Friday, June 16, 2017

The Old Bandit Borderlands

Outside is Jiangsu.  I think it is.  It must be.  Let me check and confirm, as it could also be Shandong.  Yes, north towards Xuzhou, north towards the old bandit borderlands and of Shi Nai’an’s “Shuihuzhuan”, the Water Margin.  Wu Song’s battle with the tiger in the mountain was memorable as was Sagacious Lu’s drunken rampages, hiding out in the monastery, but some of the most impressionable memories of that epic revolve around what happened when travellers would roll up to some road side eatery and the proprietor decides to poison and kill you off so as to have at your things.  So many of the day to day details of Shi’s sixteenth century depiction of eleventh century Song daily life call out as less fantastic and more likely how it actually might have been, traveling from town to town in those days, when law enforcement wouldn’t have been much anything to rely on and no one was going to critique your restaurant on line. 

Xuzhou had a terrible accident yesterday.  Apparently, a kindergarten in the northern Jiangsu city had a terrific explosion, which killed eight people and injured dozens more.  Cruelly, the blast, which a clip shows as a tremendous force, went off as parents were lining up outside the building to pick up their kids.  An exploding gas cylinder was what caused the blast.  One can only imagine that more than a few people will pay for this deadly oversight.  A family in front of me has boarded the train here at the Xuzhou station.  They are sitting down now with their kindergarten age child, who is crying and fidgeting. I wonder how close this all was to they, themselves.

The land is drier up here.  The great transformation from the water culture of Huadong, up to the wheat growing yellow earth of Shandong is nearly complete.  The villages are no longer white washed with curved back roof detail   These are rougher and in the winter, warmer construction of ochre daub and wattle that match with the dry ground, the dry rocks.  In China you don’t get a happy sign saying “you have just entered Shandong Province, land of Confucius, Mencius and SunZi!”  If there was, I would have just passed it.  One day maybe.  The GPS confirms it my geographic assumption. 

This is most assuredly not a Japanese train.  Everyone is talking audibly on phones.  It would be utterly ridiculous for me or anyone to ask another person to refrain from talking.  It would be akin to asking people to hold their breath for a while.  This suits me as I have tunes, that block out the noise and in about seven minutes I’ll be joining a call of my own.  Let’s see if I can connect and hold the call moving at 300 kilometers per hour.  Someday I must really go see that Weishan Lake that the map says is just over there, and where once upon a time Wu Song and Lu Da and the boys set up their rebel fort.    

Friday, 06/16/17

Spongey Injera From Teff

Planning a safari.  I’ve done my share of traveling.  But I have never done this before.  I’ve written a half a dozen they have there in the Lonely Planet and settled on a few to discuss with.  The photos of mythical places like the Serengeti or the Ngorongoro Crater are astounding.  It’s hard to fathom being in a place where these enormous animals simply plod about as they always have.  The prices quoted by these companies are also rather astounding.  Everyone wants to be paid up front for the full trip.   

Our first stop as we head south will afford us three days in Addis Ababa. It’s hard not to repeat those two words over and over in one’s mind, the way Winston Rodney for example reverently do so.  I’ve read at and around Ethiopia for many years with one book or another set there.  The extraordinary, sui generis music current of Ethiopia has been part of my cranium for twenty years or more.  It would appear that giants like Mulatu Astatke and Alemayehu Eshete, still play out which would be astounding, though I can’t imagine I’ll catch them in a brief three-night window.

Cooking classes though.  Ever since I arranged a cooking class for my wife in Venice I realized this is what I should always do when I travel with her.  I’m sure she would enjoy learning how to prepare spongey injera from teff and all the spicy dishes you lay out on top of it.  The girls would too.  A quick search isn’t turning up many options the way it does when you search for such places in Venice, but perhaps I’m not searching well.  We’ll find it.

We’ll spend four days then down in Blantyre, southern Malawi.  A friend of my best friend runs an orphanage in Limbe, named after one of my favorite trees: The Jacaranda Foundation:   I wonder when those purple flowers will be in bloom.  I’ve tried to suggest that we can help or contribute in some way, but I reckon we’ll likely just do a lot of listening and learning which is fine.  One of Africa’s tallest mountains with the memorable name of Zomba is nearby on the road to a lake we will visit. 

My cousin in Tanzania runs an orphanage there in the city Bagomoyo.   Apparently the kids are on a break for the summer, so we may not head there, but she is up in Arusha, which is the staging ground for all the safari activity.  It will be lovely to finally see here there in the country she’s lived for so long and to meet her family.  We've discussed this for years.  The safari itself may be the best chance I’ve had in a while to insist my girls read and not look at their phones.  There will be long, five hour rides across the savanna and evenings of glamping by firelight and I can’t imagine they’ll be much of any internet access.  From there it’s a flight to Zanzibar, to see Stone Town and the and the remarkable ethnic mélange of that former Arab port and whether I like it or not, afford a few days as well, for us all to relax on the beach, before the long flight to New York.

Thursday 6/15/17

Have A Sample In There?

I saw this gentleman sitting across from me at their airport.  He was speaking Castilian Spanish into a phone.  I was typing away on emails and answering buzzings from my phone. He began to walk over to the gate.  I noticed he eyed me once and twice and then he walked up and began talking.  He offered unfortunate news.  Apparently Shanghai was having a tornado.  "Is that right?"  "Yes."  "We’re not likely to be leaving any time soon, then." This was not what I wanted to hear.  I acknowledged this as pleasantly as I could. 

He continued to talk and I felt bad because he was standing and I was sitting.  All the seats around me were taken.  Eventually I stood up to continue the chat.  He was a wine merchant from Madrid.  This had an effect on me.  Suddenly I wanted very badly to sample some of his wares.  I looked around and considered the various restaurants in the Beijing Capital Airport.  No.  None of them would have anything like good wine.  I looked down at his carry on.  Might he have a sample in there?

I struggled.  The fingers of work were pulling at me to return.  There were always another few emails I could get out.  I had stopped midway through writing a blog post.  But quickly it became clear that he was a thoughtful, cultured gentleman, about whom I could learn not only why it was that wine grown in Shandong would never likely mature the way wine in Australia or California had, but also that Seneca was from Cordoba and the architecture of Lima was much more interesting in his opinion, than that of Santiago.  More than once his eyes unexpectedly reminded me of a great friend of mine whom I rarely see any more and this, more than anything made me consistently abandon the impulse to say “well, I guess we’ll be stuck for a while.  I’ve work to do.  If you’ll excuse me.”

And as often happens, he revealed an almost talismanic admiration for China.  China was ascendant.  China would be running things soon.  The U.S. was being eclipsed.  They are building out and taking over Africa, that’s for sure.  I understand and subscribe to a variant of this thinking.  But it is striking rarely people factor in China’s fragility.  I think older Chinese all know.  Older Chinese know that things can turn, quickly, horribly.  And that while we all hope this is the ascendant period of a glorious four-hundred-year dynasty there is nothing certain about this.  People imagine China ruling other places, when they are still trying to figure out their domestic stability as well as the improvement of their grape cultivation.

Wednesday 01/14/17

Next Time the Train

A few posts back I believe, after wasting hours for a plane to depart I wrote something about “Next time a train.   Next time a train.”   I did not learn my lesson.  The train’s fast.  The train’s on time.  But the train tickets are a hassle to buy and, most importantly they let you off at the south station which is a God-awful pain in the ass to get to and from.  And still: next time the train.  I’m on the phone with Ctrip now, on hold of course, because every other idiot like me who intended to go back and forth from Shanghai to Beijing this morning is making contingency plans . . .  I have spoken to Ctrip:  As suspected I cannot buy a high-speed rail ticket over the phone but apparently I can do this with my foreign card on their web site.  I will be considering this for my next trip.  Domestic air travel in this country is fundamentally unreliable. 

Last night I went to the airport for my 8:00PM flight.  Calmly arrived with six minutes to spare till the closing of the check in and was told the plane was canceled.  All other flights that evening were sold out or similarly cancelled.  So I got a ticket for this morning at 8:00AM.  Even, I reckoned, if it’s two hours, nay, three hours late I can still be on time for what I’m heading there to do.  This morning I arrived at Terminal Three uncharacteristically early and calmly walked up to the long lines at the platinum check in. 

Waiting behind a couple who had bag after bag to check in.  They were obviously going on a vacation when everyone else here in line was a business traveler.  Finally they moved on, I put down my passport.  The young Air China lady started the process then yelled out “oh, sorry, it’s delayed.”  Really?  How “delayed?”  “Your 8:00AM flight will now depart at 1:30PM.”  The guy behind me gestured to her to help him next but she ignored him.  “OK, then give me my luggage back.  If that’s the case I need to go and see if there is another flight I can transfer to.  She leaned over to get my bag and the guy behind me thrust his identity car out over my shoulder for her to take.  I was done, and was reaching for my bag, but in the two seconds it took me to do this I kept caged the urge to turn and yell in his nose: “Who are you?  You wait for me!” 

I did not.  I took my bag and went over to the other line and learned that all other flights were sold out.  How about other airlines? I asked and he began to search.  Uncontrollably I flashed back to the guy with his identity card in my face.  I stroked the idea of grabbing and throwing the precious document off into the crowds and savored how remarkably satisfying that would have been to see him dash off angrily to find it.  And then I considered the video clip of me doing this being released on social media with an overdub suggesting how barbaric ungrateful foreign guests were and I exhaled, glad that I’d let it all go.   Next time the train.  

Tuesday, 06/13/17

A Kitty Veteran

The Zanzibar Chest” has gotten off to a good start. Somehow the version I have has lots of rollicking quotes that compare it to things like “The English Patient” that gave me pause after I’d ordered it.  Fifty pages in its wonderful.  Aidan Hartley sets up a rich, intergenerational tale that weaves early twentieth century British colonialism with the horrific East Africa of the late twentieth century that he covered as a reporter.  His father, an administrator and farmer who raised him in region, apparently suffered from horrible dreams.  He believed he was haunted by dead spirits.  The son has similar sufferings and is convinced that spirits have returned to reckon with him, as well. 

It’s a good thing I have a book.  Tickets not withstanding I won’t be traveling anywhere.  All flights canceled tonight.  Head on home.  Return early tomorrow to see what happens.  There is lighting in Shanghai.  I don’t want to fly into lightening I suppose.  The day before my birthday in 1595 Ricci’s companion, John Barradas was who traveled from Shaoguan to Nanjing was killed in a boating accident.  Travel’s gotten safer.  Emphasis on safety more pronounced.  I guess I should be grateful, it’s only my own bed I have to return to and sleep upon. 

Our cat was spade.  Our cat normally tears around the house at enviable speeds, clawing at furniture, rolling on her back, demanding attention, calling out, omnipresent.  She is now in crude kitty bandages that make her look like a kitty veteran of the battle of Verdun.  She has an absurd cone on her head to protect her from scratching and biting herself, but she is utterly disoriented and now takes futile back steps to retreat out of the head cone.  She’s been treated with lots of human food (tuna cans, mostly) and petting and affection. 

Something had to be done, as we were planning to leave for the summer.  This would mean she’d go with the ayi to her village for two months. and I insisted that it wasn’t fair to do that, unless she was spade.  I told my girls, perhaps a bit too graphically that if she had a litter of kittens some of them would invariably starve to death.  Getting a cat spade was basic kitty etiquette.  Any thoughtful kitten owner should do this. But now seeing the poor animal limp about in recovery, I’m not so sure.  

Monday, 06/12/17