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Thursday, July 28, 2005

The other half, China-style

10:30 PM and despite an hour and a half nap this afternoon, I feel my eyes heavy beyond control, fighting hallucination and collapse. The heat and the remnants of jet lag refuse to let go of me. I will go to bed soon, and hope tomorrow I will be my normal self.

Despite the weariness, today has been an interesting day. It started with a trip to a factory where they make foam for bras (I got to touch a lot of bra padding today--"for American women," one of the ladies said about the large-sized boobs), sofas and recliners (and they had some nice ones there), and shoes. I was given a mini-tour while my host and his friend ironed out the details for our coming trip to Jiuzhaigou (which is a series of Tibetan villages in a stunning and overcrowded mountain tourist area, from what I understand) and Emeishan, which is one of the four main Buddhist mountains in China (I think that's the scoop, at any rate).

After that, we had a nice lunch and drove around a bit. Traffic here is just ridiculous, cars driving the wrong way down the streets and highways, weaving in and around each other, ignoring the lane markers painted on the nice new roads. And there are a lot of new roads here. In fact, everything seems new. ShunDe is one of the richest areas in China, and there are a number of villa-like homes and apartments that would attest to this fact. There is also a huge city hall and an accompanying restaurant/entertainment facility that bears a stunning resemblance (from afar) to the Duomo in Florence. I felt a bit like we were driving through movie sets, what with the row after row of low, long factory buildings and people sitting or rushing to and fro moving what would be props from place to place. This illusion was shattered, though, upon seeing a woman carrying some sort of animal corpse on the back of her bike (I just saw flapping legs hanging down by the back wheel--could have been pig or dog or some other creature).

Despite all the new construction going up or recently finished, and all the nice houses and apartments, there is plenty of poverty in evidence. In the wetlands around small rivers and ponds are ranshackle wooden houses and women out in knee deep water searching for things to eat. There are any number of people sitting out in front of buildings doing nothing much of anything, wearing dirty clothes and worn pants, or men riding bikes and pushing carts that bear loads taller than they, and you can only think that the money they are being paid for such labor is a pittance.

We drove by my hosts' old factory today as well, a rundown looking building in an area full of decrepit buildings. Seeing that made for a sort of nutshell encapsulation, a side by side, of some of the great success stories that have occurred in this country in the past decade. On the other hand, it was also a reminder of just how many more people have not found much of anything.

We visited a temple in the late afternoon, and then had foot massages. Despite the pain, a much needed trip. Then we went to a grocery story--a proper store inside a happening mall. Imagine my surprise, then, upon seeing turtles, shells removed but still alive, waiting to be sold for dinner (we passed, despite a hard sell from one of the clerks). There were also toads for sale, and any number of bloody fish and pig parts (though those were not so unexpected).

Following the store, we had another excellent meal. One of my hosts says that ShunDe has the best food he has eaten in China. I can't say that this is true or not, but thus far I can vouch for the fact that it is very, very good. Now I look forward to a trip for dim sum in the morning.

There is a saying that keeps coming to mind today: "So this is how the other half lives." I think this is a pretty silly saying, because it implies that half the people around us are filthy rich, and on top of that, it makes it seem like middle class life is such an awful thing. The saying comes to mind being exposed to these factories. The workers are treated just fine, mind you, but just trying to put myself in their shoes, working x number of hours a day in a hot room, doing whatever job, living far away from home...I actually am hoping to help out a bit tomorrow and do some packing, but I was told this may be more of a distraction than a help.

So, that's that for now. The final bell rang about an hour ago, so all the work is done here. I am sure, though, that not far away others still toil. And I know that a few miles away, work continues on a road or on a new building as this area races forward into the future. It seems there should be not time to be tired.

ShunDe

[posted on behalf of Alan by David, a.k.a. "ge ge"]

I arrived in China today. I took a boat from Hong Kong and arrived in ShunDe at about 3:30. ShunDe is about an hour from GuangZhou, and to get here we passed along a river poulated by fishermen and children swimming. It was lined by trees and nice looking houses and factories. It seems that ShunDe is made up mostly of factories, and it turns out that I am actually staying at one. It is owned by the parents of a former student. They make Santa Clause dolls and Nutcracker dolls and little plastic football helmets. The women who work here come from Hunan and Sichuan and a number of other provinces. It reached 37 degrees today and I can not fathom working in this heat.

It is a bit strange being here, in a factory, after hearing and reading so much about them. There is a dormitory on the grounds for the women to live in and at five a bell rang across the large open area and the women came out of their different buildings and checked out by the gate at the entrance to the factory. My student's mother said that there is also a bell at 7:00 and that the women will be outside exercising at 7:15, which if I can wake up I will be ready to photograph.

It has been a bit of a wake up call coming to China today. On the way from the port, we stopped for gas, only to find out that they were out. They have been for the last few days. Four other gas stations were out as well. On top of that, the electricity was off in the factory (apparently this is the case Monday through Wednesday, and the factory has installed two generators to help the situation).

At around sunset we headed out for a very tasty dinner (which included the roots of the lilies mixed with carrots and celery - very delicious). On the way, a bright orange sun set over wide dusty roads busy with bikers and motorbikes and cars sharing narrow lanes and turning at unexpected times in unexpected directions. On my left were more small factories, as well as small outdoor restaurants and pool tables that had been set out on the sidewalks. On the right, rice fields and plants and trees heavy in the heat and the light.

After dinner we walked around the main area of town a bit. We bought some fruit and drank tea. The tea shop was a bit special. The waitress looked at each of out tongues to prescribe the ideal tea (for colds, lungs, liver, kidney, etc). Mine was for those with colds or who have not had enough sleep (this part is true, anyway). While it felt good in my stomach after it was down, the bitter taste did nothing to make me want to recommend it to others.

I will be in ShunDe for a few days, I think. I am looking forward to taking some pics of the factory workers, and maybe around town and in the countryside as well. It seems I may then fly to ChengDe before going to Jiuzhaigou with the family. From there I will split off, most likely heading west (the east coast is just too hot).

I will keep you posted.

Monday, July 25, 2005

My Life From Afar

Right now I am sitting in the comfort of Hong Kong Library (maybe the nicest library I've been in for what its worth) using free internet and letting my shirt dry after a bit of a ramble this morning.

I arrived last night after 26 hours of assorted airplanes and airports and thoughts as to what in the (fill in word of your choice) I am doing. Those thoughts came back with a vengeance last night when I woke up in my tiny three bed room (with a toilet I have to sit sideways on in order to fit in the bathroom) when I reailzed I would not be seeing my girlfriend for close to six months.

Some of this was eased at about seven this morning when I watched ships appearing from out of a mist over to one side of Hong Kong Island. They then made their way past the island's stunning skyline.

Since then I applied for my Chinese visa and will wait until Wednesday to get it. From there it will be on to GuangZhou.

The rest of the morning was spent drifting around, through cheap eating areas populated by Filipinos and Indonesians, down the main roads surrouned by glass sky scrapers and through Victoria Park. Later I will head up to Victoria Peak to catch the late afternoon light and then I suppose I will head back to my tiny room in the dingy Mirador Mansions for a shower, a bite to eat, and what I pray will be a full night of sleep.

That reminds me of one more thing. Mirador is a fourteen (or more) story building built around a central open area. There are a whole host of backpacker (ie cheap) accomodations here. At 11 last night when I was getting in I was approached by Indians, Africans, and finally a tiny Chinese woman, all offering places. The shops in the mazed interior corridors were shutting down when I arrived, but the air was still full of the life that no doubt populates the days. As I left this morning, it was empty, the center area. Clothes hung from various levels and the only sounds were of dripping water and a woman sweeping a few floors down. This was one of those moments that makes you feel like you've been dropped into a conglomeration of all the films you've ever seen that have been filmed in a certain location. Anyway, it was a nice moment.

So, I thought I would share something I jotted down shortly after saying goodbye to Natalia at the aiport yesterday - maybe it will give you an idea of the rather questionable frame of mind I am in right now:

I have been writing the first line to this essay for a long time now. It has lived many lives - as a etary-eyed good bye, an excited outburst, as a studied expression of philosophy. In the end, as you can see, it is nothing more than another procrastination.

I am traveling to Asia for finve months, from Hong Kong to Singapore. I have been planning a trip like this for a long time now (without doing any actual planning, mind you). It is not my longest trip. Really, five months doesn't even suond like a long time. While others around me fret about bird flu, theft, Islamic extremism, et al,I feel no particular concern. Why then do Ifeel as if Ihave never achieved the level of unpreparedness that accompanies me as I wait for my flight to Tokyo?

A few hours ago, my girlfriend departed for New York. From there she will return to Buenos Aires. We will be apart for close to 6 months. That sounds like a long time.

Last night we met with some friends of mine, guys Isee once or twice each time Ireturn home. We shot the shit and had some beers and for awhile the one thing Iwanted most in life was to get drunk with them and pretend to be 21.

Later my girlfriend and I were sitting on the sofa and watching a movie. Her head was on my chest and soon it was wet with tears and snot. I could no longer say we would just be apart for six months. Six months? What was I thinking?

Saying good-bye to her today, I did something I never...I cried. An hour after admonishing my mother for doing the same thing, I cried. My nose ran. My throat was raw from stifling sobs.

If I was the narrator of a book of fiction, I would say now that I am embarking on one last great act of selfishness.

I have been traveling or living abroad or moving across the U.S...Ihave been in motion for about eight years now. In that time I have seen and done a lot of things. I have met a lot of people. Through it, though, I have been detached - creating for myself the illusions that I was narrating a fiction, the story of my life from afar. This trip, perhaps, is not about the things I say it is : taking pictures and seeing the world. Perhaps, at its root, it ia a fight for control of my future; to remove myself from my world of illusion and return me into a more solid world, a more solid life in which experiences are felt at a deeper level, in which the achievement and holding onto of love is more important than the achievement of stories to tell others, the stories we use to make us and our lives feel more unique, more lived than they otherwise might be.

Twenty-nine and alone in an airport one more time. A blurred past and an unclear future. A girlfriend who is about as close to a world apart from me as one could be.

How did I get here?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Saying Goodbye

Most of them are said now, the goodbyes. I said them to all the grandparents and to a group of friends tonight over beers. Now there are three left, mom, dad, and Natalia. That one, the last, is going to be hard.

My bag is packed and all my important documents are photocopied. I have this and that all taken care of, and still...it almost hit me before that I'll be on a plane to Hong Kong this time tomorrow, but not quite. When will I get around to realizing that I won't see my girlfriend for almost 6 months and that I'll be on my own in Asia for five? Probably sometime after the 20 some odd hour journey to Hong Kong. Better late than never, I suppose.

On the bright side, I spoke with Natalia's mom last night in Chinese, and she understood me, and I reserved a room today, so at least I haven't forgotted all the langauge I learned (just most of it).

So this is the last time I will be writing from America for awhile. I will update as possible from places as yet unknown (just don't expect photos too often, if at all).

Anything else to say? I guess not...

Actually, I'm sure I could say a lot about the whole saying goodbye thing, and perhaps the way I prepare as little as possible for these long trips abroad, but I just don't have it in me at the moment.

So that is all there is to say until Hong Kong...

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Aaagh!

Now please do not feel sorry for me. My girlfriend is sitting in the other room sewing some clothes for me. I just had a nice meal that my dad cooked and the weather was nice, with a rare breeze and a light rain, and for just a few minutes we could forget that across the US temperatures are far enough above average that people are dying. I ate some great pizza at lunch today, and even though I had invited my friend, he forced the waitress to take his credit card, so I was left with paying the tip (and Michael, I am paying next time). We visited my grandpa in the hospital and he continues to do better, having gained 17 pounds in the last few weeks, and to be in much greater spirits. I mean, this was a nice day.

And yet, something is nagging me. It is the future. The immediate and midterm future. Now I know that there is no point in fretting about everything because things just seemt to happen of their own accord anyway, but still...People keep asking where my girlfriend and I will live and what we will do and beyond saying that I'm going to get really good at Chinese (and maybe study in Taipei at one of the unis there, or try for a grad program in the US, but who really knows) but what will that lead to? Something good, I assure myself by way of assuring others. Do I believe it though? Is it bad when I say the answer is I think so?

And then there is the little matter of taking a five month trip in Asia. Now again, no pity parties here, but damn if looking at maps isn't driving me nuts. Now, if you look at a map of China and southeast Asia, you can see there is quite a bit of ground to cover - and it is not always possible (in fact, it is not often possible) to cover that ground quickly. Now, let's say I spend two plus months in China. Will I be able to visit Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma (Myanmar) and Malaysia (and probably Thailand, at least in passing)? No f'ing way. So, let's look at that map again. On one side, we have Vietnam stretching down away from China. It borders several other countries, and going there would surely allow me to visit at least Laos, possibly Angkor Wat, and cross Thailand to go to Malaysia. Of course, this would mean less than three weeks in each place, and would probably mean being relegated to peninsular Malaysia, or scratching Cambodia or Laos out altogether. To get to Burma (Myanmar)would shrink all of those visits even further, lessening the opportunities to just stop and appreciate things the way they deserve to be appreciated.

On the other side, there is Burma (Myanmar), supposedly accessible by one land border crossing from China (and if anybody knows if that is still open, could you give me a holler?). Now, choosing this route would allow for some quality time in Burma, southern Thailand (although parts of southern Thailand may not be so appealing at the moment) and Malaysia. As I've been to Laos and Cambodia already, I would not be too crushed about missing out on going there, but I would be very bummed about missing out on Vietnam.

I am very well aware that as far as issues to be having, mine are rather enviable. Having said that, in relation to my personality (and with full acknowlegment of my great fortune to be born into a middle class family and to exit college with no debt), it kind of sucks.

The worst part of it is, even if I had a year to get from Hong Kong to Singapore, I would be having similar issues.

So listen, if anyone has any suggestions for destinations, or would like to vote - Burma or Vietnam, please do so. Maybe if there are enough votes, I will let viewers at home guide me along on this trip. I'll put up two options and you tell me which one I should do. At least it will take the trouble of making a decision out of my hands.

So long for now..I only have two and a half days left with that wonderful girlfriend sewing out on the couch and I want to be with her.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Some Home Shots

I noticed the moon coming up this evening as we ate the Chinese food Natalia cooked for my folks and grandparents so I thought I would take a few photos, and that led to some of our cats as well. Those are below, and I hope you enjoy.

Anybody else loving the weather these days? In Cincinnati it has been as hot and humid or close to what Taipei would be about this time of year - low 90's with high humidity. Then you have a category 4 typhoon slamming into Taiwan and 800,000 people evacuating the southern coast of China, while over in this hemisphere there have been two big hurricanes in the span of what, a week?

Sometimes I wonder what will get to me first - some random weather event, the bird flu, or something I have not yet anticipated.

Gosh, I wish I had something more interesting to write...
Our cat, Max. Posted by Picasa
And the other cat Mickey. Posted by Picasa
Mickey, in black and white. Any ideas on which one is better? Posted by Picasa
The moon, the sky, and some trees. Posted by Picasa
The moon and some trees and the sky, but now in color! Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 18, 2005

Pictures Posted

Sunday afternoon. My brother just left to go back to St. Louis. Natalia is hiding in my old bedroom. I have six days until I leave for Hong Kong and 5 months in Asia and I still don't have any idea of how I'm going to get to Singapore or what countries I will spend time in on the way. I wonder if I should be more concerned than I am about the complete lack of planning I am doing for this trip. I wonder, too, if I should be listening more to the constant "Don't go to China, don't go to Burma, don't blah blahs that I am hearing." Actually, I am listening to them and wondering what bad things will happen on this trip. Will I have my computer stolen like I did in Poland? Will I get sick? Or maybe, just maybe, will I have a nice peaceful trip through some beautiful and interesting countries and write a few books and take some nice photographs and meet some cool people?

Yesterday we returned from the Cincinnati Art Museum and I hear my mom ask my dad "Does Alan know about this?" And I don't know if this is something that I wasn't supposed to hear at all as I was just walking in and they didn't know I was listening. "Know what?" I asked. Now answer. "Know what?" I asked again. I was thinking maybe know about some death or some ex-girlfriend who got married etc. "Does Alan know about what?"

"China just said they will nuke the US if the US interferes in Taiwan."
"You better be careful! Don't go to China."

And I'm thinking, well, at least I won't be in the US when it gets nuked, right?

Anyway, I just posted some pictures from the trips to St. Louis, Montreal and Canada over on Out in the World Cities. Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Back From Canada

Just home from Canada. In the last week and a half, counting the trip to St. Louis, I covered about 3000 miles. What did these 3000 miles get me? A chance to check out Montreal and Quebec - both lovely, and Montreal leaving me to think hmm, this wouldn't be a bad place to live. It gave Natalia a chance to see my family up close and personal, at its dysfunctional best, which left us both thinking at times...please help us, let this end. I suspect I will be writing more on this dysfunctionality in coming weeks and months, as I think I may have pinpointed one of the reasons I chose to start traveling in the first place, as well as one of the reasons for traveling alone all of the time.
We stayed at a place between Montreal and Quebec, a place in the middle of nowhere in a town called St Hippolyte. The surrounding area was lovely with several picturesque towns and churches and farms. Ski areas all around as well, but of course, snow does not do so well when it is 34 C outside (which it was at or about most of the week). The resort, such as it was, was on a small lake which was nice enough to look at as the sun came down, except for the huge flies buzzing around our heads as we stood watching from a lookout point. You could row boats and ride paddle boats. There was a swimming pool and a poor man's version of a weight room. The restaurant, from what I was told, was overpriced, but there was a grocery store only 20 minutes away, so cooking in the room was not too difficult to accomplish (except for me, who does not know so much about cooking).
All in all it was a decent way to spend a week, although I must admit that the week away from Cincinnati left me feeling much more frayed than before I left (almost as if the jet lag effect came two weeks late).
Now Natalia and I have one more week in Cincinnati. Next Saturday she leaves for New York and I for Hong Kong...

And on that score. I have five months to get from Hong Kong to Singapore. I arrive July 24 and fly out of Singapore at 6 AM on Christmas Eve. A shorter trip than originally planned for, but after some deep thought, I think it is for the best as it will allow me to get to Buenos Aires sooner and with a bit more of a monetary cushion (though probably not enough still). How will I get from Hong Kong to Singapore? That I am not sure of, but hopefully it will be an interesting journey.

Anyway, I am keeping this short. It is my girlfriend's birthday and we both feel like crap after so much time in the car. I think we are going to go eat ice cream and watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and buy the new Harry Potter book.Not the most exciting way to celebrate a birthday I suppose, but after a week with my family, I don't know if you would be feeling too social, either.

By the way, there will be photos coming soon...

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

In Motion

Looking over at the couch from the kitchen table, I see Natalia reading a magazine, oblivious to the talk and laughter around her. I am playing cards and before I was talking with my cousin and before that I was playing volleyball and before that I was...trying always to make her feel involved and comfortable, but how comfortable can a girl be after spending four days with thirty some odd members of my family? Especially when she is not always comfortable with the language gap formed when inside jokes and slang pull apart sentences and she does not follow sports or politics (these subjects occupying a good portion of most of the conversations I was involved in, esp. politics - this after answering the usual questions about Taipei and being back in America and what comes next).

I am not sure how many times I apologized to her for putting her in this situation, though it was a situation that would occur eventually given the course of our relationship thus far. Still, four days is a lot (and this, incidentally, also explains the long absence from writing here).

So today we drove 350 miles from Cincinnati to St. Louis, through Kentucky and Indiana, crossing the Ohio River twice and the Mississippi once. We drove past endless seeming corn fields that reminded me of the rice fields that lie between the mountains and the ocean along the east coast of Taiwan. We drove into a town called Santa Clause (and I took a lot of pictures from the car while we were driving, but I missed what might have been the best one, with the Santa Clause Police Force having pulled someone over for speeding along Christmas Road). We drove into a brilliant sky, the sun being dispersed judiciously by a mass of broken white cloud. It felt good to drive (or more accurately, to be a passenger - it was my brother driving). It felt good to be moving. And it is not a coincidence that now I write.

My grandma (my dad's mom) and my Aunt Diane (dad's sister) have both been on me a bit about leaving to travel while Natalia returns alone to Buenos Aires. That I will be there in January does not matter. I am a selfish guy who is off to have fun and to spend money that would better be saved for the future in a selfish and thoughtless way.
"I bet if we took a vote, you would be the only one who thinks that what you are doing is the right thing," Diane said.
"There are others. I bet Roger (her husband) would be all for it."
"Well, ok. He would probably go with you. But besides him. The point is, most people would say you are doing a horrible selfish thing (ok, not her exact words, and perhaps I am letting some personal guilt in the matter amplify her meaning, but it is the general idea).

So yeah, I'm walking away from my girlfriend for about a half a year so that I can go travel by myself in Asia (and I bet if we took a survey, you would be the only one who thinks it is safe to travel by yourself in China - that was the other poll they wanted to take). Do you think that is selfish? I do. Sure I do. Can I offer a justification? Well, yes, although it may not work for you. Sometimes it doesn't even quite work with me, until my instinct jumps up at me and says yes, you must do this...you must move for it is the movement that gets you writing, it is the motion that lets the ideas that have formed find full expression. This is how my books are written, and now after I will stop and study and sell and whatever will happen will happen. Until they are written there is nothing to be sold and there are no new dreams to hold in my hand and imagine in a new and wonderfully packaged form. And how the hell am I suppose to take pictures of China and different parts of Southeast Asia from Argentina?

Sometimes I wonder how many miles I have covered in my life. I'm not talking about the twenty or so miles I probably walk every day just because I can't sit still for more than five minutes. I'm talking about miles on trains and in cars and in buses and on airplanes and on boats and on foot exploring cities that once upon a time were fascinating names jumping off the face of a map. Today was about 350 - probably closer to 375 when you factor in the detour to Santa Clause. I'm talking about miles covered that have taken me to a destination and the miles covered once at the destination in search of reasons for having made it a destination.

So let's say today we did 370, and on Thursday there will be another 350 or so. And then on Friday a whole lot more taking me up just north of Montreal. And there was last Saturday - and I will check on this soon, the whole bunch that brought me home from Taiwan, and then there will be the whole lot more that take me back to Hong Kong in a few weeks.

I think this is something I should figure out. I'm going to start retroactively from the flight home from Taipei, and I'm going to go until I get to Buenos Aires and I'm going to see how many miles (or KM) I cover. How many will it take for me to write the books that I am about to write? Anybody want to take a guess? Maybe I should make it into a contest - sort of like those contests they have around Halloween or Christmas or at birthday parties or whenever it is that they have the contests where you have to guess how many jelly beans there are inside a jar. And whoever wins I can send a jar of..well, I can't very well send you miles (unless I give up all my frequent flier miles with Northwest which seem pretty f-ing useless anyway right about now, but that's another story for another day)...so a jar of something. Jelly beans anyone?

Friday, July 01, 2005

Pictures

OK...it has been awhile since I've put any pictures on any of my pages, so today I put up a bunch. Below you will see some pics from my flight home - I believe taken over Greenland. On
http://outintheworldcities.blogspot.com/ you can see some pics I took yesterday in downtown Cincinnati (during a trip downtown with Natalia which I wrote about in my earlier post today). If you ever have a chance to look at your hometown as a tourist would, I recommend giving it a shot. It tends to look a lot more alive, a lot more interesting than it would otherwise.
Natalia says this picture offers a pretty good representation of my life at present. Posted by Hello
In coming pictures you will see frozen earthbound landscape. Here you see endless clouds looking an awful lot like a big field in Finland after a snowfall. Posted by Hello
The sun just about to come above the horizon. It was sitting between cloud and sky for about three hours as I flew from Osaka to Detroit. Posted by Hello
The sun spreading its first light across the frozen landscape of (I think) Greenland. Posted by Hello
Looking straight down on what I imagine is a large frozen river or some such thing. There were several of these cutting across the landscape. Posted by Hello
How tall do you think this mountain is, considering we must have been flying at about 40,000 feet? Posted by Hello
What would it be like to go fishing down here? Posted by Hello