Riding the Dog

October 19, 2006

This morning I am doing the American thing – sitting in a hokey little New Jersey Greyhound terminal waiting to catch a bus to New York. But there is a home feel to this adventure, for Frente is being playing on the radio. A small touch of home although if it wasn’t such a unique sound it would be quickly swamped by all things American.

It is a Saturday morning and a warm spring day. A small crowd dozes in the warmth of the building although it need not be heated so. A black girl with jeans she has been poured into, gold looping earrings and braided hair talks to a candy machine, coaxing chocolate from it. Mid thirties something buys a donut and feeds it into the microwave. Gold bangled girl gives up and moves to the Coke machine. Jam donut explodes and fills this hokey hole with the fragrance of sweetness. Belinda, for it appears her looping earrings contain her name, comes back to the candy machine. Crowd of Hispanics bustle out and board a bus destined to “Have a Nice Day” – the only thing I can see posted on the bus. But they seemed to know where it was headed. Joshing and jostling and laughing they seemed pleased to be boarding. In a clunk of a coke can down a shute they are gone and with them the scrolling injunction to have a nice day. Belinda settles for a coke.

Beside me a young chap sags and relaxes then snaps upright in a cycle of slumber that delivers no rest. The seats here don’t offer anything like that. Classic youth uniform of runners, jeans and windcheater. A line is starting to form for this New York bus which has yet to arrive. The line is composed mainly of women. Shoppers? Not likely. Workers? Perhaps. A bus pulls into “Track 3” – the “9:05 to Baltimore and downtown Washington D.C” we are duly told over the intercom by an employee speaking into a microphone only ten feet away from us all. The young chap snaps awake and does a bolt for the door.

Tuning into a conversation at the counter I realise this service is offered on a first come, first served basis, and that all those folk out there lining up next to vacant bus slots were not doing so for the warm spring air. After joining the queue a Greyhound rolled in but it was a shortlived visit. Three alighted. Three boarded, the door hissed shut its mockery and we were left to wait for the next service, due in an hour! Such are the risks even before you alight the dog.

1 May 2004

All the Tea in China

October 18, 2006

Tiananmen Sqaure is a terrific melting pot. All sorts of people congregate there at all hours. Many are there simply to soak up the site, to say they have “been there” before moving on to other icons around the city. The majority of visitors are Chinese who seem to wear an air of surprise – is this all there is to this place?

Milling through the group photos, ambling couples, bemused tourists, running children and plainclothes police are the touts who, more good natured than most touts anywhere else I have been (or are they keeping a wary on the plainclothes?), gently press you to buy a kite. Or Chairman Mao watch. Or some other gimmic. OK, sometimes not so gentle but never abrasive or hostile. You soon learn to keep them at bay and develop a finely tuned eye for people bearing down on you with some sort of sales agenda on their mind.

Two who slipped through our defences were English language students who engaged us for a good fifteen minutes or so in pleasant, conversational chat. After which we insisted we were heading off to the markets. They seemed pleasant enough and we were only too happy to have them accompany us for the stroll. And they seemed keen to continue rehearsing their language. So we found our way into the markets and after some indecision, upstairs in a tea house. Hosted by a young nineteen year old who was as cute as a button and clearly had been going through this routine for as long as she could remember.

We were walked though the traditions of tea drinking, how to behave, where to put our fingers, how many sips to take, the reasons behind the various rituals – all while perched on tiny stools at one of those tree tunk carved tables for which the Chinese are so famous. Pleasant company, idle chat, fragrant tea, good humour, experimenting with the language, sloshed tea, all crammed into a tiny wallpapered room under the leery gaze of a fat buddha.. Round after round of sampled tea we went.

Until one of our English language students suggested we pause and check the bill. In the back of my mind I was suspecting that we might be up for fifty dollars or so. You can imagine the silent shock at discovering we had carelessly run up a bill of about $350.00. Extraction with honour becomes less of a priority than extraction with bank account intact and the tea ceremony was closed down immediately. No thanks, no more samples. No thanks, no more rounds. Actually no, I don’t want a kilo of tea leaves. OK, happy to take that cheap tea cup as a souvineer. Need to have something to show for the madness.

Walk in complete silence for a kilometre or more, playing the scenario over in your head. Were you had? If so at what part did the con kick in? After more than twenty years of travelling in Asia how can you still be caught? Then buy a plate of chicken, pork, rice and fried beef and vegetables along with a Coke, all for $1.60 and wonder at the earlier sips of tea that should have been gold plated. That cheap meal only served to convince us that we had been soundly duped.

So put a comic spin on it and claim that you have purchased two Ming Dynasty tea cups and these were cheap at $350.00!! You somehow need to save face in front of your travel colleagues!

The near to last word on the experience – a Chinese friend asked the next day if we had enjoyed the tea. Answer, yes. If we had enjoyed the company. Yes again. Ergo, “enjoyed a lot, paid a lot. What is the problem?” Pretty hard to argue with the logic.And we had had a good time.

The last word – sit down, rather gingerly in Shanghai a few weeks later at a tea house and decide water is probably the only choice. Tea proves an affordable option but a sanity check of the menu shows that this tea would have proved just as costly as that in Beijing if we had gone for as many rounds. Maybe we were not duped after all. But I can’t look at that cheap teacup on the shelf at home without shaking my head, and making a cup of coffee instead.

Drinking the Pickled Eel

October 17, 2006

In the backblocks of Beijing, up a filthy lane heaped high with refuse and rubble (the best places always are) is one of thousands of restaurants which feed the hordes. We stumbled into one, late in the evening, that advertised an English menu. The owners were true to their word but they could not read it themselves or understand spoken English. But we could not otherwise fault their advertising.

So the meal was one of those more mild adventures you have in China, picking your dishes based on a “best guess” approach and taking your cue from what others are eating. While placing our order we noticed an unusual collection of jars in the back of the restaurant. Taking a quick look at the golden liquid contents it seemed there was a collection of seaweed and vaguely familiar animal shapes in there. But it was hard to identify anything with any assurance.

However, having shown an interest in the contents I was quickly offered a small ceramic dish, with some of the contents of one of the jars ladled into it. Encouraged to drink it I did so (key to maximising sense of adventure in China: never refuse a drink or meal, and NEVER ask what it is) and promptly had the back of my throat seared off. It needed a second dishful to calm the throat down!

60% proof.

And it turned out the coiled shape in the botom of the jar from which I drank was an eel.

So the pickled eel story was born. Its immediate sequel was a sensation that impressed itself on me at o’dark o’clock the next morning (about 3am) – the back of my head felt like it had been shot off.

I love China.

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