Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The China Syndrome

I wanted to give a quick summary of what happened in China… somewhat because a few folks have been concerned that something went wrong, which isn’t the case.
That said, it also didn’t turn out quite the way I had anticipated, but that’s life, eh? The short story is…
I went over to learn about “new media” at my friend David Kay’s art space in Beijing, called Yuanfen, which is in the 798 arts district in BJ. David has been curating for two years or so, presenting multiple shows each year in the “new media” vein.
David is also hoping to one day open a research & development “arts incubator” for new media arts, which is an ambitious plan that will take much time and effort to execute.
At the end of the day, and although the projects were all interesting, I didn’t have the financial resources to wait for things to come to fruition. David, being an optimist, felt that things could happen soon, yet I felt that it might take many months, if not years, to become a reality.
Plus, I guess I should add: I really didn’t feel any affinity for Beijing… It’s got plenty of tourist sites, but it wouldn’t ever be a city I’d put into my Top 10, that’s for sure.
However, while I was in BJ, I got together with a friend from my days at the Rocky Mountain News, Justin Mitchell. Justin has been in Asia for six years, and he’s currently a copy editor for an English-language newspaper called “Global Times.” He mentioned that the company was expanding to Shanghai, and they might be hiring.
I had intended to go down to Shanghai at some point anyway, to see another old friend, Charlie Haigh. (Like David, Charlie has been in China for more than 20 years, and they both speak fluent Mandarin.)
So, I took a night train to SH, and met with the Managing Editor of “Global Times,” and was subsequently offered a job as a copy editor there. I mulled it over for the weekend, which I spent cruising all over town amidst the throngs of Chinese. Ultimately, I just didn’t feel that I was yearning for a 9-5 job in Shanghai, plus I guess you could say I wasn’t in love with China either.
Much has changed since I was first there in 1984, and again in 2004. They still play Christmas music year round (because it all sounds the same to them?). But now there’s Starbucks every three blocks, Lady Gaga can be heard everywhere, and you can buy the real (or the fake) anything there, from Tommy Bahama to Nike to Hermes.
This is the year of the Expo for Shanghai, and you see the little blue mascot of the Expo everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.
I do love the energy-saver escalators that move very slowly until someone approaches and then it goes full speed. And you have to appreciate that new fast food concept called “Bite Me!” There are way more hipster kids than I’d ever imagine and middle class capitalism is rampant, but you can still see a guy moving a queen size mattress on the back of his bicycle; there are still horse carts hauling bricks and street sweepers using twigs, mixed with all the Hummers and Jaguars.
I enjoyed the train transportation the most: both the high-speed overnight train from BJ to SH as well as the very fast “maglev” train from central SH to the airport. On the overnight train, I booked a “soft sleeper,” which meant it was a room with two bunk beds, with a little table in the center that had four bottles of water and a bouquet of silk flowers, to say nothing of the bathroom slippers we each got. It took about 10 hours, but it was half the money of the plane and much more scenic.
The “maglev” is the new train that goes to the SH airport, at speeds of up to 430 kilometers per hour, about 267 mph. It was a super modern terminal, and easy to navigate. In fact, all of the public transportation I took, including the subways in both BJ and SH, were all efficient and not difficult to figure out – to say nothing of affordable! A typical trip was just 2-3 yuan, about 30-45 cents per trip.
Hmmm… I had an idea to do a parody of the book “Eat, Pray, Love” and call it “Shove, Spit, Smoke.” But would the Chinese find that offensive??
It’s an interesting place to visit, but I wasn’t looking to become an ex-pat. I have a great group of friends and family here, so why start-over there?
In any case, that’s the short story. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I’ll tell you no lies.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Notes from Bismarck, ND

Hey y'all:
Sorry it's been so long.... this FEMA thing means long hours! But I've been trying to get out and see the sites as I can.
One of the best things about Bismarck is the Grand Theaters, a 15-plex in north Bis that, almost literally, a temple to film. I even sent the owner, Jerry Brekke, a fan email because his place is so incredible. The decor is all faux-Egyptian, with statues and fountains all over. Virtually every wall has either a movie poster or a collage of movie star still photos. Each screen has a curtain, like the old days, which closes after the previews but before the main attraction starts. You don't see that much anymore. Another attraction is in the smaller north lobby, where there's a display -- make that "homage" -- to Charlton Heston and "The 10 Commandments." The water fountain ALMOST makes you think he's parting the Red Sea, except that there are several signs asking you to not throw any coins into the fountain. Lastly, there's also a small museum in a side room that has a bit of history about the Grand, as well as ticket stubs from the 1930s, an old projector and vintage popcorn boxes. Evidently, Mr. Brekke has been a fan of movies since he was a kid, and this theater really shows his love for it all.

Another local hot spot is Scheels Sporting Goods in the Kirkwood Mall. (There are two malls in town, Kirkwood and Gateway Fashion. The latter has a Sears and a few clothing stores filled with low (vs. high) fashions. It basically feels like it's on its last legs...) I'm sure there must be places in Scheels in many towns across America, but I've never seen anything quite like it. There's an extensive gun/rifle/hunting section, as well as fishing, archery and golf.
I haven't been able to find much written about the Grand, but it's definitely one of the best things about Bismarck. I've surely never seen a retail store where you can practice your shooting skills with a laser hunting game! I've seen dads there holding up the rifle so the son or daughter (age 2-3) can get their practice shots in... And it also has a large range of stuffed animals, plastic turkeys for decoys and a huge range of camouflage clothing. I was there recently, sadly without my camera, when it was obviously prom night in Bismarck. All of the girls were walking around the mall, sort of strutting, while the guys were all inside Scheels getting in a little practice shooting before they headed to dinner. Scheels doesn't just have sporting goods, however: You can of course buy the ubiquitous bison sausage or buffalo jerky there, along with salt water taffy and homemade fudge. Don't miss it the next time you're in town.

Bismarck, as does much of North Dakota, prides itself on the fact that this is part of where Lewis & Clark came during their big "Discover America" around 1804-06. They wintered not far from Bismarck, and this is where they met up with Sakagawea. This is her statue, ca. 1910, which sits on the grounds of the state capital, very close to the North Dakota Heritage Center (which just received funding to double its size with a the help of $52 million in state and federal funding!). I also love that the folks who went along on the Lewis & Clark expedition were called the "Corps of Discovery."

Food-wise, yes this is the land of large portions and large people, mostly white. I think the state is over 90% white. However, it was interesting to find out that FEMA has a program where they find people with limited English language and translate the basic information about flood help for them. In the end, they translated into 14 different languages up here, including Somali, Kurdish, Vietnamese and Dinku. Go FEMA!
I've been doing my best to hit the locals food spots, rather than the national chains (all of which are represented here, of course). Yes, there's Cracker Barrel and Frank's BBQ, but also Bistro, Jack's Steakhouse, Space Alien's and Kroll's. I still have to hit Fried's for its famous "kneophla" (a heavy dumpling soup, pronounced nef-la), and the "fleischkuechle," sort of a deep-fried hamburger in pastry dough. Yep, they do like it rib-stickin' up here.
My other great evening up here was at Pirogue, reputed to be the best in town. It's chef-owned and operated, and they do try and buy the best local products they can including meats, honey and grains. I've been twice, most recently with a wonderful local farmer by the name of Jay Basquiat. I read about him in the local papers and decided to meet him and he graciously met up with me, a total stranger. He has a website, that I'll list below, called Baskets of Plenty. What he does is grow vegetables for 40 local families, all of whom pay him for his time and he re-pays them with weekly bushels of fresh veggies. He's an incredible guy who lived in California for 10 years but decided to come home to ND. We sat and talked for 3.5 hours, and he was a wealth of information. His grandmother never went past 25 miles of where she was born (not unusual up here, come to find out); he lives as "off the grid" as possible; and he told me about some of the cool artists who live and work up here, including one guy who "paints" with corn. I'll keep searching for that one, and get back to ya! Here's his link, sorry I can't figure out how to hyperlink it so you'll have to cut and paste.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bismarck, Baby!

Yep, I'm in Bismarck, North Dakota.
That's north of Denver, but not as far north as the North Pole (but almost).
We need to catch up...... but the short story is that I finally (after five months) got hired by FEMA, as a writer/researcher.
I went into the regional office in Denver and worked for a few weeks, and then they sent me ("deployed me" in FEMA-talk) to Bismarck. It's all about the flooding up here, which seems to never end.
I've been here for two weeks, since April 8, and I could be here for another 2, 3 or 4 weeks.... who knows?? It's all about being "FEMA Flexible."
I'll be posting more stuff up here soon, because of course it's all new to me here so I'll be out exploring in my off time. (Which isn't much, considering I've been working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week so far... I'm up at 5 a.m., at work by 5:45 a.m.)
Mostly, I just wanted to see if this blog was still working, and evidently it is! (Thanks Dave!!)
Talk to you soon,

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A BIG change of plans.....

Well, what can I say? You have to be ready for change when you travel.
I was out last night and came home late, around midnight. I noticed there was a text message on my mobile phone that I hadn't noticed. The text had come in around 9:15 pm.
I'll just quote it verbatim: "I am a KILLER!!! I kill people for money. But you are My FRIEND... I will kill you "FOR FREE."
Now imagine, being alone in a hotel in Alexandria, Egypt, not really knowing anyone well. Going to the police didn't seem wise, because of all you hear about the problems and corruption within the police departments here. The number wasn't one I recognized, nor had I given my cell number to very many people here. But I had met many of Mohammed's friends, and most of them knew where I was staying, at the Hotel Capry (sic), and they also knew my travel plans to head to the Sinai. Could they follow me? Probably not, but one never knows.
I sort of freaked out a bit. Looking back, perhaps I over-reacted, but I did feel a strong sense of danger, and I felt like I should follow my instincts and get the hell out of here. I didn't sleep that night a wink, but got up as soon as I thought the shops might start opening, around 9 am, and I went and bought an airline ticket back to the good ol' United States.
Surprised? Me too.
Yep, I"m coming home early, and not going to Jordan or Israel. Part of me feels like I've done enough already on this trip, while of course I have some second thoughts on whether I should've kept traveling. All I can say is that, at the time, it felt better to head home. Better safe than sorry, that sort of rationale.
Someone told me that Egyptians have a very weird sense of humor, and it could've been someone's idea of a joke. But, of course, it didn't seem funny to me at all. It just didn't feel like something you would chalk up to a "cultural misunderstanding." The text felt angry, like it was coming from someone I had irritated. Or perhaps they just didn't like Americans. Who knows?
I've thought and thought about who it could be, and I'm sure it had to be someone, somehow connected with Mohammed. I do like the guy, but I did at times question his judgement in friends. Trying to talk to him about this was an exercise in frustration, in any case.
On the other hand, I do feel a sort of relief. The next month was going to be difficult, mostly the Israeli portion because I would've hit Israel during the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. That's a major holiday period for Israeli's, naturally, and the country shuts down, hotels are booked and prices go up. Plus, I wasn't getting much response from friends there who I was trying to connect with.
In a certain way, I didn't do a very good job of planning this trip, in that I hit Ramadan throughout Tunisia and Egypt, and then the holidays in Israel as well. Me bad, but how can one know unless you've been here?
I have no regrets. I feel as though this will propel me to figure out the "what's next" for my life, whether it be in Denver, in Beijing or somewhere I haven't thought of yet. There's still a prospect of a getting on with FEMA, and I have a few ideas brewing on my own (as I blogged about last month). So we'll see. All's well that ends well.
SORRY that I won't be going to Petra for ya, but I suppose it will still be there the next time. So, a month ahead of time, perhaps the next time I see you will be in Denver?? I look forward to it.
Please feel free to let me know what you would've done in this situation. But please don't be too quick to judge, just as I am trying hard not to be too judgmental of all Egyptians.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sinai on Sunday

Can you say that three times fast: Sinai on Sunday?
With just a tinge of sadness, I’m taking the bus tomorrow to Dahab, which is on the east coast of the Sinai. It’s supposed to be more of a laid back, “hippie” resort, with excellent diving and beaches (not that I’m much of a sun person…) I might not spend much time there, however, because I'm running into yet-another potential religious conflict with Israel. The way it's timing, I could end up being in Israel during the high holy days of Roshashan and Yom Kippur, and I've been told that travel is more complicated then, hotel rates go up, etc. etc. In fact, the Lonely Planet book advises you to try and avoid going there all together -- and those holidays are Oct. 2 and 9. So I might speed things up a bit: go to Sinai and get the ferry to Jordan, and then go directly to Petra and Wadi Rum, which would then get me into Israel by next weekend. It's moving quickly, but I think it might be the better idea.
I’ve sort of gotten into the pace of Alexandria while I've been here, hanging out and drinking coffee (or small bottles of Sprite, for 40 cents each) at the cafes. Most of the time I’m with Mohammed, my buddy here, or any number of his friends. It just amazes me how much they know about American culture. It’s frightening actually. Everything from Tweety Bird to Limp Biskit (the band) – not much escapes them. All of them listen to American music, and sing along to all of the lyrics, many times not even knowing what they’re saying.
I love how the cafes all serve their drinks on a metal tray, and always with a glass of water on the side. Sometimes, the street kids who beg or try to sell little packets of Kleenex will come in and ask if they can drink you glass of water. They do, and then scamper out.
It’s also a sign of respect that when you see someone you know, and like, you’ll kiss them on each cheek once or twice (each side), and then put your right hand up to your heart. Everyone does it, but none more than café or restaurant hosts. They’re consummate hosts. And, of course, they’ll never kick you out. Sometimes I notice that people will just come into the café to sit for a few minutes, not order anything, never get bothered, and then get up and leave. Last night, I saw an older man walk over to a table near the window, take off his prosthetic leg (from the knee down), clean it, and then moved his chair so that it was facing east and he began to pray.
Can you imagine sitting for hours, and all it cost you was 40 cents?
If Mo and I plan to meet, he usually says something like “We meet ten-and-half,” meaning 10:30 pm. That’s a normal meeting time, especially at night and even more so during Ramadan. Everyone stays up as late as possible. There’s also been some articles in the paper, trying to get people to eat less food and healthier food during Ramadan. Evidently, people gorge themselves so much after fasting all day that it brings on a multitude of problems, from indigestion to heart attacks!
There’s always one guy who is the cashier at the café. He just sits there, doesn’t seem to really notice what’s going on around him, but he ALWAYS knows what’s being served, to whom, and who has paid and who hasn’t.
If you’re looking for a business to try in Egypt, you might want to manufacture or import fly swatters, or perhaps those fly strips with sticky paper that traps the flies. They’re beasts here, but no one seems to mind.
If anyone wants to get your attention, they do this sort of “tsssst” sort of sound. But they all do it at the same pitch, so somehow everyone knows that sound.
It's interesting to see the woman in their full hijab going swimming! Nope, they won't wear swimsuits, but they still get into the water, fully clothed, and take a dip. I didn't want to take a picture, however, seemed too intrusive.
I went to dinner last night at a place called Nassar, presumably after the ex-President? I like to try the Ramadan-plate specials, but I should’ve asked more questions this time. It was a huge beef shank, plus a rather green-looking stuffed pigeon (stuffed with rice), these wrapped vegetables and stuffed potatoes, along with rice with chicken livers and French fries. That was about $9, which is quite expensive, but when you add a beer, tax and the service charges, it was almost $15 – quite a grand feast for Egypt.
See you in Sinai!

Friday, September 12, 2008

What’s the happening in Alex?

I’ve settled into the slower pace of Alex(andria) quite nicely… Getting away from those horrible touts in Cairo has had enormous benefits. (In case you missed it: a tout is a person, 99.9% of the time a guy, who tries to get you to do something you don’t really want to do, like come into their store “just to look” or to take their hyper-expensive taxi cab, or come stay at their “very nice” hotel.)
I spent a few hours at the Naitonal Museum of Alexandria, which is a former consulate building that was turned into a museum about five years ago. While the exhibit descriptions were the best I’ve seen, all of it was lit in a very moody, dark manner, making things hard to see. But I’m sure the museum director thought it was compelling.
I continue to try and comprehend the scale of history here: the periods, the dynasties and all of the conquering. At one time or another, nearly everyone seems to have had their hands in the Egyptian pie, including the French and the Brits. During the time of Jesus, Alex was considered the intellectual and cultural capital of the world, yet they also say that the glory days here were really in the 12th to the 15th centuries!
It’s always hard being an editor tho, because I’m always wanting to correct those English grammatical errors. The guide pamphlet to Alex was so bad that I asked if I could take a whack at editing it, making sure I wasn’t offending anyone. They seemed thrilled that I would do that for me, and I spent a few hours trying to make a few “adjustments” for the next printing.
The other challenge in Egypt, anywhere, is crossing the street. Cars, buses and trucks always have the right of way, and pedestrians seem expendable. That said, I’ve never seen anyone get hit, but it has to happen! The technique I’ve devised is to sort of wait until someone else is heading out, and then use them as my “shield,” although I don’t think they see it the same way. It often happens that you get out into the street and a car speeds up, meaning you need to stand there and hope to hell you don’t get hit. So far, so good. I don’t detect that they’re “after” the foreigners, either.
In fact, feeling safe is something I’m starting to take for granted, at least in Alex. Maybe because it’s Ramadan, and people are holier and kinder at this time of year, but I’d like to think it’s that they just don’t look to harm others anytime. But I walk around at night and never feel any sense of danger or impending doom, which is quite a nice feeling.
I think I’ve said before that it’s common for men to walk around arm in arm. It’s not a sexual thing in the least, and they’re certainly not gay. Rather it’s just a mark of friendship between men, and sometimes women (although not as often it seems). I was walking the other night with Mohammed and he said “give me your arm” and we walked that way for awhile. It felt a little awkward, but then he said that only “best friends” walk arm-in-arm, and that was a nice feeling that he considered me such a friend.
Omar Sharif is in town, too! I can’t tell you the name of the show, but the poster shows him and another guy, with handcuffs on their wrists and looking forlorn. Of course, it’s all in Arabic, and I’ve tried to ask but no one seems to know what the show is about.
In fact, I’m not seeing that there’s a lot of support for the performing arts here. Last night, I went to see an Arabic choir perform. It was actually two choirs, one children and the other adults. The kids, all adorable, sang first, then there was an intermission and the adults took over. Much of the Arab music sounds redundant to western ears, and it seemed to my somewhat untrained ear that everything was in two parts, male and female (vs. four parts of soprano, alto, tenor and bass). The choirs would sing as a whole, and then one or three (never two) soloists would come out into the spotlight. I’ve never seen such emotion in singers! Luckily, I sat next to a guy who spoke some English and he would give me the briefest explanation of what the songs were about: “this is about the sun” or “they sing about their mothers.” That helped, of course, but mostly it was just a pleasure to see the amount of energy and rehearsals that went into it. All of the people talking throughout the show was a bit of a distraction… and the show ended with the conductor singing a short solo!
After the show, which last over two and a half hours, I strolled back to the hotel. Even though it was midnight, you would think that it was the afternoon: there were so many lights on, so many families and kids out shopping or walking. There was a street carnival, for lack of a better word, with rides like bumper cars, a small ferris wheel and spinning cups. Of course, all I could think was “these kids should be in bed!” Further down the street, all the men were of course happily sitting at their favorite café, drinking coffee, talking and smoking shisha (the water pipe). Another night in Alex.
Three more quick things: I love how a prayer to Allah starts playing every time that the elevator door closes at my hotel. It’s a seven-story ride in a somewhat rickety lift, but I somehow don’t think it was anyone’s idea of a joke…
And the names of the stores are always amusing: My favorites so far are Just… (that’s the name, just Just…), Marilyn Monroe and Tommy XXL.
And finally, for some reason, Egyptians love things LOUD. Especially their television shows. If it's in a store, or in the hotel lobby or, worst of the all, the hotel room next to you, they love it, or need it, at the highest volumn possible. Mh theory, of course, is that the whole country is so loud due to traffic and horns honking, that they're all going deaf!
I’m still planning on leaving this weekend for the Sinai… but we’ll chat about that later.
In the Muslim world, Friday is their Sunday, so take it easy today!