Friday, October 28, 2005

Adjusting to Sanlitun

This coming Saturday I will attend my first British Masquerade Ball in Beijing. I say first because it is my first ball in Beijing and my first British ball and my first Masquerade ball as well. Hmmm…

So, to prepare masks and practice eating ;-) one teacher who is going had us over to her apartment last Sunday night for dinner. Her parents were in town along with her aunt (who graciously did all the home cooking for us) and we enjoyed a night of great food, good wine and oh well – no mask making. But it was SO nice to sit around a dinner table with a family even though it wasn’t mine. We laughed for hours and although it doesn’t compare with being with my own family, the company was great. And she has an awesome apartment with a view of Beijing that is to die for.

On Monday I stayed too late in Shunyi (Chinese lessons and dinner with Bebe) and found myself at the clubhouse looking for a taxi at 9:30. Is this really too late? For a ride home to Sanlitun it is. No worries – the front desk said they would call me an illegal taxi. Luckily enough it was the same illegal driver I had had the week before and who I would have again on Thursday after a late basketball meeting. So it goes, I have a new friend in Beijing. And I actually like this driver more than the legal ones because he already knows where I’m going. He gave me his business card which is a great resource – except that if I call him I have no way to tell him who I am, where I am or where I want to go!

Wednesday night a group of us went to a Thai restaurant down the road called the Banana Leaf. There was much singing and dancing as a Philippino band performs the entire time. They will pull you up to dance even while eating. I had much fun followed by a trip to a jazz bar called The Big Easy. All musts if you come to visit. And this night allowed for one more exotic food – shrimp heads! Yep, that’s right – shrimp heads… they just chop the body off for someone who actually knows what they’re ordering and fry the heads up for dummies like me who grab the menu and point at something!

Friday brought a nice swim after school followed by a birthday party for Travis Tebo, another new teacher this year. He and his wife ordered pizza, served drinks and played plenty of 80’s music as there was an 80’s party following that night at the Pomegranate. We had a ball dancing and getting ready for the party. It is amazing how much frosted pink lip stick and the right music can take you back to your first dance, junior high and dreams of your first kiss. We later caught a cab to the village for the party at the Pomegranate (a “sports” bar in the village owned by teachers of ISB) where two bands made of teachers from ISB were playing along with a DJ – plenty of 80’s music to go around. I felt like I was at a 70’s Sigma Nu tailgate all over again – one decade of a costume later!!!

Saturday morning I was up bright and early to go market shopping with my new friend Annie. Annie is a native Beijinger and is dating an English teacher from ISB. She said she had a great market to take me to – very cheap and no louwai’s (expats) so no bargaining either. This place wholesales to the markets we go to. It is open from 3 am to 3 pm daily and this place… if you don’t like shopping this is your ultimate nightmare. There are people pushing and shoving in every direction, shouting from stall to stall and best yet - occasionally your foot gets run over by a little man with a cart selling corn on the cob. Annie is the person to shop with as Chinese is her first language and she knows where to go to get what you need. I got two winter coats (from a stall who wholesales to Russia so they had my size – nice, thick down winter coats and one is ZARA!), a pair of shoes, two pairs of thick gloves, six pairs of socks and a pair of earrings for 415 kwai – oh, about $50! This would have cost me close to $600 in the states and even here in a typical market – close to $100. So I really got a deal and an experience to go with it.

Sunday I went to the Lama Temple in the morning with Barry, Bebe, Kris and Kendra. Very pretty but to tell you the truth – I don’t really get it. All the big Buddha’s and everything – they are neat to see though. One is 24 meters tall and was in the Guinness Book of World Records until a few years ago. There were monks everywhere. What I don’t get is how this exists in a communist country where religion is pretty much forbidden. But it exists, I was there and then we went for dim sum, which is the traditional Sunday lunch here.

Afterwards I spent some time learning my way around my hood here in Sanlitun. Much to see and do. I stopped at a Chinese grocery store on the way home just to see what I could see and was hovering over a big bowl of… something when I heard a voice behind me ask “are you really contemplating buying some of that?” I turned around to find a man laughing at me. No, I replied – just looking. Turns out he is here on business from New Zealand and we talked for a while. To my amazement I was able to tell him several must sees in Beijing and also some easier ways for him to get around, etc. As I was walking home from the store I freaked out a little bit – how did I get here? How do I know where to go in Beijing, China? How can I help someone else find where he or she is going? A little culture shock I guess…

As I entered my apartment building, the guard recognized me and opened the door for me without me having to show my card. Now I know this seems to be no big deal but for a little southern girl in a big Asian city of 15 million – to be recognized is a damn good feeling and one I wouldn’t trade for anything. We are now having morning conversations on my way to school, the guard and I (as well as I can anyways) and I feel like I have a new best friend. Someone looking out for me and a good reason to practice and study more Chinese.
Xia jian!!!

Dubai, UAE

At exactly 3:25 on Friday, September 30 fall break started and I left school immediately. I had a hired driver who was to pick me up behind the school to try to avoid traffic to get me to the airport quickly as my flight to see Castro in Dubai was leaving at 5:30. I waited and waited and finally at 3:45 the black car I was expecting arrived – he stuck his head out the window and asked “Airport?” Yes!

About a mile from the airport he reached his hand to the back seat asking for his money ahead of time. I knew immediately that I was with an illegal driver. Are you Mr. Wang I asked? Nope – and I had gotten in the wrong car with the wrong man. No worries – he got me to the airport in time and before I knew it I had boarded an Air China plane to take me for my first trip to the Middle East.

Nine hours later I arrived in a completely clean and modern city. It was good to see Castro after two months and I was so excited to share stories of my new experiences in China.

As the UAE is a Muslim country their workweek begins on Saturday and ends on Wednesday. So Castro went straight to work the first day I was there. After being in China for a while, Dubai seemed quite easy. Everyone speaks English, the city was clean, there are toilets everywhere, I recognized some of the food, could read the menus, etc. Ahh… back to civilization! Dubai is the second fastest growing city in the world (second to Beijing that is) and they have entire areas of the city already planned to be finished by 2008. Transportation is smooth – and already they are planning to have the tallest building in the world as well as to be called the shopping capital of the world. It’s amazing what a little forethought can do for a city – as opposed to the 24/7 construction happening here to a purpose no one quite knows.

Wasting no time I immediately left in search for the nearest Starbucks. After a cappuccino and some time at an Internet café I ventured on a walk to the creek. This seems to be where everything’s happenin – plenty of people and things to see. This is in the older part of the city – Burg Dubai – lots of character compared to the newer parts.

Once at the creek a man called me over to his water taxi so I took a 30-minute tour. Being from the coast, to be back on the water was perfect and exactly what I had been needing – even halfway around the world, the water still feels like home. After the tour I went to a Thai restaurant for lunch and then to a cloth souk. Afterwards I went to the Dubai Museum for a history of the famous trading city. A quick swim in the pool and Castro was home but not for long as he runs in the park on Saturdays. Later that night I met Castro’s good friends Ellen and Brad – new teachers and neighbors in his apartment building. They are both American and Ellen is from Virginia – so at least with a southern girl around I know Castro is in good hands!
On Sunday I went to the Jumeira mosque for a tour. As I was not dressed appropriately (shoulders and knees were showing) I had to put on a full cover as well as cover my head. The tour was interesting – the tour guide was actually Spanish and had found the Muslim faith in Switzerland. She answered questions and explained a lot about the Muslim faith as well as the culture that typically surrounds the faith. Afterwards I crossed the street for a Japanese lunch and then ventured off to the beach. I have now taken a swim in the Persian Gulf, which has water clearer than Bermuda!

I went to the mall for a while and they had ZARA so I was quite happy there. Once Castro was done with school we took a stroll down to the creek for a nice dinner with hookah pipe and all. Castro decided his outfit needed touching up and bought a full cover along with headgear. I thought it would be just for a joke but he went to dinner that way too and we had the best time laughing at the people laughing at him. Only Castro… he’s always been able to take things to the next level!

I spent the rest of the school days shopping, at the pool or at the beach. On Monday after school Castro took me to the Madinat Jumeirah, which has a large souk, a view to die for and beers almost as big as the Burj Al Arab! This is where he and his friends go for happy hour on Friday. A little different than Tsingtao at the Pomegranate! We watched the sun go down over the coast which was absolutely beautiful before touring by foot another nearby hotel.

On Tuesday after school Castro took me for tea at the Burj Al Arab… hello! Brad and Angelina had just been there last week! Not that we like Brad anymore but anyways – it was so NEAT! It is the only 6 star hotel in the world. Everything inside was beautiful and they greet you at the door with rose water. There are fountains everywhere – gold – marble – you name it they have it. Nothing has gone undone there – they have thought of everything. We went up to the 27th floor for tea and it was delicious – Castro had a Moroccan tea and I had Earl Gray. We had small sandwiches, cakes and scones and again – another beautiful sunset. We enjoyed our time visiting and taking tons of pictures! Outside one of the windows you can see a fake island they are building of a palmetto tree. It is so large you can see it from the moon. They are building another palmetto tree soon and an island with split parts so that it will look like the earth. You can buy one of the islands, travel there by boat, and have your own island getaway in the Persian Gulf. These people are loaded!

It was so nice to be treated like royalty at the Burj and I must say my friends here in China who have heard of the place are quite jealous as they all got E. Coli on a bike trip to southern China. Well, such is life!

On Saturday we went on a desert safari! Traveling in a jeep to the desert we stopped so the drivers could take the air out of the tires so they wouldn’t go flat on the dunes. We then took a roller coaster ride in the jeep through the dunes and I have no idea how we did not tip over. A lot of the teachers went – I think 12 of us in all, and pictures can’t capture the feel of it. We were even sliding sometimes. It was funny though – we were all very scared at first and after awhile, we resumed our normal conversations as if we were on a 2 lane back road in Hampton.

After the ride we went to a traditional Arabic camp where we took camel rides (seriously! – I loved it!!!) and then had dinner, shisha and henna tattoos. Some time looking at the night sky which was so gorgeous to my eyes after not seeing a sky like that in some time, well since Inner Mongolia to be exact. A jeep ride back and then Castro and I went for a beer. A great day – not only did I enjoy the desert, the camel ride, everything, but I also enjoyed the company – I’m glad Castro has so many good friends here.

Friday we took a walk back to the creek and as Ramadan had started on Wednesday we could not eat, drink or chew gum in public. All the restaurants were closed and we tried to see the gold souk but as Friday is their holy day everything was closed. So I packed, we went for dinner and soon we were saying goodbye at the airport. Oh, I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to leave the comforts of being with someone I am so comfortable with, being in a clean, English fluent city, being in the world as I know it. It was a long trip back to China and to be completely honest, I wasn’t enthusiastically looking forward to coming “home.” But now that I have been back for a couple of weeks, my eyes are used to these sights again, my ears the sharp tones of the language, and my stomach, unfortunately, the food!

Thanks Castro for being such a great host!!! I hope to go back once you have your bike and you and your friends are always welcome in China…

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Who’s that girl?

So, I woke up yesterday morning (Saturday) and decided I hadn’t had enough changes in my life lately – that I needed one more. So I got my Insider’s Guide for Beijing out and looked up hair salons. Don’t get me wrong – there are salons and nail places on every corner here – but I wanted one where possibly someone spoke a little English. There were four listed so I called the one I thought would be closest.

I was expecting to make an appointment but was asked from the other end if I could be there in 5 minutes. Not a busy day for them I guess. I told them I could be there in an hour as I had no idea where I was actually going. I got dressed, caught a cab and was on my way. I had left my name with the girl on the phone so I was surprised when I got there and they didn’t have me written in the books. Speaking on the phone is much harder with a language barrier so I didn’t worry at first – however they couldn’t find even anything close to my name. About that time we both realized what had happened – being new to Beijing I hadn’t noticed the difference between Guanghuaxili Beilou and Guanghua Beilou. How could I have made that mistake???

Well, no worries. I was at the wrong place but they had time so I decided to stay. And then the questions began – what did I want – who would I like my stylist to be – I had five Chinese stylists and one translator standing above me asking me question after question. It all felt quite overwhelming so I decided to go for the senior stylist (100 kwai more - $12) and told the translator he could do whatever he wanted – cut, color, perm – I don’t care! The translator told the stylist and he turned to me with the stylists response… “really???” yes! Just please get started.

I think I made his day and four hours later, after having no less than two people working on me at a time I left the salon looking quite different than when I had walked in. I’ve never been this blond in my life but when you say to a stylist - do what you want – you can’t complain about the outcome. For two summers in Spain I have craved the fancy layers all the girls have and alas, finally they are mine as well. I have no idea of course what this will actually look like once I have to wash and style it myself but it is fun for now. I’m enjoying the compliments and it is fun walking by a mirror as I first don’t recognize myself. Well, just another day in Beijing.

After that I met my friend Barry for lunch and coffee, went to my friend George’s later to check out his apartment (I want ideas for my own) and then last night a dinner with friends. They went out dancing but I didn’t feel up to it – I’ll catch them next time!

Tonight I have a dinner with the teachers I will attend the British Ball with in two weeks. It is a masquerade so we will be making masks after dinner. I went to a tailor this morning to be sized for a dress – I am having something fancy made to match my new dew! I absolutely love my weekends here when I have time to explore the city and most importantly – some time to myself. I can’t imagine how busy I will be once basketball starts. Our two traveling tournaments have been finalized – one in Shanghai and the other in Kobe, Japan. Definitely something to look forward to after Christmas break!

I will write about my October break soon – until then – I am missin all of you as always!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!