What follows is the second installment of stories from Paul’s trip to China and Australia. You can find the first batch here.
Day 6 – The Grand Mercure Hotel, Shanghai, China, 10:17 p.m.
We have a confession to make. Well, really it is I who has the confession, because it is I who is doing the writing. But Mandy (my girlfriend) was complicit in our crime.
Tonight, we ate supper at KFC.
It had been a long culinary day. It started with a fruitless search for breakfast that ended when we gave up on breakfast and ate pork dumplings at Power Dumplings. That’s not to say that pork dumplings couldn’t be breakfast because, when you think about it, they are a tad breakfasty, what with their pork-ness and their pastry-like outer shell, it’s just that they’re a little odd, as breakfast goes.
The day’s gastrointestinal adventure continued in Suzhou, a city of some X,000,000 people, where X has not been determined because there is no wireless Internet in the Grand Mercure (one of it’s few misattributes). After taking in the Master Of The Nets Garden – a lovely little spot that looked kind of like you might think it should – we set off for midtown Suzhou and a search for the Frommers-recommended Song He Lou restaurant. The Lou, as I would have affectionately called it, had I thought of that at the time, was closed, and we were hungry, so we accepted the invitation of the first joint with lights on inside, which happened to be the Me She Yan Gua Gon*.
*This is not even close to the actual name of the restaurant.
Our lunch was hot. Chilis and cayennes hot. And there was a lot of it. Some of it was good, some of it wasn’t, but we left full and with fire in our bellies.
This, of course, points to one of the disadvantages of foreign countries. Namely, that one is often at the mercy of whomever is waiting tables, because one often cannot make heads nor taluses of a menu written in a foreign language. Which problem can be solved by piecing together words and phrases over the course of a few days in a particular country, but which problem is made more difficult when every letter looks like a frat boy’s tattoo.
And this – this is representative of my feelings on this, our last full night in Shanghai. I’ve loved being in Shanghai; it’s been an adventure worth, well, writing about. But it – like most adventures – has been tiring. There’s a reason that Mandy and I couldn’t wait to get back to the big, soft bed in the Grand Mercure. And there’s a reason we ate chicken strips at KFC. China has beaten us down. China hasn’t beaten us down because there’s anything wrong with China. China has beaten us down because traveling, while the guarantor of perspective, experience, and stories to tell your grandkids, is also exhausting.
Day 7 – The Good East Hotel, somewhere outside Guangzhou, China, 12:44 a.m.
It was a comedy of errors from the start. Okay, not errors so much as tiny, miniature panics.
Mandy and I got to the airport with time to spare. My flight – to Guangzhou (the flight to Sydney is tomorrow morning) – would leave first. Hers – to Delhi – would leave two hours after. I asked my desk agent about an exit row seat, grinning sheepishly in the way that usually has some effect on airline workers.
Unfazed, she said, “You have aisle.” My eyes pleaded, but it was no use. While Mandy went to the Air India desk, I doubled back; I wanted to ask someone to add the flight to my Frequent Flier miles because China Southern is a SkyTeam partner. And I’ve always wanted to be the sort of person who actually remembers to build up some frequent flier miles.
The fellow I found, who was sympathetic enough, told me to call when I got home. But I knew I’d never do that, so after dropping Mandy at International Departures and kissing her goodbye, I made for my gate, hoping I could kill two superfluous birds with one ill-aimed stone – I’d find a sympathetic agent who could secure an exit row seat, thus preventing an in-flight, claustrophobia-induced panic attack, and who could help me add this trip to my SkyTeam miles program, thus allowing me to act like an adult.
Then I remembered that I hadn’t eaten. Then I remembered that I didn’t have any Yuan left.
The clock was ticking. I had an hour. I hustled the length of Shanghai Pudong, putting my claustrophobia/discomfort first. The gate agent was no help: “Sorry, you can try talking to the captain.”
Like I’m going to approach the captain with my petty request for more leg room.
Then it hit me:
Oh fuck, I don’t even know my Frequent Flier number. There was an internet kiosk back there, wasn’t there?
I turned and sped-walked to the bank of computers.
Shit, they’re full. No matter, I’ll come back, after I’ve gotten some food, which will happen after I’ve gotten some money.
There must be an ATM around here somewhere.
There wasn’t. I hiked all the way back to the entrance to my terminal, where I spied a currency exchange desk. “ATM?” I wondered, in the direction of the lonely twentysomething who’d adopted “Jane” as her name. She shook her head and I ponied up the dough. 50 Yuan ($8) commission on $40. Sage move, Shirley.
I picked out a bag of Chinese beef jerky and two bottles of water and scrambled for the counter.
Of course, there’s a credit card scanner – the first I’ve seen in two days – making the currency exchange rape I just endured completely pointless.
Outside the food shop, I tore open the bag of jerky.
Is this made out of opossum?
I stuffed the bag into my bag and saddled up at the computer.
Success! My number, and with minutes to spare; they’re calling my flight now.
I scurried toward my gate and, when I noticed an errant worker from another flight, I asked her to help me. I presented my number and, to her credit, she called in three coworkers to help translate. But again, alas.
My seat, on China Southern Flight 376472, was one behind the exit row. I spent the flight trying to breathe easy to keep the aforementioned claustrophobia at bay.
Aside here: I don’t know if my claustrophobia is born of my six-foot-nine-edness, or if I’d fear tight spaces either which way. But let me tell you, it’s a motherfucker. And I know, I know, it doesn’t make sense if you’re not claustrophobic. And it’s true that my claustrophobia isn’t so intense that I can’t function. (Unless it’s that one time, back in middle school, when I freaked the fuck out when they put us in a basement hallway with no windows for a tornado drill.) But it’s not exactly pleasant; there aren’t many things that make me nervous in this world, but having a seat jammed into my knees is one of them. (AND NOT BECAUSE OF MY KNEES, WE’VE BEEN OVER THIS!) If you need evidence, take a whiff of the shirt I just took off. It smells like I took the bar exam today.
But I survived.
Off the jetway, and into a…What’s this? This isn’t the homey airport terminal I’d envisioned for an intrepid evening spent with fellow travelers as we await our morning flights. This is cold tile floor and steel struts.
I walked and walked. And finally I asked someone. “Can I transfer to the international side now?”
A pointer finger. “You go there.”
A man. No, a boy. Then a girl. She’s going to Sydney too. China Southern is going to put us in a hotel for the night.
And pay for it? I want to ask.
Don’t worry, she says, they will take care of everything.
I consider declining. Either way, I’ll have to be up in a few hours. And I had designs on writing something brilliant tonight, and being first in line, so as to make goddamn sure I don’t spend nine hours to Sydney ready to peel off my skin. And plus there was the romanticism of it all – world traveler, nighttime airport, stories.
But if they’re going to pay for it, fuck it.
A van. We get out. Switch to a bus. There’s the Good East hotel.
“We keep boarding pass.”
It’ll be fine, my new friend says.
“If you no pay more, it two beds and you and other person,” she says.
I can see my furrowed brow on her face.
100 Yuan, she says.
And here I am. It’s awful in here – there’s standing water in the bathroom. My bed is no softer than the tile floor at the airport. And I’ll probably have nightmares about tray tables and my heart racing and goddamn 41D.
Day 8 – The Original Backpacker’s Hostel, King’s Cross, Sydney, Australia, 1 a.m.
I like this scene.
My day started as planned; I was up at 4:30 and in the lobby of the Good East Hotel by 4:50. When I asked, “Can I get a taxi?” the tired Chinese girl behind the front desk looked up with lidded eyes and said, “Yes.” She meant the shuttle that would leave in a few minutes but whatever. I got my exit row seat and the flight to Sydney was like a dream. A very long, and very mediocre dream, but a dream nonetheless.
I arrived in Sydney more than somewhat shell-shocked; the ten-hour flight and a three-hour time change had me knackered, as I believe the Aussies might say. (Flights are always longer in real life than they are on paper. When the Shanghai to Sydney flight came up on Orbitz, ten hours seemed like nothing. It’s significantly greater than nothing.)
After being subjected to my first-ever customs shakedown – and you’re getting this from a man who’s been through his share of immigration checkpoints – I made for the train station and after a few false starts on a metro system that is much less user-friendly than Shanghai’s, rode to King’s Cross.
I’m new to the hostel scene. I write the previous sheepishly; it seems that someone like me would be experienced with such things. But no, the closest I’ve come is a very shitty hotel in Paris that, I believe, was technically a pension. With this inexperience at the forefront of my brain, I was anxious – afraid I would muck up the proceedings somehow. But my concern was misplaced. I was greeted warmly by a German working the front desk at the Original Backpacker’s and shown to my room, which was occupied by a brother-sister duo from Austria. Christine looked like a riot grrl version of Zooey Deschanel; he, like Buster from Arrested Development. They explained that they were only two days into a month long trip across Australia and New Zealand and, a few minutes later, Christine was asking if she could come find food with me. I said yes, cursing slightly my begirlfriendedness as her very Austrian breasts (that is, bigger than they should have been) peeked over her black tank top.
We failed on anything approaching a dinner, settling on a street corner kabob. After I explained that I had a girlfriend, she walked to an Internet café. I wandered the streets and now it’s 1 in the morning and I’m sitting outside my room, typing a summary of the day.
And as I said, I like this scene. I’ve examined the backpacker culture before; tonight has only confirmed my suspicions. Backpackers are like a loophole in society. They’re nice, they’re smart, they’re well-traveled. Most of them aren’t even hippies. These are my kind of human.
Day 9 – Wombarra, Australia, 1:05 a.m.
It’s possible that I romanticized the hostel scene a touch. I slept very little last night thanks to a hot room and a tiny bed. And three roommates is about two roommates too many.
But that experiment is over, so let’s not dwell on it. Especially because it’s late and I’ve had about five good hours of sleep in the last 72.
Today, I took bad pictures of the Sydney opera house (see the header of this article for evidence), I walked through beautiful parks, and then I met up with my host for the next several days, someone who will be familiar to (some) readers of this website: Tara Goedjen.
Tara and I ate Greek food and then listened to novelist Annie Proux (The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain) talk about her latest book, a foray into nonfiction about her house in Wyoming. Her talk was like most author presentations I’ve seen – it was geared toward old women with cats. But no matter (or “no worries,” as Australians say approximately 62 times each day), Ms. Proux’s speech had only been a way for Tara and I to hook up so that she could escort me to the home she’s house-sitting in Wombarra.
And what a home it is. I haven’t seen much yet – it is quite dark at 1:05 a.m – but I could hear the ocean from the deck when Tara gave me my tour.
Wombarra is about an hour’s train ride south of Sydney. I suppose it is possible that I’ll get back into Sydney, but it isn’t likely. I think I’ll be content on the beach.
Day 11 – Wombarra, Australia, 3:42 p.m.
If you’re paying attention, and I hope you are, I missed a day. All this travel finally caught up to me; my body gave out like an ’89 Explorer at the end of a cross-country road trip. I was sneezy and sleepy and generally out of sorts when I woke up on Day 10. (At this point, my reference to day number isn’t even me being deliberately opaque; I can’t imagine what day it is, what with the traveling and the back-calculating to figure out what time it is at home in case I have a bitchin’ tweet to send.)
Waking up sick in Australia as an adult was a lot like waking up sick on Disneyland morning as a child, which happened to me when I was eleven. But, like when I was eleven and rode Big Thunder Mountain even though I was nauseous, I rallied as best I could; I went to the grocery store with Oliver, the guy Tara had gotten to dog-sit while she taught yoga; I rode the train to Kiama to meet Tara and the guy she’s dating, who is predictably great; I went with Tara to a two-hour meditation featuring an American Indian named Medicine Crow and some very specious spirituality; back at the house, I hung out with Tara’s friend Hank, a Dave Mustaine look-alike who’d just gotten off a ten-hour train ride – he’s going to hang out and surf this weekend.
Then I collapsed into my bed and slept well for the first time in several days.
I woke up today to French toast with Tara and Hank. When we finished the dishes, we went to the beach to body surf. Later, we made lunch together. Tonight, we’re going to take in an Australian professional basketball game between the Wollongong Hawks and the Adelaide 36ers.
But enough about the day-to-day. Let’s talk Australia.
I usually don’t believe it when people say that they’ve fallen in love with a place (city, state, country) because usually when people say such a thing, they’re trying to justify a decision in their minds. The same is true for jobs and, often, mates (lovers, not Australian friends); if someone admits to you that he doesn’t actually like his job as an assistant accountant for GloboTech, he also has to admit it to himself. And no one likes to admit when he’s made a poor decision. Just look at all the mismatched couples you know.
All that as preface to this: I think I’m falling in love with Australia. Or, more accurately, with Australians. The place ain’t bad – the house I’m in is nestled between a 500-foot hill (or escarpment, as Hank called it) and the beach – but the people really make it go.
Australians are my kind of folk. As I wrote to my brother Matt, they’re smart but sensitive, strong but gentle, caring but not naïve. They’re athletic and hard-playing and hard-drinking, but they also listen when you talk.
And I haven’t even gotten into the girls. My god, the girls.
[Shakes head to clear image.]
(By the way, does it count as cheating if my girlfriend is 5,000 miles away on an Indian ashram on top of a mountain and I’m not sure she’s alive because I haven’t heard from her in 3 days? Just kidding, girlfriend of mine.)
I don’t want to go too far because I’m sure Australians have their problems, but thus far it seems like Australians are what humankind can be. I find this both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because I now know it exists; depressing because I can’t help but think of my home country.
At this point in history, we Americans are like a mediocre basketball team trying to protect a late-game lead. Instead of playing to win, we’re playing not to lose. We bicker about politics and moan about how things are getting worse, but no one actually wants to do anything about it.
I wasn’t around in 1776, or 1876, or even in 1976, but my sense is that, in those days, Americans had the attitude that Australians have now. That attitude being one of openness to new ideas and then, a willingness to implement them.
Being in Australia isn’t so unlike being in the U.S. Sure, there are more trains and fewer garbage disposals, but the day-to-day existence is similar. I can’t point to a slew of rules or laws or lack of both that make Australia far different from the United States. What I can point to is something much more intangible. Hopefulness, optimism, a sense that things can get better, as opposed to a sense that things are only going to get worse.
I don’t know what has made Australia (or Australians) this way. It might have something to do with the culling process that is natural to the place; in the same way that the brave set out for the West in America in the 19th and 20th century, the brave set out for Australia now. There are those whose families have been here for generations. But they aren’t many. Most people in Australia are new. It has become the melting pot that America once was.
That melting pot breeds an excitement about life that broils happily under the surface here. Contrast that with America. As a friend of mine (an American) when we emailed about why Australia might be such a great place, wrote:
“I’m not sure if it is everyone having healthcare, general cultural pleasantness, being an island nation, or some other intangible factor. People say Midwesterners are nice. When I return to my [Midwestern] hometown, I see a lot of small-minded, hateful, racist, overly religious, intolerant people who are generally confused as to how their life has gone the direction it is. They look for targets to blame, not realizing a lot of it was well beyond their power and is not because of Mexicans, gays, or blacks. Now a lot of it is their fault, and this is probably even more enraging.”
His words helped clarify something I’d been trying to fit into a tweet all week. Midwesterners make New Yorkers look like assholes, but Australians make Midwesterners look like Ivan The Terrible.
But that’s enough about that. Hank and Adrian and Tara just got home from the beach and we’re going to go do something fun now.
To be continued…