What’s the appropriate etiquette? I had nearly finished my stir fried eggplant dish in the only small restaurant near my hotel on Putuo, China. I’d already eaten there a few times, because there was no other choice. This time I was by myself and having some lunch. I ordered the dish by trying to say “youméiyou sùshi shipin,” (Do you have vegetarian food?) which the proprietor did not understand no matter how often I repeated it, but was able read it from my iPhone quite easily. (Thank you, Lonely Planet speaking phrasebook.)
She brought me over to where the live fish were swimming around in plastic buckets and above which was an array of slightly wilting vegetables. She pointed, I pointed, and later, she brought out a plate of eggs and tomatoes, along with another plate of eggplant. The stir fried food was drenched in oil and hot as blazes. I ate until I was nearly full and as I was reaching for what would be my last piece of eggplant, I noticed the finger sized cockroach, legs up, laying there in the dish looking a bit like a burnt piece of eggplant himself.
So what was I to do? Complain? Should I point at it and express dissatisfaction? The range of possible responses is bewildering.
‘What did you think? Surprised you didn’t get more of them!’
‘Oh! You got a bonus! Lucky you!’
I’m confident that it was sterile enough with all that boiling oil. Further, I am sure I’ve eaten worse in my life and not known about it, so I just paid for my food and went on my way. I wonder if they even noticed it and wondered why I didn’t freak out.
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“Excuse me, where are you from?” the boy sitting next to me in the waiting area asks. “United States,” I answer and he looks puzzled. “U. S. A.” He smiles. He just wants to practice his English and he’s quite please with himself, justifiably so. I point to my ticket and ask him if this number here is my seat. His eyebrows knit and he says finally “My aunt has my ticket.” “I mean are there assigned seats or can I sit anywhere.” “Anywhere,” he responds (although it turns out he’s wrong about that.)
Even if I spoke Mandarin, I doubt I could walk up to any approximately asian person Colorado, where I live and ask them where they are from. The many asian Americans, even of Chinese descent, would quite likely be offended and be forced to awkwardly answer something like “San Diego.” But in China it’s a pretty good bet that a westerner isn’t from around town and, even he can speak the language, and I certainly see many clever tourists and westerners who can, he’s not likely to be offended. It’s an easy question and safe conversation starter that I’ve mentioned before is often used by touts and weirdos.
This exchange also illustrates something very different about our U.S. and Chinese cultures: we in the west may be ignorant of the subtle details of the mysterious orient but from the looks of it, we seem to know much more about them than they do about us.
How many times have western tourists to China heard how excellent we are with chopsticks? I, for one, have been using them, now and again, since I was about eight years old. I’m not likely to ever have the proficiency that the Chinese have, but using sticks to shovel food from a bowl into my open mouth is hardly as difficult as, say, Chinese calligraphy.
It is the tradition in China to offer guests a wide range of food (and lots of it). During a recent meal, I remarked how similar a dish was to kung pow. “You know kung pow?!” my astonished host asked, his eyes widening. “It’s very popular in the States…” “Hmmm,” he seems to be having trouble swallowing.
At every turn, it’s the same. You know there are different languages in China? You’ve heard of Chairman Mao? You were able to use the subway? (The signs were in English and even if they weren’t I can match the little symbols on my map with the ones on the platform.) We have much the same foods in the U.S.A., and for that matter, most western places I’ve visited. It may not be what mother back in China used to make, but it passes. We’ve seen kung fu movies about the Han dynasty and posters of revolutionaries waving the little red book. Chinese Americans are a prominent minority in the United States and knowing several hardly makes me an authority on this ancient culture, but evidence suggests that, in comparison, at least for the last 30 years, the Chinese were left completely and utterly clueless about life outside of their borders.
They do know a little about us: They know about the NBA and Starbucks. They have a brother/sister/uncle/aunt living in the United States and going to university. They pick up their McDonald’s burgers with their hands and forego the chopsticks, but for now, despite television and the internet, western clothes and German automobiles, the Chinese still seem pretty comfortable looking at the rest of the world as if it’s some peculiar, very interesting oddity. Good thing too, otherwise I might not have known I could ask boy sitting next to me if this was the correct waiting area for the train!
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I am sitting all alone and eating. I am surrounded by ten people, but I am all alone. They speak with each other and toast each other and sometimes I raise my glass with them, but I am in China and I don’t speak the language and none of them speaks mine. One of them, my colleague speaks English, but it can be difficult to be understood by him, although I think this has more to do with his personality than his language skills. He is enjoying the company of his former classmates and reaching across the table for the crab and he is not speaking with me.
I am using chopsticks to select my meal from the plates as the parade of food slowly passes by me on the lazy susan. There are ten of us, but the plates are stacked, sometimes three deep, with food. I don’t eat meat, but don’t complain as I fish a piece of bok choy or a chunk of potato from the depths of the bowl with shrimps. I don’t mind the pork sauce raining from a delicate wood’s ear mushroom. There is more than enough for me to eat, as long as I ignore what it sits next to on the plate and everything is delicious which makes ignoring much easier.
Eventually, watermelon comes and I know this means the meal is almost over. Suddenly, a few moments after everyone has had a chance to have a slice, we abruptly stand and it’s time to go. I follow my host to the car and say good bye in poor chinese to my new friends whom I have not met, but who smile and shake my hand warmly.
I am alone in the car now. We’re going somewhere, either to another customer visit, or perhaps some site seeing. It’s not clear, but my host has just finished chatting with the driver for sometime and leaned his chair back to take nap. He tells me it will be over an hour driving, but not where we’re going. It has started raining and he has started snoring, and I don’t really know what happens next or where I will sleep tonight, or even which direction the car is heading in. The radio is on, but it’s not talking or singing to me. I don’t really have much else to do, so I relax and stare out the car window as the rain begins to fall.
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I wasn’t too thrilled to be going to Shanghai in the July. Shanghai in July (actually, Ningbo, a few miles south, across the bay) is almost as hot as Beijing in January is cold, although I am always excited to travel, even if most of my time will be spent in business meetings or, in this case, peering inside a coal-fired boiler and sweating liters of water in order to survive the heat.
Auspiciously, the Chinese would say, I was very lucky for this trip. I was here to see a dog eat the sun! Personally, I think people have always known that solar eclipses were not actually mythical animals eating the sun, only to birth it out again moments later. Early humans were very keen on locations of the sun and the moon as their harvests of crops and fish depended on them. It wouldn’t be difficult for anyone paying attention to the moon’s location to notice how close it was getting to the sun and to guess what had happened. I think the legends were simply fun and it’s still fun for our modern egos to smugly think how much smarter we are now.
Overcast skies with cloud rolling in, and steam from the power plant stack threatened to block out the show, but we could still easily see moon slowly eat away at the sun through our welding glasses. A few kids with dark glass gazed upward and played as their parents took a break to admire the rare spectacle.
As the sun was nearly consumed, streetlights came on along the road leading to the power plant and birds started chirping. For a brief moment, cicadas started their evening concert at 9:30 in the morning. A few miles north and the total eclipse would last for up to four minutes, but here, the glowing rim of the sun, and night in the middle of the day, lasted only about a minute. The solar corona was only barely visible in the haze and my camera shutter struggled to keep up with all the photos.
The children seemed pleased with the show while the sentries guarding the plant entrance snapped photos with their cell phones. I wasn’t much more prepared than they were to photograph the eclipse and while I write this I am not yet sure that I got a single interesting shot, but even if there is only a blurry shot attached to this post, I am excited I got to see it. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and the clouds have turned black and rain is falling. Auspicious indeed.
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The key is to be very calm. It’s not like it’s working, but I think even when sweat is pouring down your neck and dripping off your nose, you don’t smell as bad when you’re not stressed. That’s my secret when I come to sub-tropical and tropical climates. Admittedly, business travel is different than personal travel. On the one hand, there’s plenty of access to approximately air-conditioned taxis and comfortable air-conditioned rooms like the one I am writing this from in Shanghai, but there’s also considerably more luggage to drag around, what with you, suits and ties to wear, laptop etc.; no easy accomplishment for the cool-climate acclimated.
And being calm is different too. On personal travel, mistakes cost money right out of your pocket. I am far from one who spends company money without thinking, but companies I’ve worked for have always agreed that getting to appointments on time and without looking like you’ve been put through the wringer is part of the cost of the trip. Just like internet in hotel rooms and rooms with locks nice enough to leave your computer inside. None of these is typical for a personal trip. The result, especially for a business trip, is that even if you make a mistake, keep calm about it and work out a solution, or the sweat will start pouring even faster.
Yesterday my mistake was a pretty small one. I passed by the ATMs and money exchangers near baggage claim in Shanghai figuring I’d see plenty more later. I kept walking, hoping to see one before I took the Maglev train, where I paid with a credit card. After boarding the train, we arrived in Shanghai in only 6 minutes after traveling on an incredibly smooth and fast magnetic levitation demonstration train that travels at 300 km/h (188 mph) in off hours and even faster 430 km/h (269 mph) during busy times. I wandered around the station, dragging my luggage figuring there would have to be an ATM there somewhere, and trying not to sweat.
It’s a cool day in Shanghai, probably not more than 30 °C (86°F) but the extremely high humidity coaxes my pores to open up like spigots. Fortunately, I was able to take my time and find a money machine after a little while. I made my way back to the taxis (hey, this is business), already soaking like wet towel and the cab was, at least a little, air conditioned. The hotel lobby was steamy, but the room was cool, once the AC kicked in, I began to dry off.
This morning looks to be more of the same. I opened up the window and at 6 am (yup, jetlagged) it’s already a sauna out there. I’ll likely walk to the train station and travel around the bay to the equally hot Ningbo. Tonight I meet with some colleagues and clients. I clearly can’t avoid sweating…my goal is just not to stink so much!
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It’s actually a charming story of a small town being revitalized by a Korean automobile manufacturer. They’ll be making SUVs there, but it’s still good for the town…. But really, check out the picture attached to the story. Would he really have the time? Wouldn’t it have been more sensible to bring a local auto manufacturer, or perhaps not let the textile plants close in the first place?
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First the good news. I didn’t just complete the Triple Bypass. I all but breezed through it. I spent under 8 ½ hours on the bike and completed the ride, including stops, in just over 10 ½ hours. Average speed was 14 miles per hour. Not so much impressive in and of itself, rather the surprising part is how I wasn’t really all that tired when I finally rode into Avon, Colorado. The ride is loooong and I certainly noticed that riding up what actually is the easiest climb: Vail pass, but I had been saving energy (afraid I might not be so fresh for the whole ride) up all the climbs, and even without eating enough, (the aid stations weren’t much in comparison to the MS150) I had enough strength to jump in a very fast pace line for the last 25 miles to the finish.
The Triple Bypass did prove to be quite a bit different from other rides I’ve been on. Nine out of ten of the riders were men. Men on expensive bikes with jerseys from previous Triple rides. It isn’t a race, but there’s no way to finish the sheer size of the ride without being in shape enough to go pretty fast, and it showed. Very few riders were just cruising along and while I surprisingly passed quite a few of folks both up and down the hills, I think some of the folks who passed me were going so fast that they were red shifted as they receded off in the distance in front of me. The ride also turns out to be somewhat technical. Passing slower riders on curving bike paths is no picnic and staying focused during 15 mile descents at 40+ mph isn’t much better. If finishing was easier than expected, the Triple Bypass was hardly boring.
That’s all fine and good, I trained for it, training worked…not such an interesting story, is it? We’ve established from previous posts that I am sensitive to altitude and I was determined to do something about it, but up until finishing the ride it was anything but clear if my efforts would be successful.
As planned, I set up camp at around 10,500 feet two days before the ride. I went for a couple of easy laps up to the pass and back, just to get some thin air in me. It was gorgeous. I took cellphone pictures of my smiling face with a stunning mountain backdrop. I took it easy. I drove my car up Mt. Evans rode, the highest paved road in North America, to over 14,000 feet ,and took pictures of yellow bellied marmots, big horn sheep and kids feed twizzlers to mountain goats (that’ll be another post….) I returned to camp and enjoyed a simple hot meal by the fire pit with the melody of noisy campers swirling around me.
That’s when the headache started. An hour later I lay whimpering in my sleeping bag wondering how bad it was going to get. At around 11:30 that night I unzipped my tent door and leaned out to vomit up my dinner — right next to the tent. Not pretty. I slept poorly and I threw up yet again in the morning, (although this time, I made it to the toilet a few hundred feet away.)
I awoke feeling terrible. It took me fifteen minutes to eat a banana. If the ride had been that morning I would have been forced to bail out. I had planned on hiking, or maybe riding some more and enjoying the mountains. Instead I sat around while my headache slowly receded to a dull roar and I ate tiny amounts of food trying to refill my stomach. I was pretty down about ruining the whole thing, even before I got started.
I was mostly better by the evening, after sitting around doing absolutely nothing the whole day, and just hoping the headache would fade. I forced down a pasta dinner I had brought with me and went to bed early. The alarm was set to an evil 3:40 in the morning. As I lay there with the last light of day fading, I could finally move around without my head weighing me down like a pile of rocks, but as I fell asleep I was still unsure how the ride was going to go.
But like most of my posts, nothing exciting actually happens in the end.
So, is this what I have to do? Spend an extra day or two acclimatizing just to complete a challenging activity at higher altitudes? Is it worth it? I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem fair that all the training has so little effect on altitude and while I don’t want this to change what I can do in the beautiful mountains, everyone’s got to deal with their limitations.
If you had throw up every time you exerted yourself above 10,000 feet, would you bother? I know, in spite of the success, I’m in no rush to repeat the Triple Bypass next year. I’ll find something else stupid to do. Don’t make any suggestions though—I’d hate for another “stupidity ensues” series on this blog.
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I’ve been ’saving my strength.’ That’s lazy speak for: over a week with no riding. Instead I went for some easy hikes at sea level in Washington state. Great for pictures, not so much for preparation.
The Triple Bypass isn’t a race, but it is a serious ride. Only a two of the 2009 Tour de France mountain stages are longer. They have similar elevation gain, and none of them is at nearly the same altitude. Granted, unlike the tour riders, we’ll be (hopefully) done at the end of the day and not part of a 21 stage tour, and my pace is just a hair slower (like 10 mph), but it’s still no easy ride.
Last week, I felt a bit better about my chances of making it before the barbecue is done (my personal goal, and I am not even interested in the barbecue….). I rode with a friend who’s done the Triple in the past. He’s a strong rider and a marathon runner to boot. I was able to handily stay ahead of him and we completed our little 15 mile time trial at over 20 miles per hour average. (Shut up. I know the tour riders do that at about 30 miles per hour…it’s still fast.) He seemed confident I’d have no problem and I am all too happy to believe him.
But I still have a nagging concern about how altitude will effect me. So I am making my own joke about sleeping at altitude a reality. I’ve decided to camp out at 10,000 feet for two days preceding the ride. I’ll go up to Juniper Pass (part of the route) and camp near Echo Lake. I’ll go for an easy ride, maybe up the pass and back. The next day I’ll hike, maybe up Mt. Evans. I’ll eat my homemade muesli, some pasta, perhaps some brownies if I have time to make them. I won’t be able to shower, and I can’t be sure I’ll sleep well, but I’ll drive down the pass unload the bike, and ride right past where I’d slept and we’ll know then, just how bad the headache is!
I know that I do acclimatize thanks to my Peruvian mis-adventure, but is two nights enough to acclimatize? Wikipedia points to a mountaineering rule of thumb of 1000 feet for each day of sleep, which wouldn’t quite make it. A few drugs are available that may work, but neither are available over the counter in the United States. There are homeopathic remedies as well, but none of these has a mechanism that convinces me to bother outside of “the Chinese have been doing this for over 2000 years, so it’s got to be good.”
Weather is looking easy, everything I need, including waterproof jacket and pants seems to fit in my seat bag and jersey. If camping works, I’ll be just fine. If not, at least I’ll be able to get an early start. Be sure to check back next week to learn how I did.
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A patron was chatting with the server in a Fife (suburb of Seattle/Tacoma) diner. “Rainy today…” he said. “Well, it’s about time,” she replied, “we’ve had sun all week and I was getting pretty tired of it.”
That’s not a joke. It was almost as dry as Colorado over the July 4th holiday.
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In a follow up to my previous post, it seems that, in the United States at least, there will be no sequel to Catcher in the Rye. Many Catcher fans reveled in the decision, afraid that the very existence of a bad, unauthorized sequel which they are not forced to read will ruin their experience of reading the iconic book, just like Vanilla Ice ruined Queen’s Under Pressure for me. (Alright, it’s the only example I could come up with. I actually do like Under Pressure, but not enough to care about Vanilla Ice’s riff on it.; by the way, that was my attempt at a pop reference people might even recognize. Imagine how bad it could have been if I chose a song I actually cared about…)
It’s no surprise that copyright law is being stretched to protect creators more and more; they are, in fact, under more and more pressure in the digital age of easy copies, but this little episode has done little except ensure the prominent location of what is likely a bad sequel. Seems rather misguided of Mr. Salinger to me.
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