27 August, 2005

This is the view of the mayhem I managed to escape down at the train station. Taken from the safe haven of my towering hotel.

While this wasn't a major part of the city, the architecture was still pretty interesting to look at.

A look at the side of the station. As you can see, I didn't really get out much today.

27 August, 2005

Day 42. As God is my witness, I never intended to wind up at KFC tonight. Had I known this would be my fate, I would have done anything to avoid it. Quite literally. Please don't judge me until you hear how it came about.

It all started when we arrived at Shanghai right on time. From what I could see out the train window, this city looked to be big and intricate as well. But first things first. I had to find the hotel the travel agency had booked me in.

I love it when fate gives you a good kick in the ass. Any evidence that higher forces have a dark sense of humor is somehow reassuring to me. So here I was, in a weird city I had never been in before where I couldn't understand the language *or* the characters. And for the first time since Hanneke's travel agency took over, I was by myself. Also for the first time, they weren't giving me a ride to the hotel. The reason for this was because the hotel was already right next to the station. Did I mention that I didn't understand the characters? Yeah, well that made it rather impossible for me to read which of the towering buildings was my hotel without having to walk in every direction and go to them all. Oh yes. I forgot to mention that for the first time on this trip it was pouring rain.

So I was getting the total royal treatment in the opening minutes of Shanghai. And I knew it would eventually get better. I picked a direction to walk in figuring I could only get that wrong three times. I don't know why or how but my bags had seemed to be getting heavier over the weeks. And I really wasn't accumulating very much. I'd been adding lots of data to my hard drive but that shouldn't really have been noticeable. Regardless, I was getting soaking wet while walking towards a sign that said "hotel" and figuring that they would at least know where mine was since there's no way I could have gotten it right the first time. Despite the downpour, I was getting the same damn "hello!" treatment from every other person I was passing. No, I don't want a guide, no, I don't want to buy a watch. I just want to get out of the rain and to my destination which is the one thing I bet you can't help me with. Wow, I was really developing an attitude.

I made it to the hotel and felt almost as good as if I had arrived at my destination. Of course I knew I hadn't. And when I asked the guy at the front desk where my destination actually was, he said it was in the other direction - maybe. Great. Well, it was now coming down in sheets so I figured I'd just stand under the awning for a while and wait it out. I saw a taxi pull up and concluded that this was a perfect time to break my anti-taxi rule. This is what they were for. If the hotel was really on the other side of the station, it would only take a couple of minutes but save me from getting soaked and lugging heavy bags which were probably getting even heavier with all the water they were absorbing.

So I put my bags in the trunk and told the driver the name of the hotel. He looked at me like I was speaking Klingon. I showed him the address which of course the travel agency hadn't printed in Chinese and so it didn't help at all. He kept making gestures with his hand and a whooshing sound. I finally figured out he was imitating an airplane. I tried to convey that I didn't want to go to the airport. Just the hotel that was probably one damn block away. He enlisted the help of some other random people walking by. They either didn't know the name of the place or they didn't want to help. Throughout all of this he seemed to be trying to convince me to go to the airport because he kept making that same gesture and whooshing sound. Why on earth would I change my mind and decide to go to the airport when that's not where I had to go?! Jeez.

I offered to call the hotel and have them tell him how to get there. But he wanted no part of it. Instead he got out and took my bags out of the trunk. Yep, he kicked me out of the cab, that motherfucker. I couldn't believe this was happening. If I was anti-taxi before, this really solidified it. I only hope that one day this jerk moves to New York and pays $150,000 for a medallion and pulls that kind of shit on someone so he can have his license yanked. Asshole.

So there I was back at square one. It wasn't raining quite as hard now so I went back to where I had started and headed in the opposite direction, fending off all the "hello!" people. I stopped outside a convenience store and the guy running it actually came out to try and help me. At least that's what I think he was doing. He wasn't able to figure out where I should go either. I concluded at this point that the only thing to do was call the hotel and get them to tell me where they were hiding. They didn't speak very good English so it was quite a challenge to understand them. And then I asked the magic question. Were they anywhere near a McDonald's? As it turned out, that was the marker that filled in the mystery as they were able to tell me exactly what to do from the highly visible McDonald's. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Yet again I managed to get put into a hotel that was undergoing extensive renovations. At any time, the warning signs read, electricity, water, air conditioning, the elevator, and/or the phone could be cut off from now until the 25th of September. Whatever. Just get me out of the rain and into a room and I won't ask for anything else. Of course I asked if they had Internet in the rooms which I was happy to hear they did. And when I got to my room, the little sign with the Internet instructions said "Internet service in our hotel is totally free of charge at all." And that made the whole ordeal worthwhile. But I was still rather traumatized.

So for the first time in a while I've been hooked to the net almost nonstop. I wound up taking a nap and waking up in the afternoon, then doing a bit of work. It was one of those recovery/catchup days. Before I knew it, evening had arrived and I really felt like getting food somewhere in the area. It shouldn't have been difficult, really it shouldn't. If only I had known.

I had what looked like vouchers in the little envelope that came with my hotel key. But they were written entirely in Chinese. I called the information number listed on my phone and had a wonderfully confusing conversation with the operator there who thought I wanted to change rooms, check out early, and have my room cleaned in that order. OK, clearly I wasn't going to get an answer to the voucher question this way. Then I noticed a little button for room service on my phone. Maybe I could at least get food by simply pressing it. And that's how I learned that, at least in this place, "room service" means servicing the room, not ordering food. Aargh.

I decided to ask down at the front desk about the vouchers. This is where I got a taste of what racial profiling must be like. (I suppose being hounded on the street is another taste but naturally nothing like living a life under systemic racism as so many do.) No matter what I did the guy behind the counter simply refused to acknowledge my existence. People came up behind me and he immediately helped them. He answered the phone. He even made calls. Ten minutes went by and it was as if I wasn't standing there at all. I even tried to get his attention by calling out - they claim to be able to speak English here. I even tried some rudimentary Chinese. Nothing. I finally just gave up and walked out of the place, vowing some sort of revenge at some point in my life.

So you see, I did try. I didn't want it to turn out the way it did. I wanted to find someplace decent, either in the hotel or outside. And since the former wasn't cooperating, I figured I'd try my luck with the latter. We were near a station after all. There *had* to be places.

So I walked down the various streets where the McDonald's and KFC franchises blinded people with their bright lights. No. I wanted something local. There were little convenience stores but I was looking for a place I could sit down in. I kept exploring the streets but most of them seemed pretty dead, even though there were people walking up and down them. As I waited at a wide boulevard for the light to change, a "hello!" person started asking me if I wanted a massage. "Maybe later," I said as the light turned and I headed across the street. "No!" I heard behind me. "Now!" Was this guy for real? "Come HERE!" I heard him command. "Fuck YOU," I heard myself mutter as I continued to move away. This guy was either a real dickhead or he had no comprehension at all of intonation. Regardless, I didn't need a damn massage, at least not from the "hello!" people. They were actually making me more tense.

I went in a direction where there seemed to be a little life and for a brief moment I thought I was saved. The doors to what appeared to be a Chinese restaurant were wide open and it was bustling with activity. But one thing you have to keep in mind in this country is that the writing and architecture are the same for food and nonfood places. In this case, what I was looking at was a late night hairdresser. Christ. Massages, haircuts, death by street crossing. It was all so readily available. I knew these people had to eat somewhere other than the fast food joints.

The promising road turned into an underpass for a highway so I turned back. Again, it was a real challenge to cross the road dealing with bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and buses. Some of the pedestrians also looked menacing or at least extremely determined. Shortly afterwards I witnessed the angriest display I had so far seen on this trip as a motor vehicle attempting to turn had ventured a little too far into the bike lane and some of the bicyclists were about ready to tar and feather the guy. He had some words to say too and it looked like things would get interesting for a few moments. But everyone eventually just continued on their way. It's funny how the bicyclists here are all self-righteous about their space yet they pose more of a threat to pedestrians than the motor vehicles since they apparently feel they're exempt from obeying traffic lights and all other regulations. We have similar people back home and I'm always taken by the hypocrisy.

Anyway, I kept walking up and down streets looking for just one place that had food and wasn't an American fast food chain. And then I saw it. A ramen place that seemed crowded. Perfect. I started to head over to it. And that's when I was suddenly deluged with up to half a dozen of the "hello!" people, descending on me like a scene from "28 Days Later" where anyone alive is chased after by the zombies. I considered making a run for the doorway when I saw to my horror that there were more of them there literally reaching out to me with their arms. Oh, God, what a fucking nightmare. I aborted the plan.

So now you know. That's how it happened. I went to the KFC because it was the only place left that didn't have a crowd in front of it. Look, at least I didn't go to McDonald's. That has to count for something, right? You know, there are so many places I would have gone into and probably bought stuff were it not for this incessant hounding, chasing, and grabbing that Westerners have to contend with. I have nothing against people making a living. But this is just way too aggressive and it winds up driving people away. Hopefully the rest of the city wouldn't be like this.

As I went back to the hotel, there was a different front desk clerk. I was able to ask her what the mysterious pieces of paper were for. She told me they were dinner vouchers, good only for today, in the restaurant on the third floor that had just closed.

If you look in the dictionary under shanghai, you'll find something like this: "To put by trickery into an undesirable position." Apparently I wasn't the first.