Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Three Ins

Sometimes when you have been living in China for a while, you get the feeling that you live in a land that is truly an "Emerging Country".  There is a mind boggling amount of construction--buildings, highways, tunnels, subways, high speed trains, new schools, factories.  Infrastructure!  Our city has more orderly traffic and less litter.  There are clean restrooms!  Then something happens to jerk you back to the reality that all of these shiny new things are in the control of people who have missed the bus to Emerging Land.
Three days ago our water stopped running.  It happens.  Sometimes work needs to be done, and you can't fix pipes with the water running.  This was about 1 pm.  We have a little advantage in that we have two sources of water.  A separate supply goes to the kitchen, so we could fill a pot to flush the toilet, and had a place to wash.  It was working fine.
After a few hours, there was still no water.  After inquiries, I found that they were cleaning the holding tank, which is on the roof.  This happens periodically.  The process usually begins in the morning, and the water is back on by dinner time.  These guys started in the afternoon and the water was still not working the next morning.  After 24 hours, it was back on, but it was just dribbling, kind of like a very old man peeing.  It would eventually fill the toilet tank, but was kind of a sad thing to try to shower under.  The kitchen adjoins the bathroom, and I was getting ripe in the subtropical spring weather, so I did a bucket brigade bath using water from the kitchen sink.  At times like this, I'm grateful for my former hippie lifestyle, and frequent long camping wherein I often had to resort to bathing like this.
It is now three days later, and the water is still coming out slow, although the old man peeing is may only be in his mid 70's now.  The shower eventually gets the suds off with enough patience and you can actually wash your hands in the sink.  It has become obvious that someone hired fools to do the job, probably because they were cheap, a relative, or both.  They've botched it up, and moved on to their next bit of anarchy.  
Which brings me to an observation. Much of the help here suffers from what I call "The Three Ins of China":  Incapable.  Incompetent.  Indifferent.

  1. Incapable.  A lot of people here are incapable of doing the most rudimentary things.  If a fluorescent tube goes out, they call a handy man, because they have no idea how to fix something.  I blame the education system, in which young people spend their entire existence in class, doing homework or studying for tests. There is no effort to teach problem solving or how to do things. However, they are masters at test taking.
  2. Incompetent.  When I have had someone come to install or repair something, they often botch it up, and I end up finishing the job.  My favorite is the guy who needs to borrow your tools. The internet guys didn't have a ladder.  The guy installing the on demand gas water heater didn't have a screw driver.    I've seen guys stack dining room chairs in a kind of pyramid in order to reach high places.   I am not making this up.
  3. Indifferent.  They don't give a shit.  This applies to the people who paint.  There is lovely tile work in many places here ruined by paint dripped and spilled.  Masking tape and drop cloths are an alien concept.  The people with the spraying machines just start spraying a wall, covering the moss, mold and dirt with an uneven, gloppy coat that goes all over the place.  Sidewalks, trees, windows, vehicles all become targets.                          Indifference pervades all strata of Chinese society.  It also serves as a necessary survival tool to keep your head from exploding.  It's the attitude you need when Opera Man comes on the sound system twice a day, and when you live in an overcrowded society full of incompetent, indifferent idiots.

I'm not saying everyone is like this, but China has only very recently been liberated from a long, difficult time.  Most folks have just come from villages, which not only are quite backward, but have endured horrific suffering and a prolonged attack on human decency.  This country is emerging from its own Dark Ages.  I also haven't had a decent shower in three days, and it makes me a little unkind in my judgement.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Motorbike Hall of Shame

As I have mentioned earlier, the police here in Zhanjiang have done an impressive job in reigning in, and bringing under control the free form, libertarian, chaos which was the motorbike traffic mayhem.  I noticed the other day a new tool in their arsenal.  At busy intersections, traffic offenders were pulled over and forced to stand on the corner holding a sign declaring their offense.  I'm not sure how long they had to stand there, but I've heard for at least an hour.  Given the busyness of the streets, that's plenty of time for plenty of people to get a gander.  Since Chinese are obsessive gossips, it's highly likely that everyone who knows the offender will be aware of their transgression and public loss of face by the end of the day.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Donghai Island and Landfill

I normally work weekends, but a very big festival and holiday happened last Saturday, so I got the weekend off.  What to do?  I contacted our Russian friends and we decided the beach might be fun.  I've been pretty fond of an underdeveloped barrier island, Nansan Island.  It has a nice beach, and not many people go there.  However, our friends had never been to Donghai Island.  I've been there once years ago, on a sunny day in September.  I remembered it as a busy place with a nice beach and good surf and a pretty good crowd of people as well.  Time to revisit!
We're off!
The big event that was the cause of the my weekend holiday was the Qingming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day.  It's another one of those times where things go haywire while this giant nation does something en masse.  What happens in our city is that anyone who lives less than a day away from their hometown goes back home to pay homage to their ancestors, burn some fake paper wealth to placate the greedy spirits and hang with the family.  Our town's population consists mostly of first or second generation rural folks, so they all head back to whatever backwater they came from.  The city streets were nigh deserted, and most shops were closed when we boarded the stumpy, ramshackle bus to Donghai.  The weather was cloudy and humid with temperatures in the low 20's Celsius.  Not great swimming weather, but we thought it might get warmer, besides we were getting out of the city and were off to enjoy Nature!
  On the way to the island, we passed the usual red brick squat buildings that line the highway.  There were lots of roadside vendors selling holiday items:  fruit gift boxes, paper goodies to burn for Granny, and massive rolls of firecrackers, good for terrorizing ghosts and chickens.  The island is connected to the mainland by an unremarkable 4 lane viaduct set about 20 meters above the water.  If you are not paying attention, you have no idea you are going over the water.  This low lying bridge allows you a view of not much.  I noticed a few boats and some kind of dredge that keeps the channel clear enough for whatever kind of craft that is squat enough to go under this bridge.  Huck Finn's raft, maybe.  The dredge was not working that day.
Donghai island is very flat, with the highest point being a smokestack on a very large, unfinished steel mill.  Most people I know hope that it remains unfinished.  The view is kind of homely.  Red brick buildings, shacks, a few multi story homes, some apartment buildings, and some farms.  Litter abounds.  Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Donghai Island is the refuse that graces the landscape.  Plastic bags drift in the wind, and there are piles of junk all along the highway, some smoldering.  This gives the atmosphere a marvelous burnt plastic smell that wistfully reminds one of childhood experiments with matches and toy army men.
There are some OK places on this island.  I know, because I have been to one, but you do need to get off of the main road.  The bus stopped to pick up and drop off various passengers, and before the drive got too tedious we arrived at the gate to Donghai Island Resort.  (I'm assuming that's the name, since the gateway was written in Chinese.  It could have some jazzy title proclaiming the glories of Nature and or the Party, but I'll just refer to it as "The Resort")
Our bus, like most that do these local runs, had a woman who collected the fares on board, a conductress, if you will.  As we entered The Resort, the bus stopped and another woman boarded.  The two women exchanged greetings in a manner that was loud and had a tone similar to what one might have if the other had been sleeping with her husband.  Even though they were shouting in the local dialect, it was apparent there was no love love lost.  Our conductress got off in order to prevent physical violence and we were asked to cough up 10 RMB for the entry fee.  We were given tickets that had an Olympics theme, circa 2008, the gate keeper got off, our conductress got back on, and we headed into The Resort.
You wouldn't know you were in The Resort other than the fact that you passed through the gateway, which by the way, could have used a fresh coat of paint and some new graphics.  There were no lovely gardens or landscaping, unless you count the presence of blowing litter landscaping.
We pulled into the parking area, and decided to get some lunch before enjoying Nature.  We had our Chinese friends choose a dining establishment, figuring their knowledge of local customs and the lingo would give us a leg up in getting a good lunch.  Alas, we were doomed to feast on swill.  They had no shrimp.  They had no fried noodles, which every restaurant in Guangdong province does.  The marinated cucumbers were apparently sliced with a hammer.  The tofu was drowned in liquid smoke.  The soy sauce was cheap and turning bad.  The rice was leftover, and sort of reheated.  The tea was served in a plastic water jug.  In short, it was crap.  I have a feeling all the food along the strip was probably like that since nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves anywhere.  We asked to use the restroom and were directed upstairs to what was apparently the staff housing.  There was a dirty storeroom with a bunch of dead kitchen equipment and hanging laundry, some doorways that led to various living quarters, and a very nasty restroom.
It was time to try our luck at the beach, although had we known what was in store for us, we might have chosen to head home.  The Resort consists of two rows of run down restaurants and shops that sell snacks, drinks, beach paraphernalia and stupid hats.  It's all cobbled together with various pieces of plywood, sheet metal and whatever debris has washed up on the beach.  I was particularly impressed by the old Styrofoam box that was utilized as a trash bin. This Okie inspired promenade is the gateway to the AAA rated Donghai Beach. 
Since the wind was coming off of the water we were spared the essence of burnt plastic.  Instead we got a good face full of charcoal smoke and ancient cooking oil.  A woman was set up at the head of the beach with a rusty homemade contraption that held a large wok filled with what appeared to be fairly fresh motor oil, but what was most likely "gutter oil".  She was frying up some kind of dough and shrimp Frisbee, which is apparently a local delicacy and had many a rube jostling for their chance at one of those tasty carcinogens. 
Finally we got to the beach.  There were a few hundred people there, mostly college age.  It was cloudy and not exactly warm.  We waded in the surf and decided to stroll down the beach.  We didn't need to go far get to the "natural" portion of the beach, that is the edge of where The Resort ceases to clean.  It became a beach combers paradise, especially if you were interested in fluorescent tubes, light bulbs, old shoes, bottles, plastic, Styrofoam,  bits of fishing net, and plastic bags.  With a little effort I'm sure you could find some used condoms or medical waste, but we were satisfied with what was there.  If you grew weary of looking at the beach debris, you need only cast your eyes uphill to the embankment above the beach.  The trash there was thick enough to cause one to think it might be a landfill.  After about half a mile we reached a small stream.  With a little imagination about where that water had been, no one had the nerve to wade across, so we decided to turn around.

There is a fairly new hotel overlooking the beach at The Resort and next to it is a row of abandoned bungalows that look like they were never quite finished since they lack doors and windows.  The hotel was lacking guests, although I am not sure why.
We decided we had experienced all that The Resort had to offer, and although we could have had a pony ride if we had wanted, we decided to head back to the city.
The bus ride back was more eventful than our trip coming out. Since The Resort is at the end of the line for the buses, we were first on and got ringside seats by the door, for a good look at the mass migration back to the city.  People had finished paying tribute to the dead and were ready to quit their home towns.  The first stop outside of The Resort filled the rest of the seats and most of the aisle.  At the second stop there were about 20 people waiting and they all tried to get on the bus at once using the time tested methods of shoving, jostling and elbowing.  There was only room for about a quarter of their number, but they kept at it.   It was a peasant scrum of the first order.   I saw a couple of old women getting shoved around pretty well, and one had her face smashed up against the side of the bus.  I was beginning to understand my city friends' attitudes toward what they snidely refer to as "countryside people".  When it eventually became apparent that anyone who could squeeze in had already managed to so, the crowd reluctantly backed off to wait for the next bus so they could repeat this performance of human non- cooperation.
We dawdled back, pulling over at every stop so that the conductress could show each sullen crowd that the bus was full.  Occasionally a few people would get off at a stop and a few people would get on, with the crowd repeating their imitation of  refugees trying to escape the murderous Mongol horde.
We eventually got off of the island and the trip back to the city was a little slower thanks to traffic from the  mass exodus from the villages.  The high point was when traffic stalled right by a Sinopec petrochemical plant which was oozing some kind of toxic cloud that had everyone, even the plastic burning villagers, covering their noses.  When we reached the end of the line, it was a relief to get back to the fresh air and cleanliness of the city.  (I am not making that up, it really is cleaner in the city.)
There are many sites praising the beauty of the Donghai Resort especially the beach.  This one is my favorite.  I imagine that once the hot weather kicks in, there is more effort to clean the place up, but I doubt that I'll bother to return to see for myself.
China has a great challenge ahead in trying to clean the pollution that is choking much of it.  Of course, there is industry fouling the water and air, but there are hundreds of millions individuals doing their part as well.  The trash choking the beach and the burning garbage piles are all the result of individual ignorance and indifference.  Beijing has horrific air, and yet people heat their homes by burning coal.
When we were in Hong Kong last week I saw a public service ad on the TV.  It was encouraging people to pick up after themselves when visiting the graves of their ancestors on Tomb Sweeping Day.  Apparently after cleaning the tombs, then having a picnic, they leave their cans, bottles and food containers laying about.  I guess they feel a need to leave something to clean next year.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

New City Order and Orderliness

There have been some major changes in this city in last few months. Zhanjiang got a new mayor last year.  I'm not sure how this happens, I think they are appointments with a beginning and an ending date.  He is overseeing the huge overhaul the city has been slated to have.  The new economic development zone is developing. there is lots of new building, and many buildings are getting face lifts.  Unlicensed vendors have been chased away, to be replaced by trash bins.  It has transformed from a kind of seedy, but sort of charming place with a decent climate and OK air quality, to a less seedy, sort of charming place with a decent climate and OK air quality.  The City was trying to get some upgraded designations from the regional and national governments, especially as a place to go for a holiday.
It didn't get the tourist destination mecca designation, but it did get listed as a "Green City".  Most likely because for most of the year the prevailing winds blow off of the South China Sea, chasing the smog inland.  Since major Chinese cities have the worst air quality in the world, and are basically overcrowded toxic waste pits with horrifying traffic gridlock, the bar is set kind of low.
I'm sure one of the reasons Zhanjiang did not pass vacation spot muster, was the free for all driving habits of the motorists and motorbikes.  Especially motorbikes.   125cc gas powered "taxis" and scary stealth electric scooters were going any direction they wanted, running traffic lights, using sidewalks as shortcuts, and using school children as slalom poles.
The story is that Hizzoner the Mayor, while observing one especially egregious act of two wheeled terror, told the rider to drive safely and was asked "Who the fuck are you?".  It didn't go over well, and inspired the Mayor make some changes.  I don't know if this is a true story or not, but the change has been remarkable.
A small army of traffic police were hired, and placed at all major intersections and began enforcing the following rules:

  • Licenses are required for all motorbikes, including electric models.
  • Everyone needs a driver's license.
  • Everyone must obey traffic laws, including stopping at signals and going the correct direction.
Major four and six lane streets have smaller lanes that are designated for bike and motorbike traffic.  In the past, people traveled in both directions on these, regardless of which side of the street they were on.  Now they must go with the same flow as the main traffic, and not both directions.  Motorbikes cannot use the main part of the street, only these lanes.
People who break the law, have their bikes confiscated.  At first there were flatbed trucks at the major intersections quickly filling up with scofflaw bikes.  Word got around quickly, and after a couple of months, what was once chaos, is now much more orderly and safe.  People stop at the lights.  They ride in the correct direction.  There are traffic police at crosswalks before and after school directing traffic.  This may sound like a normal state of affairs in the  US or Britain, but it's big potatoes here.
This is a place where people's idea of a queue is to converge en masse on the point of interest with elbows flailing.  If they want to go somewhere, they go in the shortest direction possible.  Too bad if there are others trying to get there too, me first!  I've heard Westerners describe China as "organized chaos".  They are close, except there is nothing much organized about it.  People here have lived for far too many years under what could be described as iffy circumstances. The slow, polite people are the ones who missed out on that rare food allocation, or were on the wrong end of the public denunciation.  They were part of the natural selection of less benevolent times.  No wimps.
If you had told me that you could get these people to follow basic traffic laws, I would have bet you money, given you generous odds, and planned my Christmas shopping with the money I was going to make from you.  However, my loved ones would have had a grim Christmas.  These people folded.
Apparently they did not like their bikes confiscated, and somehow they have submitted to an orderly lifestyle on the streets.  I no longer view crossing the street as an exercise in cheating death.
The other plus, is that motorbikes seem to feel more secure.  There is very little honking coming from them anymore.  Amazing!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

One Last Thing about Malaysia

Click the image for larger picture.

When we stayed in very Islamic city of Kota Bharu, our very nice hotel provided us with this stuff.  I'm assuming one packet is shampoo, but not sure what the other is, since the language is Malay.  From looking at the photos, it might be something to wash your head covering with, leaving it shiny, fresh and manageable.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Departure From the Holiest Place in Malaysia

The time approached for us to be at the Low Cost Air Carrier airport outside of Kuala Lumpur so that we could catch our cheapo flight to Hong Kong.  A delightful discovery was that one can fly Air Asia around Malaysia for just a little more than the cost of a bus ride.  Since the bus ride to KL was at least seven hours, and put you downtown, far from the airport, it made sense to fly.
We spent our last night in Kelantan at a very nice hotel that cost the same as the cracker box "low budget" place we stay in Hong Kong, and included an excellent breakfast.  We didn't need to leave for the airport until 3 in the afternoon, which gave us a chance to stroll around seeing the sights and pretend to be British.
At the airport, we were required to send our checked bags through a scanning machine, and noticed that the woman who was supposed to be watching for bombs and such, was busy looking up at a handsome colleague and happily chatting away.  Not the best security.
The flight was uneventful, and we spent the night at a very nice resort style place near the airport.  Flying into the LCC airport, though not impressive, is pretty routine.  Flying out, on the other hand, is less than lovely.  There is no place to sit, and you cannot go past "security" to the waiting area until 45 minutes before your flight.  You don't want to do this anyway, because (I am not making this up) there are no restrooms in the secure waiting area!  Before you go past security, you had better get yourself well drained and evacuated, and hope that your flight is not delayed.  The security at LCC was somewhat better than at Kota Bharu, but still seemed a bit lax.  When the news broke last week about the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, my first thought was to the distracted baggage screener in KB.
We returned to Hong Kong and were greeted with temperatures around 8 degrees Celsius, or mid 40's to you Yanks... oh wait a minute, I'm not British.  Anyway, it was cold and windy and we only had tropic weight clothing and light jackets.  Fortunately, it was cool and sunny the next day when we took the bus back to Zhanjiang, so we could sit on the sunny side of the unheated bus.  I used a beach towel as a blanket, and had 3 short sleeved shirts on and managed to survive.

Here are some random observations and thoughts about our trip: 

  • Good hotels have a decal on the ceiling with an arrow pointing to Mecca, and come with a prayer rug.

Mecca is thataway.

  • Even though Malaysian coffee is excellent, the same good hotels will serve Nescafe from a machine to go with their excellent breakfasts.  I always opted for tea.
  • If you judged Malaysia solely by its taxi drivers, you would think it a nest of thieving, lowlife vipers, and would never return.
  • I wish we had spent more time at the beach.
  • Nearly all the non taxi driving people we met were very nice, helpful, and friendly.
  • Kota Bharu has a supermarket called "The Store".
  • If you buy a sim card for your smart phone, pay the extra for internet.  You will inevitably save money the first time you find you can walk somewhere thanks to your GPS, rather than getting hosed by a taxi.
  • You see the occasional burka.   I saw a guy in a bus station with a Boston T shirt, plaid shorts, and backwards bubba cap.  His wife/sister was dressed like this:
  • I'd fly the long distance trips. It's almost as cheap as the bus and you may encounter lovely, fluffy clouds, which can distract you from pondering the missing Malaysian Airlines jet.  On second thought, the bus is a viable option.  

  • Malaysian vodka is much cheaper than the imported stuff and tastes OK, especially the more of it you consume.
  • I'd buy more spices.  The curry and pepper powders I got were awesome.  I'd also get more tea.
  • Chinese Malaysians seem a lot happier than Chinese Chinese.
  • Boredom is a side effect of a fundamentalist Islamic government.

Excitement in Kelantan:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Call to Prayer and Psychedelic Nun Costumes

Kelantan State is where we did the least amount of interesting things, and yet somehow has made the most profound impression on me.  It's a Muslim country within a country, and this fact is in evidence everywhere.
In other places in Malaysia you may hear the call to prayer from the mosques, depending on your proximity to these houses of worship.  If you are not careful about the location of your hotel, you can be awakened at 5 am by an exotic hymn.  In Kelantan, this prayer is extra special.
At Ian's house, you get a lot of racket all night.  His home is adjacent to thick second growth brushy jungle and tropical creatures abound.  One of these wonders of nature is the carpenter bird, which is nocturnal and has a "song" that sound like a pair of small hardwood sticks being knocked together loudly.  They either do this with their throats, or have managed to develop the ability to knock sticks together.  Either way, when they do this call, it has all the restful qualities of a dripping faucet in a stainless steel sink.  When a bunch of them go at it, it has little appeal at all.  This noise generally ends towards dawn, but not because they stop doing it, but because there are three mosques within sling shot distance of Ian's home and they start their 5 am call to prayer with high volume loudspeakers that drown out the stick music.  This also wakes up the 100 or so roosters in the area, who join in with their own praise to Allah.  Generally the call to prayer is a brief thing, but these mosques must have some kind of competition with each other over who is the most pious, because they go on and on for upwards of 25 to 30 minutes with a tone deaf chanting and moaning trying to outdo the other.  All the while the roosters are contributing their own chorus.  It's a kind of rural/Islamic Karaoke that may or may not please Allah.  He hasn't chosen to smite these people and their numerous fowl , so the safe money is on the Faithful and their righteous yard birds.

Kelantan is geographically isolated from the rest of Malaysia by rugged mountains and so has retained a more pure culture.  There are few non Malay people there, just a scattering of other Asians and virtually no Occidentals.  So virtually all the women are dressed in the Malaysian version of a devout Muslim woman.  Their heads are covered, they have long sleeves and almost always are wearing long dresses, although I did see a few long pants on the more racy ones.  They have managed to make these garments very colorful and the region is world famous for its wonderful fabrics, especially its batik.  Anyone who has an interest in fabric would be well served going to Kota Bharu  and touring the markets.  

Somehow women in this Islamic part of the world have been able to maintain a kind of expression of beauty and femininity that does not exist in the more repressive countries like Saudi Arabia.  

Kelantan is a fundamentalist, religious state with a higher rate of poverty than most of the rest of Malaysia.  In spite of the heavy religious presence there is a lively underground economy involved in gun and drug smuggling.  There were also plenty of layabouts with larcenous tendencies.  These hypocrisies reminded me of someplace, and when we strolled along the wide muddy river in Kota Bharu I realized that this state was a kind of Malaysian Mississippi.