup. We pulled into the now-empty parking lot and I got out. She rolled down her window, so I walked around to her side of the truck...another long awkward silence. I knew I should lean in and kiss her, at which point she'd follow me in my car back to my house, where she would give me the thing I wanted second-most in my life. Instead, I managed a weak "thanks" to which she replied, "asshole" then rolled-up her window and drove away.