Saturday, August 25, 2007

What Words Strike Fear Into The Hearts of American Tourists in China -- Especially Women?

"Squatty Potties."

Decorum prevents me from lengthy desription of these facilities. Suffice it to say that someone may have been thinking of them when coining the phrase "doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground." They are sufficiently terrifying that some days Katrina has gone without liquids longer than a dromedary to avoid using one.

Wuhan to Guangzhou: Elaina is a trooper

Elaina did exceptionally well on the trip from Wuhan to Guangzhou. First, it was hot and very humid; as uncomfrtable a day as we had in Wuhan. Then there was the long wait in the airport for tickets, then the long wait on the other side of security. Then we crammed into a standing-room only un-airconditioned shuttle bus from the terminal to the plane; it was an overstuffed oven. At the plane we waited in the direct sun to file up the stamps. By this point I was extremely cranky, but Elaina took it all in stride. She was unimpressed by her first plane ride, and refused in the face of all prodding to save any of her bottle for the ascent. She slept on my lap most of the way, which looked far more comfortable for her than it was for me. That kid gives off heat like a furnace.

Guangzhou airport is sleek and chromed and modern. Our Guangzhou guide picked us up there and led us to yet another bus -- this one blissfully cool. Then we set off through rush-hour traffic to our destination, the White Swan Hotel. At times the traffic seemed predominantly made up of mini-minivans very popular here -- like an American minivan put in the wash by some incompetent husband and consequently shrunk several sizes. They look impossibly narrow from the front; it's like looking at an Escher drawing and gives me a headache.

The trip from the airport to the hotel was in stark contrast with what we saw in Beijing and Wuhan. There were rural areas near the airport; the road ran along a canal choked with tall reeds, crossed frequently by impersonal concrete slabs and occasionally by ornate and delicate-looking bridges, their scrollworked expanses now closed off by bollards on each side. Soon, however, we reached urban areas. Here the difference in city planning and growth were apparent. Where Wuhan was modern in design and had many urban green spaces, and Beijing had contrasts of modern and ancient architecture, Guanzhou -- or at least the route we took -- was a long stretch of apartment buildings, their designs ranging from pre-war to modern. Many were in ruins, many others were in poor repair. The sheer number of them was breathtaking --- miles and miles of row upon row of tall grey structures, laundry fluttering from balconies. (It can't possibly get very dry in this dratted damp.) Often the streets between them were mere alleys, alive with vibrant street markets, bright canopies, and street-vendor carts.

Roof gardens were extremely popular. There had been a heavy rain just before our arrival, so we could see great puddles on many roofs. Some of the dilapidated buildings had roof gardens turned to mud, with only a few tenacious weeds. Others had verdant roofs of rolling grass, shimmering from the recent rain.

After 45 minutes or so we reached our destination, Shamian Island. The island, which sits in the Pearl River in Guangzhou, is less than a square kilometer--about three blocks north to south and five east to west. It's a holdover from colonial times; European trading interests headquartered here. Until recently the American consulate was here, which is why the place was so popular with adopting parents. More about it, and the White Swan, later.

We reached the hotel and waited a remarkably long time for our bags in our room, all of us hungry and two of us (not Elaina) noticably cranky about wanting dinner. Eventually we made our way downstairs, only to find that the "coffee shop" -- the informal restaurant of choice -- was full. They suggested the Italian restaurant on the next floor. By then we were to hungry and tired to argue, and made our way there.

The White Swan's Italian restaurant is like an ambitious youngster who has set out on an exciting course of action withuot a firm practical plan. It's really an upjumped lounge bar that serves heavy food. There are no tables or dining chairs; rather, there are little groups of stuffed modern armchairs and small cocktail tables. By now the experienced parents among you are thinking "A hotel that caters extensively to families with infants serves pasta with red sauce in overstuffed armchairs and end tables? At least tell me they have high chairs, or that the armchairs are not light in color." Alas, I cannot. No high chairs, light colored armchairs.

And yet, it worked. Maybe it was just the long day talking, but the food was excellent -- I went for the comfort food and had a succulent beef lasagna. Elaina lounged in our laps, feet up on the chair arms, indolently dropping pasta bits in her mouth with a peel-me-a-grape-boy air. And the view! We were into our first drinks before we saw it. The lounge area looked out over the Pearl River, and as darkness truly fell, it came alive with light. Neon flashed up and down the opposite bank. The faces of several tall buildings transformed into screens, some advertising and one showing the 2008 Beijing Olympic mascots in rapid succession. Brightly and colorfully lit boats motored back and forth. With the neon Chinese characters, the building-sized movies, and the rainy sky, it looked like the place that the people in Blade Runner's dystopian future Los Angeles go on vacation.

More tomorrow, including shopping, more about the impressive White Swan Hotel, and how we were insufficiently foolish to take a boat tour in a thunderstorm.

And Now, A Brief Word Regarding Marriage

If a 38-year-old man wants to buy nunchucks, don't you think he should be allowed to?