Mumbai Madness: Part I

It was Christmas day, Sunday, and we got an early start. The streets were quiet with only a few shops open for business. The rest sat sleepily with their metal doors closed to the world. Our first stop was at a small stall that sold snacks and fresh fruit juice. We got a watermelon juice, and it was an even better way to start the day than coffee. We watched as the men behind the counter discussed something heatedly while one guy chopped up our watermelon. Into the juicer it went and out came our breakfast.
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Then we started out for the Gateway of India. I didn’t know much about it, just that it was a place listed in the guidebooks. After walking for a while, we realized we were going the wrong way. We had passed people sleeping on the sidewalks, bright silver carriages, and children bathing outside of their metal shelters. A black and yellow taxi took us to the Gateway for 100 Rupees, it should have cost less than 50. The area of the Gateway was much different than the area we were staying in, near our motel, Traveller’s Inn (more on that crazy place later). They say India is a land of stark contrast, and although it sounds cliche, it couldn’t be more true. On the same street that you see a Hermes shop, you will see women and children with no shoes begging for money. There are malls filled with diamonds and rubies in the midst of slums filled with rubbish and goats. It was shocking to see, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the city formerly known as Bombay.

However, as the sun began to warm the city streets, Mumbai started to grow on me. We arrived to the gateway of India and realized it was a sea port, hence the name. It was packed with families, one of which paid a photographer to take a photo with B and I in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel. We strolled along the boardwalk and were asked to buy everything from peanuts to giant balloons. We were approached by many taxi drivers who offered to take us on a tour of the city, all of whom we refused. We were going to find something to eat when again we were approached by a taxi driver. His name was Munna, he was tall, young, and had a very kind smile. There was something about him we liked, so we changed our plans and went with Munna.
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Our first stop was Nairiman Point, the commercial area where all of the money was made, then it was to the famed Chowpatty Beach with banyan trees and yellow sand. A nice place to have a picnic, but I wouldn’t swim there. Then it was off to Jain Temple. There we met a boy who loved chocolate, and was so adorable that B just had to buy him some, and a Santa hat too. It was Christmas after all. The boy beamed a missing tooth smile and waved goodbye, clutching his gold wrapped chocolates.
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Inside the temple, worshippers lit incense, rang bells, made patterns out of rice and flower petals, and prayed to their Gods. One of the things that is clearly evident here is religion, a stark contrast to predominately atheist China. Throughout the day we drove past many temples, churches, and mosques with people lined up for what seemed like miles, all for the chance to pay their respects to their various Gods. When we asked Munna if he was Hindu, he said yes, then added, “We are all red. Hindu, blood red. Muslim, blood red. Christian, blood red. There is only one great God in the sky.” We agreed.
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After that we drove to the Hanging Garden, so named because under it lies a huge body of water that keeps the gardens green and lush. Huge families sat and had picnics of naan and rice, couples walked hand in hand, and groups of young men roved about. Everyone smiled at us, and sometimes said, "Hello!" often nodding in the truly unique Indian way, not shaking, not nodding, but somewhere in between. At one point, a group of children stood in front of us with their cellphones poised for action. "Can I take a photo?" they asked, one after another, grinning huge grins and talking to their friends excitedly. Of course, we could not refuse, and one after another the children took their best shots. "What is your name?" "Oh, that is a very nice name!" "where are you from?" "Oh America!" We felt like Bollywood celebrities, if only for a moment.
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Next, we went to Malabar Hill, another nice park filled with nice people. There you could find the best viewpoint in the city. We perched for a photo and then followed Munna back to the taxi. We drove for a couple of moments, then he pointed to the crows circling overhead. “See those? They are over the Tower of Silence. No one can go there except Persians. Their bones go in the tower, and the rest is for the birds.” As we drove past, I could not ignore the stench of death.

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Our last stop was the biggest laundry washing area in all of Asia. We looked over the wall at hundreds of concrete tubs filled with brown water. Men and women, old and young, painstakingly scrubbed shirt collars, bed sheets, jeans, saris, and tablecloths. Heaps of fabric hung in the heat of the day like colored flags.

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There is a definite sense of urgency in this city. As you walk along the alleyways and crowded streets, you can feel the fear and desperation clinging to your skin. With the political unrest, poverty, and violent outbursts, it is no wonder it feels this way. The city doesn’t pause, not even for a moment, as if doing so would bring it closer to the great God in the sky. The ominous black and cawing crows sense it, and day after day they circle the city, waiting for it to stop breathing.

A Day in Bangkok

Last week I received an e-mail from Cheap Tickets letting me know that there had been a significant change in my itinerary and to call them. Usually, when there is a change I just get a friendly reminder that there has been a delay, or something small like that. A bit worried I called the hotline and was told that our flight from Bangkok to Mumbai had been cancelled. Luckily (thanks to the lovely people at Cheap Tickets), we were able to book a much later flight to Mumbai, one that left Bangkok at 8:30 p.m. So, what to do with a day in Bangkok? Travel along the canals? Visit the revered Grand Palace? Climb the steps of a monastery? I am a little ashamed to admit that we did not choose any of these fabulous options, but instead we chose to spend the night in a cheap hotel, sleep in, and creep the famous Khao San Road for a few hours before heading back to the airport.

We arrived in Bangkok at 1 a.m., and thought we might just sleep in the lightly padded chairs of the airport check-in area. Why not? We are young(ish), robust(ish), and adventurous. By the time we got through customs it was nearly 2:30 a.m., and all we really wanted was a bed. We went to the hotel booking counter, and for $30 we booked a room at a spot five minutes from the airport. Now, it was nothing spectacular, but the air con worked and the sheets were clean, so we were happy. We slugged around and finally got out of there at about 11:00 a.m.

We embarked on our journey to the famed Khao San Road. We had seen the Hollywood version of it on The Beach, we had read about the ladyboys, entertainment, and touts. You would think we would avoid it, but this is how we roll.
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Out taxi driver, who tried to charge us 650 Baht (we only gave him 350, a fair price), dropped us right in the middle of the action. The streets are lined with tuktuks, fried noodles, egg rolls, iced fruit, stalls selling everything imaginable, bars, restaurants, and more. It wasn’t nearly as crazy as I was expecting, but then again, it was early. B opted for a Thai massage while I decided to do something about my winter feet and got a pedicure. Mine cost 150 Baht and B’s 200. That’s just over $11.

After that, we went to a so called beer garden, which just had a few beers on tap. There were also a couple of interesting drinks on the menu, the orgasm and sperms. Although curious, I opted for a good old Thai Chang. We ate some food and drank two big ones. Aft that we rushed to get a cab back to the airport, feeling quite full and a little buzzed.

One one hand I do feel a little guilty about how we spent our limited time here in Bangkok, but at the same time, it was deliciously indulgent. Maybe it was the perfect way to spend Christmas Eve.

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A Few of My Favorite Things

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The holidays are approaching and everyone is saying their last goodbyes before the break. Some Shanghai transplants will be having Christmas dinner with their adopted families, usually co-workers, friends, and friends of friends. The city is all dressed up in trees and tinsel, so it really does feel like Christmas. Close friends, food, drinks. The only thing missing from that equation is childhood resentment, which I can happily live without. Those who do travel may be going home for the holidays, or to places completely unlike home. B and I chose to do the latter this year and booked a trip to India.

This was the last weekend we could all get together before 2012, and we went out together with a bang.

Friday night about nine of us went to Party World, similar to KTV, to sing us some karaoke. People here absolutely love karaoke, and in every town, no matter how small, one will find a dimly lit KTV sign somewhere. Karaoke here is nothing like back in the states. There is no stage, no bar full of audience, and no karaoke mama to take your requests. I was a little dissaponted at first, I guess because I like to make an ass out of myself in front of everyone, not just my nearest and dearest. So, your group rents a room by the hour, and is in charge of selecting songs, and pushing the button for food and drinks when needed. It had been a while since I went to belt out my favorites, and it felt awesome. There are two mics, so anyone can join you, if they feel so inclined. I spent five hours there, and when I got home my throat hurt. That’s when you know it’s been a good night of karaoke.

The next night we first went to Tiayro Teppinyaki, so good. For 168 RMB, you get all you an drink beer and sake, and all you can eat everything. We spent hours there taking shots of sake, cheers-ing each other, and occasionally breaking out in some sort of song. There were prawns, fish, lamb chops, tender beef, sushi, all kinds of veggies, and more. I have never left that place less than stuffed nor slightly sober. It is well worth the money spent.

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Finally, we ended the night with a little driving under the influence, but not in cars, mind you, and not on the road. Disc Go Kart is an indoor karting track with a bar upstairs. The second you enter all you can smell are exhaust fumes, and trust me, it gets you all revved up for the track. Grab a beer and take it with you to drink while you wait in line for your turn (I know, it’s awesome), then get into your go kart and race up to 8 others for 8 laps around the curvy track. At times it looks like people are drivinng bumper cars, and there will be crashes and small pile ups often. You really have to watch out for those hairpin turns, especially when you have had so much sake and gasoline fumes. Needless to say, it is one of the greatest things I have done in Shanghai. Just remember to wear your seatbelt.

I have found many of my favorite things here in Shanghai. Good food, friends, karaoke, and crazy go karts…these are a few of my favorite things.

My Cat Likes to Eat Diamonds

Shanghai has a way of surprising you; she tests your limits to the point that you feel like you may have to flee, while soon after showing you something that makes you feel like you should stay forever. In one day you can experience serenity, fear, confusion, and joy. Those emotions may be evoked by a fuchsia flower blooming at the beginning of winter, a taxi nearly rear ending the car in front of it, a person accosting you for being crazy enough to walk without an umbrella in the rain, or a taxi stopping to pick you up on a freezing Shanghai night. Everything that happens in Shanghai seems to be an oxymoron; yin and yang. Somehow, it always ends up balancing out.

We came to Shanghai with one pet, a Chihuahua named Pepe. We didn’t plan on getting any other pets until we had a big space of our own, but you know how those things go, especially on the other side of the world. Our first new addition came in the form of a turtle, whose name is still Turtle. She is a Red Eared Slider and loves the water. I fist saw her when she was about the size of a half dollar. She was in a bowl with about twenty other babies, all trying to claw their way to freedom. The baby turtle seller saw that I was an easy target and thrust Turtle in my hand. One look into her shimmering green eyes, and I was sold. I carried her home in my hands and found a plastic container for her to stay for a while. B arrived home, and was understandably confused, “I thought we weren’t getting any more pets.” I replied sheepishly, “I know, but it’s just a turtle.” One trip to Pet Zoo and 7,000 RMB later, Turtle had a pimped out tank.

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One night, a few months later my friend was waiting outside a building when she heard meowing from a nearby trashcan. She sifted through the garbage to find two tiny kittens, no more than a couple of days old, tied up in a plastic bag. Fate had decided that was not the way those kittens were going to leave this world, and my friend took them home. She contacted the Second Chance Animal Association of Shanghai, an amazing organization that fights for animal welfare and assists with pet adoption. SCAA paid for the vet visits, kitten formula, and gave excellent advice on how to care for a newborn kitten.

My friend mentioned that one of the kittens developed an infection, and it was getting hard to care for the two. I, without discussing it with B, offered to help with one of the kittens…just until she was adopted of course. Luckily for me, B has a soft spot for cute things, and jumped right in to help care for her. The little ball of orange and white fur grew stronger everyday. We fed her every two to three hours, even at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., we helped her to the bathroom, joyously declaring to the office that she was pooping quite well. Needless to say, we grew quite attached to the little one. I had just finished bottle feeding her one day when B came up and said, “We’re not giving her up, are we?” I looked at him, wide eyed, “Really?” And that was how we added the fifth member to our family, Penelope the cat.

The cute little kitten went from being a helpless, sightless, wobbly thing, to what she is now: an out of control, out for blood, mad cat. The transformation happened so slowly that we didn’t really notice it at first, we thought it was normal kitten behavior. She got into everything, had crazy dilated pupils at certain times of the night, she ran around chasing an invisible foe while sliding on the wood floor. It was cute because she was little. However, she did not stay little for long, and quickly outgrew Pepe, our poor Chihuahua, who now is attacked daily by his nemesis Penelope.
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One night I was minding my own business, watching TV on the couch, when a cat claw found it’s way into my cheek. Another time I was doing some crunches and a claw sliced into my leg, one of my friends went to play with Penelope one evening and came out with her hand dripping in blood. Then, one night I was petting her and she started to try and eat the diamond off of my engagement ring. She is the most bonkers cat I have ever known, but when your life starts out like hers did, you are bound to have a couple of screws loose, right?

Luckily, Penelope seems to have calmed down over the last month. She has recently been spayed, and maybe that is why I can actually pet her now without being attacked. She still tries to drink out of Turtle’s tank, “play” with Pepe, shove everything off of all of our tables, and she will still try to eat my diamond. But I love her anyway. Penelope is true to her city of birth. She pushed us to the brink, just to the edge of the cliff of insanity, but just in time became more than tolerable. Pretty great, actually.

As I start to plan the next phase of my life in Shanghai, another two and a half years, I know to be prepared for anything and everything. I have some big changes coming up in my life, including a wedding…in Shanghai. I will hope for the best, and plan for the crazy. That’s what you do to survive Shanghai.

Bu Ji Dao

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In America, one of the fondest words of a young child is, “why?” All of us have encountered the inquisitive child who is incessantly asking the big question. In America, we have been encouraged to ask why, it is an integral part of our society. To question authority is to be American.

I knew that when I moved to China, one of my most frequent questions would not be answered, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent to which I would be silenced. To cope with this, I have learned a phrase in Chinese, and I repeat it often: Bu ji dao, I don’t know.

Some of the major things I had questions about in my first months in Shanghai:

Why do babies wear split pants (pants where their bottoms are exposed at all times?)
Why do babies poo and pee on the sidewalk?
Why do grown men pee anywhere and everywhere?
Why is that dude carrying a purse?
Why is there a large green and white loogie in the elevator?
Why is that old woman “digging for gold”?
Why did that guy just blow a snot rocket onto my shoe?
Why are those girls pointing at me and laughing?
Why did that scooter almost run over me?
Why do I almost get trampled to death on the metro?
Why did the taxi just drive into oncoming traffic?
Why did that guy just push the button for both elevators (Mind you, he is on the 21st floor. One elevator is on the 2nd floor and one is on the 15th).
Why are the yogurt ladies dressed in go go boots and yelling at me through a megaphone?

Why? Why? Why?

Of course there are answers that probably wouldn’t make sense to you or I. For the most part, I just shrug my shoulders, close my eyes, and breathily say, “Bu ji dao.”

There are many obstacles facing those who ask why. In an ever-changing China, which is going through the growing pains of an emerging world power, the question is often met with mixed reactions; some embrace it while others despise it. As one who works at a Chinese school, I often see the division this question can cause. Our school’s student body is a vibrant mix of students from all over China; some from vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia, some from the humid factory lands of Guangzhou, but the one thing they all have in common is that they will leave China to attend university abroad. Our teachers are from China, Canada, the UK, and Oceania, but the one thing we all have in common is that we all want to help the students prepare for an overseas education.

When I was hired to work at my school, I was told, “It is an international school with a British curriculum. Our students are the best of the best, with most of them attending the world’s top universities! Because of this, our number one priority is English.” I thought, ‘Great! This is perfect!’
So, long story short, that is how I ended up where I am today. The reality is, the situation is much different than the picture painted. So, typical me, I asked the question. Many of the new teachers asked the same question, with each of us wearing a most bewildered expression, shrugging exasperatedly. The school’s more experienced teachers put their heads down, did their work, and kept quiet, for the most part.

Fast forward a year and a half, and we are still asking the same question. It is not restricted to the teachers however, as I mentioned in a previous posting, students are asking it as well. The response from the top leaders? “We have to talk about it.” If one has the audacity to inquire again, he or she will receive the reply, “I am not sure, we still have to discuss the details.” Most people never get an answer and just put their heads down, do their work, and keep quiet. The most persistent people will eventually get an answer, that is more or less satisfactory, and go about their lives.

Lesson learned? In China, persistence is a valued characteristic. In any market across the land, buyers and sellers will persist in obtaining the best price for an item. It is not rare for an exchange over the price of a silk scarf to go on for five minutes. The one who persists, within reason mind you, will prevail. This social custom spreads far and wide outside the confines of a local market; it can be found in family relationships, business, education, and government. I have learned that in the People’s Republic of China, it is O.K. to ask why, just don’t expect an adequate response, and expect perhaps that you will have to give up on your cause. This does not apply to everyone however, those with red envelopes and other treats will get appeasing answer.

Well, now that I think of it, isn’t that just the way of the world?

Bu ji dao.

Get Away for Awhile

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All it takes is one ride on the metro during rush hour to make you question why you live in Shanghai. Today I felt like a rag doll, being shoved and laughed at while I watched a man grab a woman for no apparent reason. She responded by hitting the man in the shoulder while they both yelled at each other. I though the excitement was over when I was finally able to extract myself from the mob and head out of the train. As I headed toward the exit I heard a zealous, “Hello!” and turned to see who it came from.

It came from a short youngish man who wore glasses and a big grin. He said, “My name is so and so, I am from North Korea!” “Nice to meet you, my name is Lindsey!” All the while he kept shaking my hand, refusing to let go. “You are Cinderella and I am Mickey Mouse,” he continued. I thought, ‘He must be taking classes at Disney English,’ yes, it is a real “English school” out here. “O.K. I have to go!” he finally let go of my hand, but went in for the hug. “Oh, O.K.,” I said, and just then he planted a big wet one on my cheek. I quickly let go and hastily said goodbye. Why do I attract all of the crazies? I practically ran up the escalator, but had to stop because some people weren’t following the stay to the right if you just want to stand rule. I didn’t dare look back in fear that Mickey Mouse would be right behind me. I stepped off the escalator, and like a scary movie, the guy was right behind me again. I swerved into Uniqlo, said goodbye again as he shouted, “I am Donald Duck!” ‘I wish I was still in Moganshan,’ I thought wearily.

When you live in one of the biggest cities in the world, sometimes you just need to get away. Although I would love to take a weekend trip to Southeast Asia or Hainan every few weeks, it’s just not going to happen. But the great thing about Shanghai is that the railway system is fast, easy, and affordable. In about an hour you can be out of the gray and gloomy skies in the city and into the ancient water towns of Suzhou and the famous West Lake in Hangzhou.

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Last weekend we went to Prodigy Outdoors, an all inclusive getaway in the bamboo forest of Moganshan. Moganshan is located about 2 hours away from the Hangzhou railway station. It is amazing, and when you breathe in for the first time, I swear you can hear your lungs saying “Thank you”. It seems like Moganshan is the only place in China that you won’t see a bevy of long necked construction cranes, or traffic, or pollution. Actually, on a clear night, one can see stars. Such a simple thing, but I bet there are children in this country who have never seen a star.

Moganshan has an interesting history. It used to be a very popular place for expats to live before the Cultural Revolution It was a place for families to get together and beat the summer heat. Now, it is emerging once again as a respite for city dwellers, both foreign and Chinese. In fact, wealthy Chinese couples visit places like naked Retreats with their friends. Last weekend I saw three women, in true city fashion, climb the rocky steps of the bamboo forest path in thick heels and skirts. Only in China.

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Prodigy Outdoors is a no frills kind of place, which is what one usually wants after being surrounded by nothing but frills in the city. There is a fireplace in the common room, 3-4 private rooms, and a large room with bunk beds on the second floor. In case of rain, there is a flatscreen TV and a good selection of movies. The food, cooked by the cutest Ayis, was delicious. Breakfast comprised of fruit, steamed buns, toast, congee, and fermented tofu. If you are brave, try the tofu, after that, you won’t need any coffee, it wakes you right up! For dinner, we had wood oven pizza and barbecued everything. The spread for lunch was just as impressive: egg and tomato, fried poi balls, chicken, beef, fresh peas, carrots, broccoli, and more.

naked Retreats is an eco-friendly venture, and the prices are more steep than those at Prodigy. If you are looking to have a romantic weekend away, this is the place. naked offers private bungalows that are equipped with wood burning stoves and radiators to keep you warm in the crisp mountain air, a fridge stocked with juice, milk, water and more, a basket of wine if you feel so inclined, and kitchenette. In the morning and at noon, an Ayi will come knocking on your door with a basket full of food she carried on a bamboo pole and basket on her shoulders. She comes with fresh bread, vegetables, and baked chicken if you like. If you would rather cook for yourself, you can do that as well.

The location of naked is ideal, as the paths in the forest are well marked and clear. One can take a walk up the stone path to the tea fields. If the season is right, naked will help to organize a tea picking adventure. There are a also a few cool things to see on the various paths, a serene lake where villagers fish with giant bamboo poles, a nunnery, and a small town dotted with a few restaurants. It is the perfect place to get in touch with nature.

Although I am a little sad to be back in the city, I am trying to make the most of it. Still, I look forward to the next getaway…India!

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Just a Quickie

It’s been quite a while, but life has been crazy lately. That’s OK though, I will have lots to write about (when I have the time). Just wanted to give a quick shout out to the Young Leaders Academy, created by Hans Balmaekers. Hans is starting an online program to help foster leadership among young adults. It is a global program, so all students from around the world can participate, and great young minds can connect. I think it’s fantastic! We are going to face enormous issues in our futures: overpopulation, pollution, food shortages, and climate change, we need young people to unite and get involved.

Oh, and of course I have to mention that l did a guest post on the Academy’s website called, “You are not alone”. Click here to read my story and the stories of other mentors.

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