Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Flying with a Broken Foot

December 30th, 2005 5 comments

It was two weeks ago that I came back home to California for a vacation with the family, and it wasn’t all that easy. I had broken my foot just ten days earlier, and was still in the process of getting used to the crutches that I would be using for the following month or two. I also made the mistake of trying to take the train from home to the airport.

At first, it seemed simple: taxi to the train station, train to Shinjuku, transfer to the Narita Express (NEX), get to the airport, and wheelchairs to the gate. The taxi and first leg of the train trip went without a hitch, and I was confident that all would go well. But not so fast, there bub. At Shinjuku, I had to get from the Keio Line to the JR NEX. Not so easy. First, a station worker sent me off on a wild goose chase that took me an easy 300 meters off course, telling me that an elevator was where it wasn’t, routing me way farther off my path than needed. 150 meters away from my destination, 150 meters back. Then another 100 meters or so to the ticket counter at Shinjuku. Those distances may be less than I count, but as I was on crutches all the way and was porting a heavy backpack, you will hopefully excuse the possible misjudgment of distance. Suffice it to say it was a long way on crutches, and by the time I got to the ticket office, I was sweating bullets and my good leg was killing me.

And then there were 20 people in line. All of whom, despite carefully not seeing the disabled guy in obvious serious discomfort, failed to offer me the chance to get ahead in line. There we no chairs, no place to rest. So I had to crutch-wait in line while post-exertion sweat doused me and I tried vainly to balance on crutches alone to give my good foot a break. Then there was the inevitable foul-up in the ticket (the clerk for some reason did not sell me the basic train fare, only charging me for the express surcharge. I found this out only after I had hobbled into the station, and tried to enter a coffee shop for a quick seating respite–bad idea, the place was a smoker’s refuge, choked with cigarette smoke.

From there, it got better–I asked for them to reserve a wheelchair for me at Narita. What I got, after a few minute’s wait, was two guys who came with a wheelchair right there, escorting me to the tracks. Good thing, too, because the car I was taking was waaay at the other end, and we got there only a few minutes before the NEX got there. After a nice train ride in, three guys were there to meet me at the airport terminal station, right outside the door, to wheel me to the check-in, and then an airline wheelchair to get me to the gate.

Then my luck gave out again: the “bulkhead seat” I had so ardently struggled to get from the airline turned out to be a bad move. Instead of being a spacious seat (one the airline claimed was reserved for injured people), it actually was more cramped than a regular seat. The bulkhead in front of the seat was just as close as a normal seat back in plain economy would be, but instead of having leg room under the seat ahead, the bulkhead just went straight to the floor, leaving perhaps the least foot space of any seat on the plane. And they gave me this seat as a confessed favor, knowing I had a broken foot.

I had to plead with the flight attendant for a regular seat–and got one, thirty-three rows back, farthest away from an exit or lavatory. Swell. Actually, that would be “swelled,” which my broken foot most certainly was, after I got through the flight. I had to either tuck my broken foot under the seat in front of me, where it could never extend fully, or on the floor in the narrow aisle, where it was in constant danger of being tromped on. Not pleasant.

I write this as I am flying back, and this time the trip is going much better. First, I was able to call the airline and get a seat in “Economy Plus,” which is basically Economy with three or four extra inches (a “special holiday gift,” the airline guy called it, though I’m sure O’Reilly would have been outraged by the agent’s attack on Christmas). Or, more accurately, “Economy Plus” is what regular Economy class used to be before they jammed the seats together; the “plus” means you get the old kind of seats. But believe me, that makes all the difference. Strangely, the bulkhead seats are in that section, despite the fact that they were even more cramped than Economy Normal.

A small aside–I got the wheelchair treatment at SFO to the gate, but the guy was really weird. He made very bizarre sounds unexpectedly. He’d be wheeling me along to my gate, and then suddenly he’d start making a sound like a sheep baa-ing. Or he’d suddenly blurt out the name of a celebrity for no reason and then shut up. Very surreal.

Anyway, after being wheelchaired in and seated first for today’s flight, I could tell that under-the-seat stretching would suffice, at least nominally. I still expected a swollen foot, but I’d be a bit more comfortable on the 10- to 11-hour flight.

But as the boarding continued, it became clear that this would not be a full flight, as it almost always is. In fact, seated on the right aisle seat in the center row, I had two seats free to my left, and a whole window-side row of three seats open to my right. That remained after the doors closed, and so I snagged the three window-side seats. That hasn’t happened for a long time.

So the flight has been going smoothly. Though you should know that airline seats are not designed for laying down across them–even with the seat arms up, the seat edges protrude up a bit, making for a bumpy bed. But I won’t complain too much about that. At least I can elevate my foot decently, even sitting up in one seat with my leg up on the third seat’s arm rest. Hopefully, not so much swelling this time.

Also, for the ride home–if I can catch the last one–I’ll be taking the Limousine Bus. Although the last bus headed for my neighborhood leaves about an hour after the scheduled landing time, I found on my trip in that being in a wheelchair means that you not only get wheeled in by staff, but they also wheel you past the security, immigration, and customs checkpoints reserved for flight crews. That’s fast. And on the way in, my luggage was tagged as priority, and so my suitcase was brought out in the first wave. Hopefully, I’ll get that again, and will have time to takkyubin (express-deliver) my luggage home overnight for $20 a pop, and catch the last Limousine Bus out to my area. From there, a quick taxi ride should bring me to my front door–no train transfers.

I’ll tag on an epilogue when I get home.

And here I am. The flight arrived on time, and I got wheeled around everywhere again. As before, the Japanese wheelchair service was better than on the U.S. side; where SFO wheeling was just one person, Narita supplied two people, who took me not only through immigration, baggage claim, and customs, but to the Limousine Bus window, the baggage express delivery service, and even up to the 4th floor to get me a Starbucks Frappuccino–they insisted. Then they got me to my bus stop, and I was off.

Certainly, for a broken foot, the Limousine Bus/taxi combo made a lot of sense; after such a long trip, doing a station transfer at Shinjuku on crutches would have killed me. As it was, I only had to hobble about 30 or 40 meters from where the bus let me off at Seiseki Sakuragaoka to the taxi terminal, then to my doorstep. In terms of cost, it kind of came out even, with the train narrowly beating out the bus (about ¥4500 for the train/train/taxi, and ¥4800 for the bus/taxi), though the bus had better seating than the Narita Express regular. On time, the bus actually beat the train; even with a fast non-injury-delayed train station transfer, the train option would have taken over two hours, while the bus/taxi combo got me home is almost exactly two hours.

So now to get back into the local time zone…

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December 13th, 2005 5 comments

OK, so I’m getting ready to go home for the holidays. I’ve got everything taken care of, especially in light of my broken foot. I’m going to takkyubin my luggage to the airport (“takkyubin” is kind of like Fed-Ex, but a broader service in Japan; one service they provide is hauling your luggage for you from point A to point B). I’ve got Green Car reservations on the Narita Express, wheelchair reservations for the airport, a bulkhead seat (first row of Economy class, where there are no seats in front of you) on the airplane… everything taken care of.

So last night, at about 2 a.m., I look at my luggage. And I realize that I haven’t made arrangements to takkyubin the suitcase. Well, I shouldn’t worry, I think–they’ll pick it up tomorrow and have it at the airport in time, right? Except when I go to Yamato Takkyubin’s web site to check, they say that you should have it picked up two to three days before your flight. Oh, great! Come the morning, my flight would be the next day. Have you ever tried to carry a big suitcase while on crutches? I haven’t, and I don’t want to try.

So there I am in a panic, figuring that I’ve completely blown it. Yamato doesn’t open till 8:00 am, and they require 2-3 days anyway. But I find another express company, called Sagawa, who seem to take calls all night. So I call them up. No problem, the guy says. We can have your bag at the airport the next day. I make the reservation for the pickup guy to come between 12 and 2 in the afternoon the next day, and relax. It’s taken care of. Close one! So I go to sleep.

This morning, I get woken up by a phone call. Some guy at Sagawa, calling me about my arrangement. The problem is, he doesn’t speak English, and I can’t understand what he’s saying. Something about “uketori” (pickup?) at the airport, and somehow maybe I can’t get my bag “chokusetsu” (directly). I quiz him, explain that I can’t understand, please speak simply, the whole nine yards. I try to get him to explain bit by bit. But no luck–he remains maddeningly vague. He tells me to call the “skyporter” at Narita, and I do so. He also does not speak English, and he is even less helpful and clear than the Sagawa guy. He can’t explain, and says I should call Sagawa. I call the Sagawa guy back up, he’s no help either. I ask him directly if they can deliver my bag to Narita as promised, and he won’t give me a direct answer.

Here’s a big cultural tip about Japan: when someone refuses to give a direct answer, and instead switches to high-level language, the answer is “no.”

So I begin to panic again. My Japanese coworker at school kindly agrees to call Sagawa for me to cut through the language problem, and confirms my fears: Sagawa doesn’t deliver to Narita. (So why did the guy I called last night tell me “no problem”?) Sagawa has just wasted my time when I’m already way late. At least they told me (kind of) that they couldn’t deliver my bag before they actually picked it up. But that doesn’t help me much.

Hoping against hope that Yamato will do the job despite the late hour, I call them up. Again, no one speaks English. I’m able to communicate my request to the dispatcher, who assures me that they can do this for me, they can get the suitcase there in time for my flight. That would be a relief again, except for the fact that that is exactly what the Sagawa guy said eight hours earlier. But I take a leap of faith and go for it. Trying to make sure I’ve got things covered, I call the downtown number for Yamato and get an English speaker, who assures me that they can get my bag to Narita by the next day before my flight, no problem. Oh yeah, they also inform me that on the shipping invoice, in the “to” area, I have to put “Narita Airport,” my airline, flight number and departure time. Useful info, good thing I called the second time.

Anyway, just as I was writing this, the Yamato guy showed up at my door, again assured me that it would get there on time, and took it away with the $16 fee. I’m still nervous, but at least a bit more hopeful now. At worst, I’ll have to buy luggage and clothes when I get to the U.S. Could be worse.

Too late, a friend made a suggestion which would have worked much better: I should have taken a taxi to Seiseki Sakuragaoka, a 5-minute taxi ride, from where I could have taken the Limousine Bus (why is it called a “limousine” bus?) to the airport, no transfers or anything. But it’s a bit too late to switch, so I’ll stay with what I’ve got. But it’s good information to know for the future.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2005, Travel Tags:

Double Moon

August 20th, 2005 Comments off

Apparently the Futago-Tamagawa fireworks show is tonight. I glimpsed the distant display out my window, and happened to note the just-rising moon right above it, from my perspective. Made for a very nice shot, which I thought I’d share. The very small smudge of light just above and to the left of the firework blossom is an airplane coming in for a landing at Haneda, by the way.


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Chofu Fireworks

July 26th, 2005 4 comments

This has been my first chance to get these photos up, from last Saturday’s fireworks show on the Chofu banks of the Tama River near where I live. Next weekend I might go out to Tachikawa and see if their festival is worth watching, but I haven’t decided yet. In early- or mid-August, Seiseki Sakuragaoka, also near where I live, will have yet another.




And then here are some stand-alone photos, just the small versions–but still some nice images.


By the way, that’s a train going through the bridge at the bottom of the photo above.






There might be more coming… I also have a bit of video. But this is all for the moment. I hope you enjoy them!

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January 6th, 2005 Comments off

Ah, may it be ever so smelly upon return. Not because it’s a sty or anything, I always clean it up before traveling–but after 2-3 weeks away, it starts to get that moldy empty-apartment smell. I’ve tried desiccators, leaving windows cracked open, closing doors and closing up drains, nothing keeps the smell from accumulating. Actually, the bath and toilet rooms are the only ones that don’t have the smell, so go figure. It takes a few days to get rid of, but it’s survivable. I just wish I knew what it was and how to keep it from happening.

The trip home went quite well, aside from my forgetting my cold cuts for noshing on the flight. The trip was about as good as one could normally expect from economy class. And, hey, I didn’t erupt into nosebleeds over the Pacific, so how much could you ask for? At the airport, the bags came down quickly enough, I got waved through customs, and there was a Narita Express at just the right time to allow me to takkyubin (express deliver) my bigger bag and then sit down for a caramel frappuccino at the airport Starbucks before getting on the train.

Arriving home was a slightly different matter. KDDI pulled a fast one on me. I got home to no Internet. I had ordered their “Hikari Plus” vDSL service a few weeks before I left, but the KDDI rep who came to help me fill out the forms promised me a mid-January start date, and said that the ADSL would continue until I got and set up the vDSL modem and asked them to switch. I left Japan on December 14th, early. And that’s when KDDI sent out the modem by takkyubin–a month before they said it would come. Had they warned me that such a thing might even possibly happen, I would have told them to not do it during my traveling. But early they were, and so they started my vDSL service on the 16th, and cut off my ADSL–without any indication I was ready for that–on the 18th. But since I had no idea the vDSL stuff would start so soon–a month before I was told to expect it–I could of course not be there to get the modem or set it up (being 5,000 miles away at the time). And when the ADSL got cut off, my HDD recorder lost its connection to the scheduling service. It still recorded the shows I asked for, but all are mislabeled.

But worse, I was supposed to email my folks and let them know I had gotten home OK. I couldn’t stay awake long enough to catch them by phone in the morning in California, and had promised to send them an email saying I was OK. But here was my Internet connection severed, with no way to connect to the new vDSL, the modem being with the takkyubin people. Fortunately, my brother–also living in Tokyo–was able to shoot off the email, so there was no panic at home, but I am somewhat miffed at KDDI for botching that one. And they still say that I have to pay for two and a half weeks of vDSL service despite not receiving any service whatsoever during that time. I’m not paying for being cut off without notice, not if I have anything to say about it.

But the modem got takkyubin’d to me this morning after I called them (it got delivered along with the second suitcase, in fact), and with a little assistance, I got it set up. A speed check claimed I was getting 44 megabits download speed, and 13.5 megabits upload. Not too shabby–more than 100 times what a lot of people in the U.S. get nowadays. Certainly fast enough for whatever I’m doing on the net these days.

Now to get over jet lag, and finish recovering so there’s no chance of me bleeding profusely when I start teaching again next week.

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Heading Home

January 5th, 2005 Comments off

Wow. I’m finally heading home. Not that there’s anything bad or good about leaving where I am or getting to where I’m going, it just seemed there for some time that I wasn’t gonna go anywhere for a while. The nosebleed was just so unpredictable–there was no telling when it would stop or rebleed or why. Probably pretty soon I’ll post in gruesome detail about the nosebleed situation, because it helps to record your experiences to help others (we wish we could’ve found something like that to better understand our situation). But not now. It almost feels too much like jinxing the trip home, and right now, the last thing I need is a jinx.

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New Year’s Eve

January 1st, 2005 Comments off

Usually I come back to Japan from my American Christmas vacation in time for New Year’s, so I can enjoy the event in Japan at a local shrine where they have fireworks, a traditional Japanese band, shi-shi mai dances, chidren dressed as hyotto-ko, free hot sake, and a nice bonfire. This year I’ll be enjoying it at home because of the whole nosebleed situation. The last time I stayed this late was the millennium, but I did not think to ask ahead–my family was planning nothing for the evening, and I would up watching TV at midnight by myself. But this time promises to be better, as everyone who can stay awake is planning to do so, and we’ll have a nice, warm little celebration at home.

Happy New Year!

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The Nosebleed Seat

December 21st, 2004 1 comment

Not actually a seat so much as a nosebleed. A major one. Or ones, that is. Bloody. Gruesome. I wouldn’t advise it.

They started coming a few days into the trip, after I’d had a throat cold and then an airplane trip. Then a few days after arriving, I got blood in my mouth, and then later that evening, a full-blown nosebleed. I mean it took twenty or thirty minutes to stop, and it was not just a trickle, it was a gusher. I’ll spare you the gory details.

Even though Japanese national insurance does not cover treatment in the U.S., and I have no insurance just for the trip (something that will change in the future, I assure you), we figured that we’d get me to a doctor anyway. Well, four days, three doctors, and six or seven nosebleeds later (they would start after almost any activity, finally got three bad ones in one day)–most of them similarly gory messes–I finally got the treatment I needed. I got my nose packed. Both nostrils. It may not sound that bad, but just try having someone stuff WAY too much gauze–or one of those stiff, non-nostril-shaped sponges–down your nostrils, with insufficient anesthetic. It is not fun, trust me.

And yet, if bleeding continues around the packing, we go to stage three: a balloon inserted into the nasal cavity and then inflated. Which they say is extremely painful, so much so that I’d have to be hospitalized for the pain shots. And already, on an outpatient basis, this is costing us hundreds of dollars. Such a stay would be thousands.

Another problem: my flight back. These things don’t heal quickly. And a serious nosebleed, of the type from which I suffer, can even be fatal on an over-water international flight. And the tickets are non-refundable, non-changeable. Delaying would cost another thousand dollars.

The only possibility is to have the nose unpacked later this week (assuming no new bleeds take place), and then immediately re-packed; after that, I could take the airplane ride home. A 16-hour ordeal from door to door, arriving home early evening. Then, the next day, to the local hospital in Japan, to have the nose unpacked, and treatment continued.

Not exactly the Christmas season I’d expected. Still, let’s hope against hope for the merely miserable.

And now you know why I haven’t blogged on the Bush press conference yet. I watched it, took extensive notes, wrote three paragraphs, and then bled a lot. Maybe cause and effect, we’ll never know.

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Local Shots

December 18th, 2004 1 comment

So one of the aims in testing the zoom on the new camera is to go outside and try to shoot some wildlife. The lesser catch was another black squirrel, and I just missed a few woodpeckers.


But the real find, a bird not often seen hereabouts, is the Stellar’s Jay, a crested Jay that is found more often near water (though there is a creek nearby). But I always have had a liking for crested birds. The shot below is reduced from its original size, by the way.

One would expect that hummingbirds would not winter this far north, but here’s one. I do hear them quite a bit, their call is fairly distinctive. And I guess that the Silicon Valley area is quite warm enough this time of year to accommodate the little buzzers. This one was sitting atop a branch over my house, spotted from the backyard; the bird is only a few inches tall, and was about fifty feet away. The image to right is cropped, but not enlarged in any way. Not the clearest image, but considering the size of the subject and the distance involved, it’s still a pretty good shot. It’s an Anna’s Hummingbird, by the way, if I’m not mistaken.

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Pre-Flight Jitters

December 15th, 2004 Comments off

(Actually, this will be posted well after I fly out.) If you are one of those people who can easily shake the feeling that you’ve forgotten something when going to travel overseas, then you’re lucky. I always have some nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten something. Last trip home, it was whether or not I locked the front door on the way out; I worried the whole way and then had to call the landlord in Japan to go and check for me. This time, it’s a general feeling borne of having left in too much of a hurry.

Usually I’m much better about time when I leave on trips, often giving myself hours of extra buffer time. This time I cut it close on leaving the apartment, and rushed around in a slow-motion adrenaline half-panic while trying to throw everything I needed into my backpack and figure out what did I forget this time? Strangely, I think this time I didn’t forget anything, unlike my usual experience of have left behind something considerable though not major. On one trip to Wisconsin a few years back, I forgot to pack my shirts, and remembered while on the airplane. And it was a business trip, so I couldn’t rely on home support. I had to stop off at a shopping mall on the rental car ride to the hotel and buy a few new shirts on the fly.

But on this trip I think it’s all going smoothly. Got to the train station just in time to catch the train (though the taxi driver played hide-and-seek with me at first), got the express OK, got into the airport and just beat out a very long and tedious line at check-in, then went straight to this nice computer lounge. Heck, I even got seats way up from, row 20 on the way home (and row 19 on the way back).

And I even remembered to lock the door this time.

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Modern Airports

December 15th, 2004 Comments off

So, one nice perk about airports nowadays is that they tend to have nice lounges for anyone to use where you can whip out your laptop and plug it in at a desk. So instead of wasting away for an hour or so in a seat near the boarding counter, I can hop downstairs, plug in my computer (don’t have to worry about draining the batteries), and sit down in a nice cushioned rolling chair. Then I can work or play away until the flight is called up. Today, it’s blogging for a while, then maybe watch the latest Simpsons episode downloaded from BitTorrent. Cool.

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It’s Never Right

December 10th, 2004 Comments off

This always happens to me. Back when the yen was down to the 80’s per dollar, I had no money to exchange. I always miss the sweet rate. Just a few days ago, it was at 102.1, and had taken forever to get there. Less than a week passes, and now the damn thing’s back up to 105.8–more than a yen higher than yesterday, a big jump, like the other big jumps over the past several days. I mean, for crying out loud. Today I wanted to change but had no time, so it’ll have to be Monday. And the way the rate works, if it goes favorable for buying dollars, the banks don’t change the official rate until the next day; if the rate goes more favorable for them to sell dollars–worse for buyers like me–they change the rate almost immediately. I checked on that once, a bit of a scam there. But it means that even if the rate breaks my way Monday before I buy dollars, I still won’t see anything from it–but the rate could get worse and I could get socked by it.

Good thing I don’t play the stock market. With my luck in these things, I’d be broke by now.

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China Wrap-up, #2

September 5th, 2004 Comments off

In the Xiang Yang-style flea markets in Shanghai, there are always watch merchants (with their aforementioned stash of fake Rolex watches), and every watch merchant had a particular watch, right up front: the Waving Mao Watch. Tacky and cheap, they were nonetheless tempting: your very own official watch from China with a picture of Mao, his hand waving back and forth with the seconds. Kind of a reverse-Mickey-Mouse watch.

For some reason, Tang is a highly popular drink, with a variety of flavors, and local knock-offs following it.

Here’s a photo of the nutcake that I mentioned before, sold by guys with a possible Middle-eastern origin.

This is also something you could see quite often—people sitting out on the street in groups, day and night, talking, socializing, and sometimes just relaxing. Tables, chairs, and sometimes beds are included in the setup.

Another interesting difference was people’s attitudes about kids. Ken and I often started talking to neighborhood kids who showed an interest in the foreigners walking around, and no one seemed to worry about it at all. In a place where theft, pick-pocketing, and other crimes are fairly commonplace, apparently assaults on children are not so much of an issue; refreshing, that.

To finish the night, a photo of a building in Pu Dong at night, after Ken and I came down from the tower observation deck.

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China Wrap-up, #1

September 3rd, 2004 Comments off

Now that I’ve been comfortably back for a few days and have been able to get some business taken care of, a wrap-up of the trip is in order. There is a lot of stuff that I couldn’t or didn’t include in blog entries before–too much for just one entry now, so I’ll do it in bunches over the next week or two.

Taxis. I mentioned them before, being cheap and all. They have an initial charge of between one and one and a half dollars, which covers a certain distance, and then the fare increases bit by bit–but they’re really cheap in the long run. I took them quite a lot. Note in the photo below that the drive is shielded in a one-seat plexiglas semi-bubble; one can only presume robberies or something similar prompted that. A lot of the official taxis were VW vehicles, for some reason.

There were also “black taxis,” possibly so named because their backseat windows and rear windshield have black tinting on them, save for an untinted strip across the back windshield. They are smaller vehicles, unmarked, and you may wonder why they have stopped near you, waiting. The fare is negotiated, but don’t be surprised if they renegotiate later, or jack up their prices if you want them to take you to a second location from a place other taxis cannot easily be found.

Ostentatious Signs. I wish I had more photos of these; I mostly spied them when out on the “chicken bus” in the more rural areas, and it was hard to take photos–also because they so often took me by surprise. Sometimes even the most innocuous or humble businesses would have incredibly ornate and imposing signs. You would see a sign twenty feet high, on giant concrete pillars, with gaudy and oversized lettering; reading the English version below, you would see that this magnificent entry sign belonged to something like the “Control Valve Release Mechanism Factory” or some such. It was not just limited to signs, but also the buildings themselves. I even saw one factor whose facade was a full-sized replica of the White House (as in Washington, D.C.). I noticed a building near Ken’s apartment that was giant and ornate, like a mausoleum; it turned out to be a bath house (see photo below).

Knock-offs. Pirated and copied stuff is abundant. Of course, you have your $1-pirated-DVD salesmen everywhere, but more substantial stuff is copied as well. Below is a restaurant chain’s logo, one I saw several times; note how it is a rather obvious copy of the KFC logo. One time, Ken bought what he thought were Oreo cookies (common in China, with many flavors–I liked mint), but they turned out to be bad-tasting knock-offs. Pringles chips, Starburst candies, etc. I’m sure the copying applied to lots of other kinds of products, but I didn’t get the chance to get it all down in the time I was there.

Traffic. I may have mentioned that once or twice. Hectic, not too organized. I saw taxis run red lights not infrequently. They blanch at doing so where cops are stationed, but elsewhere are rather fearless. Pedestrians, bicyclists, moped riders and others mix and mingle in intersections. Drivers manage to squeeze through, missing people by inches. Vehicles ram through intersections, and if you don’t watch out, they’ll come straight at you as if they’re going to run you over.

Honking horns is considered a form of communication. Cars honk at people and at other cars more than bicyclists ring their bells in warning. There is constant honking going on. Taxis are common culprits of this, and perhaps that’s the reason why they have to have their horns muffled. Many streets have a no-honking sign (pictured above right).

It all seems a dangerous setup, but somehow they manage.

I did enjoy a common form of traffic, though–the three-wheeled cart-bike. They are used by individual businesspeople, like those who set up portable selling stalls for food or pirated goods, or for people moving things from place to place. I saw (but was unable to photograph) a rig I called the “Alhambra Truck,” a three-wheeled bike laden with water cooler jugs. (By the way, don’t let the blue spigot fool you, the water is never cooled.)

I often saw these bikes laden with overwhelming cargo, like the mattress pictured below, or on my trip back to the airport, a pile of blankets about 20 feet high. You see these things everywhere.

More later.

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Shanghaied in Shanghai

August 31st, 2004 Comments off

As I type, I am in Shanghai International Airport, sitting in front of a departure gate display, as this is the only available power socket, or so the information guy tells me. The flight leaves in about an hour and a half, and I figured that I’d get in some last-minute blogging.

This morning was a bit of an adventure. Wanting to get to the airport on time for an early departure hour, I decided that I would not hassle with the buses (have to catch the train to some place or another, identify the right bus, puzzle out the schedule, etc.), and instead would take a taxi ride.

So I woke up at 5 am, got everything packed (one camera battery pack unaccounted for, probably somewhere hidden in my luggage), got cleaned up, dressed up, and then headed out with Ken to the street to catch a taxi, by which time it was 6:15 or so.

There I hit the first snag: not many taxis seem to cruise that street in the morning. After waiting several minutes, then walking for a few more, we finally spotted a cab and flagged him down. Ken handled the translation for me, and we seemed to get across to the driver that I wanted to go to Pu Dong Airport, taking the A4, A20 and A1 expressways, and learned from the driver that it would take one hour. Ken had a bit of trouble, though, because the driver spoke with a Shanghai accent so strong that even I could hear it. But we seemed to communicate everything OK. So I got into the cab, said goodbye and thanks to Ken, and the driver sped off.

In the wrong direction.

At first, I figured that he was simply headed for a convenient cross street. After a few minutes, that possibility soon withered away and died. I tried to indicate to the driver that we were, indeed, going in the wrong direction. He seemed undeterred, and when I showed him the map and said, “Pu Dong Airport,” he nodded vigorously, and repeated, “Pu Dong!” and kept going in the exact opposite direction as the airport. I gave him a few more minutes, in case he had some miracle maneuver under his hat, but no. He kept on going the wrong way. And I also had just noticed that he had not activated his meter yet.

I insisted then that he was going the wrong way, by eloquently pointing again at the map, pointing behind us, and saying “Pu Dong Airport! That way!” a bit louder (that always works). He again tried to reassure me (I think), but this time added a bit of extra information: he slid his ID placard aside and revealed the placard of a different driver. That worried me, but perhaps explained it–that he was going off-shift, and had to pick up the other driver. The problem was, where was he going to do that? After one minute? After an hour? I got out my watch, and pointed to it, hoping to express the idea that I was on a tight schedule and had no time for detours. He tried to express the idea that it would only take a few minutes. Very upset, and considering whether to stop him, get out, and flag another taxi, I waited as he went further from my destination.

The problem with switching cabs, of course, was that it might be hard to find another, and I don’t speak Chinese–so there was a chance that things would just get worse. As I pondered this, the driver turned down a side road, a very deserted-looking country road, a dirt road in fact, and for a few seconds I feared that maybe I was going to get robbed or something. But within a few seconds, I spotted someone who looked suspiciously like another taxi driver walking toward us, and sure enough, the first driver stopped and let him in. He also did not speak English, but at least we were now turned around and headed in the right general direction.

After a mile or so, the first driver stopped, got out, and the new driver got in the driver’s seat, and we were off again, sans the first driver. The new driver confirmed via the map I had and sign language that he would take A4, A20, and A1, so I relaxed a bit–until he turned on the meter. Since we were several miles out from where I was picked up, I insisted he turn it off again until we got back to where I had flagged the cab down in the first place. And as we reached that point, there was Ken–20 minutes later, still standing there, now waving the cab down–I got the driver to stop and talked to Ken. He had seen me going off in the wrong direction and had worried, but twenty minutes? At the crack of dawn? With no guarantee that I’d be heading back this way? That’s a friend.

So Ken talked to the new (and more clearly-speaking) driver, established that everything was OK, and bade me off again, this time in the right direction. The ride then took about 45 minutes, and I got to the airport on time. But that’s as much excitement as I’d like to experience for an international trip. Let’s hope it calms down from here.

Note: It did. Got back, despite a really bad landing by the NorthWest pilot–even worse than the one to Shanghai (what, is it training week or something?), my luggage popped out almost right away, had a Frappuchino while waiting for the train (not a long wait), and was back home sooner than could’ve been hoped. Whew.

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Angel in the Tower

August 30th, 2004 Comments off

I’ve decided to relatively slack off these last few days, and get more blogging done in the U.S. The Internet connections here are just far too slow to keep up with this pace, and I’ll be back very soon in any case.

The other day, Ken and I went to a large tower in Shanghai, the Oriental Something-Or-Other Tower, the usual obligatory high vantage point of any big city you visit.

I will be posting several photos from there soon, of course, but I thought I’d post at least one now that I really like. A small girl, waiting pensively for her family to finish their viewing activities. I caught her in profile, using a zoom in relatively low light, but it came out nicely anyway.

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Rave Reviews

August 29th, 2004 Comments off

One thing visitors quickly learn about in China is the existence of pirated DVDs. For a dollar and under, you can get DVDs of new or old movies; I mentioned this a few days ago.

What I didn’t mention is how they seem to slap together the cover art, especially for newer movies. It looks legit, but if you read carefully, sometimes the writing is strange, or even not connected to the DVD’s movie at all.

Today I saw one that was hilarious, for a movie called “Laws of Attraction.” Obviously they lifted a review of the film and put it on the back of the DVD cover. But they also obviously could not understand what the review said. See for yourself:

Categories: The Lighter Side, Travel Tags:

Points of Amusement 1

August 28th, 2004 Comments off

Just as it is in Japan, in China there are occasional misuses of English. Here are a few I’ve noted in the past week:

This sign becomes more clear when one notes that the sign below it reads “Fire Hyd Rant.”

A similar sign–they just don’t know how to refer to a fire hose correctly.

The following are not exactly language errors, but do seem a bit useless:

After all, if a person is going to throw themselves in front of a moving train, forbidding it is not exactly going to do much good. As if someone would plan to jump, see the sign, and then decide that they did not want to risk breaking the rules.

Here’s what was seen on a package of potato chips:

There are also things not linguistic in nature, but still rather amusing. For example, how Chinese males cool off in the hot and humid weather. In Japan, you rarely see a shirtless man, but here in China, they are fairly common, which makes sense; I don’t see how Japanese salarymen survive humid weather in the 90’s in full business suits.

Anyway, in China, some men will take off their shirts, but others will do something that can have a comical effect:

And that’s not just a special case you see here. That’s what I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of males in China, child and adult, do to cool down. Always the same, too–shirt rolled up to the chest, bellies exposed–just like pictured above.

The big, protruding stomachs really make the difference.

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August 27th, 2004 3 comments

For today’s adventure, Ken and I went to a place he likes to go on some days off, a lakeside city called Hangzhou (“Hahng-zow”). We made sure to get up early so we could catch the train–it’s a two-hour ride from Shanghai (I write this as we are taking the train ride back).

On trains in China (or at least hereabouts), you can get “hard” or “soft” accommodations (seats or sleepers), the “softness” referring to the luxury of the appointments. Not exactly the difference between “first class” and “steerage,” but still, there is a difference. We’re taking the soft seats, of course.

There’s not really too much to say about Hangzhou; it’s a nice city, fewer beggars and hard-tactic salespeople, but otherwise much like Shanghai–except you’ve got the lakefront, which is very nice. I’ll let the photos below explain a lot of it. Shopping streets, a long lakefront park, that kind of thing. We walked, boiled in the heat, stopped to drink every so often, ate lunch (KFC–I can’t get popcorn chicken in Japan), ate dinner (ramen, Japanese-style). Went back to the station.

Still, another day well-spent. Tomorrow, we take a day off, sleep in, shop locally, watch videos. I have got to give my feet a rest. They’re killing me. And that’s with good shoes.

They were selling bubble guns, and this lady was kind enough to demonstrate

For some reason, the KFC clerks were dancing outside… don’t know if it was a promotion or a hobby…

Ken was able to chat with some very charming young women at the pagoda

A crowd gathered in the park around a man singing to musical accompaniment

A very nice Starbucks here

More photos later…

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The Bund and Nanjing Road

August 26th, 2004 1 comment

One of the sights to see in Shanghai is a double, Nanjing Road and the Bund. Nanjing Road is a shopping street, and the Bund is a riverfront area famous for its view. If you like upscale shopping more than downscale, then Nanjing Road will suit you better; this is not as much a place for bargaining as Xu Jia Hui market, save for some back alleys where you can do some bargaining. But some things don’t change, like the endless stream of Rolex salesmen and a good supply of beggars. One of them really hounded us, a woman with a baby, who not only followed us for a few blocks, repeating “Xie xie” (“shay-shay,” or “thank you”), but also resorted to grabbing our arms, trying to pull us back to stay and give her some money.

Down an alley way between some of the regular stores we could spy a cheap-market area, like a mini-Xu Jia Hui. We went in to get an electric plug strip, a “brick” with a surge protector. On the way out, we stopped at a DVD shop, which had the usual display of pirate DVDs. This place, however, did not just have the thin cardboard holders with the DVDs, but also had more substantial, thick cardboard holders, like fair approximations of some commercial DVD cases. We asked what the difference was between the two, and were told that the ones in the thin cases were about one dollar apiece, while the thicker ones on the wall were $4 each. Why the difference in price, we asked; the guy in the shop replied, in an eagerly sincere kind of voice, “the more expensive ones are real!” Ken and I both laughed, as it was all too obvious that the “real” ones were just as fake as the others, given that they included titles like Spiderman 2 and Catwoman, movies still out in theaters and not yet released on DVD. In fact, the “real” ones were likely of lesser quality, as new releases are theater-camcorder versions, while the older titles are direct rips from commercial DVDs.

Nanjing Road

Other than that, I don’t have much to say about Nanjing Road–for the serious shopper, maybe it has its charms, but I found little to do there. The Bund was more interesting, visually, at least. There was a beautiful view, definitely a nighttime sort of thing rather than a daytime one, for all the lights on display. There were a lot of people there, most for the light show. We enjoyed it for a while, then had some dinner at a small pasta shop on the way back, then took the train as far as it would go and finished the trip with a $5 taxi trip the rest of the way.

Views from the Bund at night

On the way back, Ken and I were finally able to ask someone–as it was, a taxi driver–what the price of gas is in China. We’d seen lots of gas stations, most of them the Sinopec brand, but they never showed a price. After much gesturing and figuring of vocabulary, we got the idea across to the driver, and he told us that the price was Y3.4 per liter, or roughly $1.60 per gallon. But the driver said that prices had gone up this year, as they probably have everywhere, and said the cause was the Bush administration and the action in Iraq. Not angrily, but just matter-of-factly.

Also in the taxi, I noticed some stores that I had not expected to see–including an Ikea store, of all things. There was also a UniQlo store, a popular clothing store chain from Japan, which Ken said is considered kind of pricey here, though in Japan it is more of a discount place. Other than that, I noticed several food store imports, including of course McDonald’s and KFC, and then there is Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and the Japanese beef-noodle chain Yoshinoya.

One other thing–when on the train into town in the early afternoon, I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before: a nuclear power plant. Not a big deal, but it was a bit surprising to see the twin towers that in the U.S. have become synonymous with nuclear plants.

Tomorrow: Ken and I visit Hangzhou, a city to the south with some lovely lakeside views.

In a day or two: how Chinese guys cool off on hot days, and some pretty funny “Engrish,” Chinese-style.

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