Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Road Trip to Trincomalee

After one day and two nights in Colombo, I was beginning to feel what I think many visitors to this storied place feel:  the overwhelming need to get the hell out of there!  It's noisy, crowded, and the atmosphere is heavy vehicle exhaust.  Many guide books and tourist sites gamely try to play up Colombo's positive features, but it's a lost cause.   Your rational self recognizes the city's culture and its exotic essence, but you still want to leave.

We had arranged for Musharraf to pick us up the next morning at 9:30.   The trip would take somewhere between six to seven hours.  I was in the shower at 8:00 when my phone rang.  It was Musharraf.  He was downstairs and wanted to talk.  I dried off, and went to see what was up.  He had a request.  Since it was a holiday, would I mind if he brought a van and his family?  They had never been to Trincomalee.  No problem!  I really liked him, and thought it would be fun.  

Securing a van, and getting the family together took a while, and we didn’t hit the road until close to 10:30.  Our crew consisted of Musharraf’s wife, his sister, her son and daughter, and Musharraf’s younger brother.  His kid was apparently a slug-a-bed and remained home with Grandma and Grandpa.

It was a grand road trip, which took us into the mountains.  The road was very curvy and mostly under construction.  If you’ve ever traveled on roads in Asia, you experience a more adventurous style of driving.  Passing on blind corners is a common occurrence, and I’ve grown accustomed to the practice.  Somehow, you don’t die, and it really is the only way to get around the dump trucks.  Unlike China, there are a lot of traffic cops everywhere, and the speed limit is strictly enforced.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful place, and sacred places abound.  We passed countless temples, stupa, shrines, churches and mosques.  Lots of jungle and farms too!

We stopped at one roadside stand for some coconut milk and when we got hungry, we stopped for some rotti at a roadside stand.  Damn monkeys came out of the jungle and joined us, expecting a handout.  So did a Hindu woman who preached at us about some things I didn’t understand.  She didn’t go on too long, and Musharraf, gave her some money as we were leaving.
Our traveling companions at the four star rotti stand.

Rotti on the grill.

Rotti with nuclear chili paste.

Damn monkeys.

As we came out of the mountains the land flattened out, and there were clusters of brush and trees amidst some very deep grass.  The grass was trampled in places, and looked as though something had been grazing.  Sure enough, we caught a few glimpses of elephants.  Cool!  Also a few peacocks.  I kept looking for crocodiles, but no luck.

We stopped by a large reservoir late in the day.  We bought ice cream cones for everyone from a guy with an ice cream tuktuk.  We watched fishermen in their boats and a family taking care of laundry and bathing in the lake.  I still didn’t see any crocodiles, which was good luck for the bathers. 

Laundry and bath time
Fishing boats
No elephants in the rice fields

During the drive we talked religion, politics, culture, business, sports, family, food, and most anything else that came to mind.  It was a great day that ended when we arrived at our lodging in Trincomalee.  I promised to call when we returned to Colombo.  We’d have dinner at their house.  We bid farewell with hugs, and looked forward to seeing them again.

Musharraf, the highway star

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Off to Sri Lanka

We’ve been here in China for seven years.  Kind of amazing when you think about it.  Obama has almost completed two terms, and entire social trends have come and gone in the US without my noticing.  But a lot of things have changed here, too.
Smart phones are everywhere and almost everyone has one.  Just like everywhere in the world, you see people hunched over their devices chatting, or surfing, or doing whatever.  Whatever. 
Traffic has gotten much worse, but drivers are a little less bad.  A few years back the head of the DMV here was busted for corruption.  In order to get a driver’s license you had to pay him an extra stipend.  In return, the driver’s test consisted of little more that fogging a mirror with your breath.  Drivers have to take a fairly rigorous test now so the competence level has risen a bit.  If you are concerned that the cherished stereotype you have regarding Chinese drivers is no longer valid, don’t worry, they still suck, just less so.
Gas powered motorbikes have been replaced with electric ones, and there are a lot more of these, too.  The three wheeled “sanmou” taxis are gone, outlawed, banished to smaller cities.  I miss those; they were an excellent alternative to taxis and buses. 
We have Uber now, or a Chinese version of it.  (Chuber?)  It’s very convenient during the late afternoon rush hour, since that’s the time that the taxi company changes to the evening shift.  The busiest time of the day, and they are completely absent.  I never could understand the reasoning behind that.   An English friend of mine, who has been doing business here for many years, loves to say that business decisions here are frequently not about making money.   I think this is a pretty good example.
To use the Chuber service, you absolutely need a Chinese person to secure the ride.  It involves far too much fluency in Chinese writing, geography, speaking, banking, and internet for any occidental to attempt.  It has greatly enhanced getting around, though, and it’s great to see the idiot taxi company take a hit.  In Guangzhou, where the taxi drivers are especially larcenous, it’s pretty common to see a lot of empty cabs now.
Internet shopping, which only a couple of years ago was distrusted by all but a few hearty souls, has gone batshit crazy here. 
It’s a hectic place, stuffed with too many people and sometimes one needs a break, so we decided to head to Sri Lanka for the winter holiday.
I was able to get an excellent price on a flight from Hong Kong to Colombo, with only one drawback.   The first leg took us two hours in the opposite direction to Shanghai.  It made for a longer trip.  However, we finally were going to Shanghai, the shiny, modern, model city by the sea!   The airport must rival Hong Kong’s for cutting edge grooviness!!  Too bad we only had a 90 minute layover.  I hoped for a little time for some boutique shopping, or making the scene in a trendy coffee shop.  The reality was jarringly different.
First of all, China Eastern Airlines apparently is in arrears with their terminal fees since we deplaned down a stairway to an awaiting shuttle about half a mile from the terminal.  The temperature was about 30 degrees, the air was foul and gritty, and there was a stiff 25 mph wind blowing even more frozen, toxic fumes into our faces.  The shuttle was unheated.
Upon arriving at the terminal, we were directed to the international transit lounge, which is a bleak, drafty box, designed in a Cultural Revolution motif, with comfortless seating and a vending machine that dispensed cold drinks.  A view of the smoggy tarmac enhanced experience, making the anticipation of departing that much keener.
Fortunately, our flight was on time.  We boarded another unheated shuttle, and eventually settled into our plane, only to discover that our upcoming seven hour flight was to be made with no personal movie service.  They just had old school, miniscule, drop down screens with a Chinese soap opera and illegible subtitles. 
The high point of the flight was the special announcement at the beginning informing passengers that they should maintain order and behave in a civilized fashion.  A long list of forbidden actions was given which included, smoking, shouting, jostling, using cell phones, and grabbing attendants.    The announcement concluded with a warning that extreme misbehavior would be dealt with in a legal manner. This announcement apparently is necessary to address the numerous episodes of extreme behavior by Chinese travelers that have caused Chinese tourists to be rated the worst in the world.  I did notice that the flight staff looked weary and stressed. 


We arrived in Colombo after dark, so there wasn’t much to see, other than a breathtaking sunset just before landing.
Colombo airport is a no frills, everything you need, kind of place.  You can change money, hit an ATM, or buy a sim card.  Definitely get the sim card.  You will use it and it’s dirt cheap.  There is a taxi booth that will arrange for a nice, modern vehicle to take you wherever you need to go.
The car was new and modern.  This was to be our last mode of transportation that was new and modern for a while.  It even had GPS, although it was apparent that the driver did not know how to use it, when he had trouble finding our hotel.  He had trouble finding our hotel for quite a while, asking for directions from at least half a dozen different tuktuk drivers.  We went around many different streets and alley-like streets.  I showed him my Google map, but map reading was a skill he lacked.  He eventually lucked onto the right street, a dark and dodgy looking place to be sure.  This was the Port View Hotel.  The clerk there seemed pretty clueless, but I showed him the printout of our paid reservation, which seemed like enough proof for him, so he gave us a key and we went to our room.  It was really nice, with a world class bathroom equipped with a mega shower.
Unfortunately, our room was facing the street, which although not very busy at night, was frequented by trucks which enjoyed honking their air horns.  I went downstairs to find that the dweeb from the previous night had been replaced by a lovely young woman who exuded competence and who gladly allowed us to change our room for one in the back, which proved to be much quieter and had a deck with an interesting view of some roofs.
Our first order of business of the day was to get to the train station to book our tickets to Trincomalee, which is a coastal city on the other side of the island, about 360 km away.  All guidebooks and people who travel this country insist that the old trains are the way to go.  We stepped out of the hotel to a street that was a solid river of traffic, and nothing but a row of trucks and small warehouses on our side.  I was planning on walking to the station, but opted for a tuktuk ride instead.  This was where I was to learn the first thing about Sri Lankan communication. I told the driver where I wanted to go, and how much I wanted to pay.  He shook his head.  I told him again, and he shook his head.  I repeated myself and said, “OK?”  He said, “OK”.  Sri Lankans do not nod their heads for “yes”.  Instead, they shake them from side to side in a manner similar to what most people in the world do, when they mean “no”.   I was able to make this same error in communicating a couple of more times until someone explained this anomaly to me.
We got to the train station, only to be told that there were no more tickets to Trincomalee for the next day.  This did not make me happy, since I was looking forward to a train ride, and I had already booked a room there.  A tuktuk driver approached and asked where we were going.  They do this a lot, sometimes to give a ride and sometimes just to help.  People here are very friendly, and being approached like this is common.  I explained what happened, and he told me he could arrange for a car to take us for about $120.  This was an interesting proposal, but not one I was willing to agree to with a seedy looking guy who was missing a few teeth that I had just met in front of a train station in a Third World city.
The fabled Colombo Fort Train Station

When we had gotten the taxi the previous night at the airport, the man there had told us that their agency hired cars for the day, and he put his phone number on the receipt.  We headed back to the hotel, so I could give him a call.  We walked back, which was somewhat interesting.  We live in a chaotic Asian city in China.  It’s kind of a training ground for getting around places like Colombo.  When you cross the street in Zhanjiang, you feel like you are cheating Death.  In Colombo, Death appears to have better odds.  We managed to get back to the hotel without dying, and try as I may, I could not find the receipt with the car agency’s phone number. 
I got online to research our options, and found a recommendation of a wonderful travel agency, at a reputable hotel that could arrange bus or car transport and I decided to give it a try.  I would prefer a nice air conditioned bus.  We got a tuktuk to the reputable hotel, and I noticed a good dozen travel agencies across the street.  We wandered across the quiet street and saw that these were all air travel agencies.  Just as we began to recross the street, we were approached by a well-dressed man whom we discussed our situation with.  He had a tuktuk and offered to take us to the bus station in order to help us secure our tickets.  He informed us that the next day was Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, so travel options could be limited.  Arriving at the bus station we found that this was so.  The only air conditioned buses did not leave until the following night, and I did not want to spend the night on the bus, or the whole next day in Colombo, which was a place that was starting to get on my nerves.
I brought up the car option, and he informed us that he could drive us for less than the shady guy offered.  We agreed to this, and decided to spend the rest of the day getting a tour of some sites with him. 
A friend of ours, who has traveled extensively in Sri Lanka said that we must go to the Galle Face Hotel for a cocktail, and to watch the sunset.  It’s the sort of thing Rudyard Kipling would do.  We asked our guy to take us there, which resulted in our sitting in horrifying holiday traffic for about half an hour.  He told us it would be this way all along the waterfront, and perhaps we might want to see some different sights.  Good idea, Dude!
We first stopped at a Hindu temple, a complete acid trip of a building, complete with a snake charmer who offered to pose for pictures for money.  Our guide told him to piss off, but I kinda wanted to watch, even though our Dude told me the snake was defanged and the charmer a charlatan.                                                   

A Bevy of Divinities
He then took us to the incredible Gangaramaya Buddhist temple.  It’s a fascinating place, overflowing with gaudy wealth---gems, statues, gold, an old Rolls Royce.  Kind of a mini Vatican for Buddhists.  There were so many pieces of jewelry and gems that much of it was just heaped in glass cases, and there was wealth of statuary jammed into places, not unlike an overpriced Eastern flea market.  Just as Jesus Christ embraced poverty and eschewed worldly possessions, so did Buddha.  And just like the Catholics, Buddhists love to pile up wealth at many of their places of worship.  I guess it’s just their way of saying that they will need a few more millennia of study and prayer before they “get it”.  The irony was not lost on me.
Copper panels that require frequent polishing, an excellent meditative activity.
Nothing demonstrates a simple, holy life like sapphires.
 This was a sacred elephant, apparently holy enough to stuff.
Like Oprah, Buddha's weight fluctuated.
 These crows are everywhere in Colombo.  This one must be sacred.

After a bit more touring, shopping, and idling in traffic, I asked our Dude, whose name is Musharraf, to take us to the place he likes to eat, and he did.  It’s a large cafeteria style place, with long tables, and lots of patrons.  We had rotti, which a kind of pancake that you can dip in all kinds of spicy concoctions, or roll goodies inside of.  Sri Lankan tortillas.  We also were introduced to Sri Lankan ginger beer, which is nonalcoholic, not too sweet, and has a generous amount of ginger.  I really like that drink!
We then headed back to our hotel, which Musharraf also had a difficult time locating, although he managed to find it in a much quicker time than the fancy airport guy did.  We arrived to find the front door locked and a note taped to it saying to call this number.  Fortunately, I had a phone and a sim card, otherwise we would have been stuck on a dark unsafe street in a shithole Third World neighborhood.  I called, and the clerk answered the door almost immediately.  I guess he was just in a back office enjoying some recreational internet activity.  For this reason, I do not recommend the Port View Hotel, unless you have a phone, and don’t mind being on a crappy street.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Squatty Potties and Exploding Balloons

This year was kind of mundane, or at least as mundane as a life in Bizzaro World can be.  I guess I mean that my own personal experience here has been less than thrilling.  Work is good, and we moved to a nicer flat.
Flat.  Since I haven't lived in the US for a while now, and have a few friends from the UK and Australia, I've started to use a few British words that roll off the tongue a little better than words like "apartment".   It doesn't really matter whether I use the word "lift or "elevator" when describing how the locals use this conveyance.  What matters is the lack of decorum involved.  When waiting for a lift, people jostle each other and gather right in front of the door.  As soon as it opens, they attempt to get on before others have a chance to get off.  It's an impressive fustercluck of humanity with one crowd trying to fill a full space while the other tries to get out so there is place for the outsiders to go.  Eventually, they manage to get to where they need to be, either out of the elevator, or inside it.  This mob rule method of entering and exiting a lift is something that is also found at least half of automobile drivers and is the number one cause of traffic jams.
The new flat is nice.  It's only on the third floor, and was designed by a person who utilized "logic", and had some notion of aesthetics. It also has a squatty potty.  

Our old place had a western toilet. Western toilets are generally preferred by Westerners, since that is what they grew up using, but I'm more of a "traditionalist" when it comes to this matter (traditional in a hunter-gatherer kind of way). I've never been one of those take a magazine into the loo kind of guys.  I like my business done in a brisk, efficient kind of manner, and I have good knees, so squatting works to my liking.  
There's also the matter of Western toilets adapted to Chinese infrastructure that makes them less appealing.  For starters, when a throne is installed, it's usually just plopped on top of an existing squatter with some silicone sealant around the bottom to more or less secure it to the floor.  This makes for easy clogging, which is made even more adventurous, since plungers are a scarce commodity here.
The second drawback is the fact that everywhere I've lived has been in a somewhat older building with shoddy plumbing.  Rust particles end up clogging the fine little valves and fouling the other moving parts in the tank, which result in slow fillings, faulty flushes, and more clogging. I've had enough of this pathetic attempt at trying to introduce unnecessary modernity to a basic biological function.
The Western world is becoming more attuned to how using a throne to poop is not necessarily the best way to get the job done. An American company has come out with a simple device to put you into a more "natural" position.  It's called "Squatty Potty".

That's the high point of my year, getting an authentic Chinese toilet, but things have been much more eventful for the country itself.
There has been the less than thrilling ride of the stock market, a massive chemical explosion, a massive mountain of construction debris collapse, and horrific air pollution.  None of that happened where I live, but I don't really need that kind of excitement in my life.  We get some smoggy days, although the level of pollution on a bad day here would be considered OK in Beijing.

There was an unfortunate local incident that happened at an event for preschool kids that happened nearby at the end of the year. The company that I used to work for, that has several kindergartens, had a big sports event involving all their schools.  It was held at a high school sports field a block away from here.  I was invited, but due to laziness I opted out.  Look what I missed!  (You can use Google translate to get the gist of what happened).  Apparently there were a bunch of balloons filled with hydrogen that exploded when they were ignited accidentally by a father, who was smoking.  It's bad enough that the guy was smoking around a bunch of preschoolers, they do it all the time here, it also caused a bunch of people to get burned.
After much inquiry, I discovered that filling kids balloons with hydrogen is a common practice here because it is cheaper than helium.  It also does this:

Needless to say, the few bucks saved using cheap gas is dwarfed by the medical and legal bills ahead, as well as the damage to their reputation.
During holidays and at festive venues you often see someone selling balloons.  I'm giving them a wide berth in the future.