Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dad - You'd Love it Here

My dad likes to swim - but only in the sea, he's not a big fan of swimming pools. And he especially likes swimming off rocks rather than beaches. The problem is that these days some of his favourite places are less accessible to him (one bionic hip down, perhaps one to go?)

Well Dad, you have to check out Bondi and the other little beaches that are dotted southward from the mouth of Sydney Harbour, and open onto the Pacific (OK - it's the Tasman Sea, but to an Irishman, that's the Pacific). On almost every beach, Bronte, Coogee, possibly Maroubra, Bondi itself, there is a saltwater pool, filled by the tide with seawater. During high tide, waves break over the thick walls of the pool, creating sea-swells for the swimmers. At lower tides, the surface of these pools are smooth and calm, independent of the waves around.

Access is a piece of cake (or more accurately a slice of toasted banana bread - seems to be the local favourite), so it offers the best of both worlds: saltwater waves, with steps.

Other the the 10,000 airmiles it took us to get here, it's the ideal spot for you Dad. The girls and I are swimming a few lengths on your behalf.


Wylies Baths, Coogee

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Home Schooling on the Move

It was Sunday night. The girls were already tucked into their pull-out sofa bed, but not yet asleep.

"Tomorrow's Monday", I whispered to Sara after kissing her Goodnight.

"Yes", she replied sleepily, "That means lessons".

Lessons are the hour-long exercises in Maths or English that we do on weekday mornings, but sometimes allow ourselves to skip. Everything else can be learned in the museum/zoo/gallery/shop/street.

Letizia picked up some advice about home schooling: on any given day, ask the kids what they'd like to do. When they ask for Maths, we take out their workbooks that we brought along and see how they cope. If something new turns up that appears to create confusion then we might need to work on that. If they want to do English lessons, then we get them to work on a blog entry. This entails a rough draft, just to get ideas out on to paper. We don't care too much about spelling or neatness of writing until the second draft. In the background, every day they are reading from Enid Blyton or JK Rowling.

This is the routine we have settled into since our arrival in Sydney (the spells on the road are more ad hoc) and it seems to be working out. if anyone else out there (including Nina and Sara's teachers) hae any advice, we'd love to hear it.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Australia Day

Yesterday we spent the entire day in the city centre, to celebrate Australia day with Sydneysiders. On the trip back to the apartment, we overheard - well everybody in the bus couldn't help but overhear - three self-appointed cultural attache's from Ireland having a beer-fuelled debate with some of their equally inebriated Sydneysider counterparts on the nature of a Republic. The Irish lads were probably in their early 20s, but that didn't stop them from banging on about the Union Jack on the Australian flag and '800 years of oppression' etc etc. These lads weren't brought up listening to nightly news reports of atrocities in the name of Republicanism, or Unionism, so I suppose they had the advantage of considering the whole matter from the comfort of an unsullied, theoretical perspective. Whatever their motives (which I'm assuming were at least in part getting into the pants of their female opponents) I found their attitude irritating, and surprisingly arrogant. Is his tthe New Irish abroad?

The Republican debate in Australia is complex, and I don't pretend to understand it. It defies party lines, and motives for either supporting or opposing a break with the UK throne can often sound similar to each other. Even defining what it means to be Australian is famously difficult. The recently removed Prime Minister Howard spoke of 'matesmanship'. The voice-over to the Darling Harbour festivities talked about a place where discrimination had no place. There is definitely a sense of nationalism here, but it is understated. Lots of folks were wearing or waving the flag around the city yesterday, but when the hosts for the evening tried to create a chant of 'Australia' around the harbour they failed repeatedly and embarrassingly. Embarrassing for them: it takes more than a TV and a microphone to distract the locals from their conversations with their mates. The crowd seemed immune to jingoistic manipulation. I loved it. The moment that inspired the most applause, and it was spontaneous, was when a boat carrying 4 new Australians (there were citizenship ceremonies all over the country on the day) did a lap of the harbour.

At the edge of Darling Harbour lies the Maritime Museum. There is a wall on the outside where the names of Australia's official immigrants are being added. When all names go up there, there will be 6 million of them. A third of the population. Inside the museum there is an exhibition about those immigrants, in the form of the personal stories of a number of families. Mostly, they were people fleeing poverty or political upheaval and oppression in their own countries, or indeed people who didn't have a country anymore. This museum is the mirror image of the museum in Cobh, in County Cork - about 20 minutes drive from our house. The Cobh museum records the heartbreaking departure of hundreds of thousands of impoverished Irish, both before and after the foundation of the Free State and later the Republic. The Darling Harbour museum records their arrival to the other side of a months-long voyage.

The three mugs on the bus would have done well to remember that it was places like Australia that provided a home for thousands of Irish with no hope and no future in their own native Republic, instead of trying to rub the locals' noses in it, about symbols and figureheads that have less and less meaning either here or back in Ireland.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sara the Jellyfish Magnet

I swore I wouldn't do this, but 'events, dear boy, events'. There are two things about Australia that you need to know, and luckily for you, somebody else has already gone to the trouble of hammering these things home for you. If you read Bill Bryson's hilarious and sometimes accurate Down Under, you will remember for the rest of your life that Australia is
  1. Huge!
  2. Full of things that not only want to kill you, but have every possible evolutionary advantage imaginable to see this ambition through.

I promised myself solemnly (I wasn't smirking or anything) that I would simply refer once to Mr Bryson and never mention anything about vast deserts or inconceivable concentrations of venom.

Then we went to Coogee.

Sara has been stung by jellyfish in the past - Sardinian ones. She didn't exactly enjoy it, but Mediterranean jellyfish don't have the same work ethic as their South Pacific counterparts. Like the gentle waters of the Med itself, the jellyfish that Sara previously attracted were just making a bit of a show of being nasty - their heart just wasn't in it.

Coogee Bluebottles (for that is the local vernacular) on the other hand, are nasty little bastards who take this whole stinging business very seriously indeed. We arrived at Coogee beach at about 11:45, and by 11:50 or so I was carrying the inconsolable Sara for first aid at the lifeguard station just behind us. You have to understand my state of mind at this point: I was calm, but I was working under the assumption that my youngest daughter was in danger of meeting a horrible end if she wasn't whisked away pronto in something with sirens. We were in Australia, Sara had just been stung by something with an innocuous Aussie slang term, therefore I assumed death was imminent. Thank you Bill Bryson.

Matters weren't helped by the fact that the lifeguard didn't share my sense of urgency on the matter. This brings me to two things that one can say about the Australians: Lifeguards are, as a group, greatly respected. Seems fair, considering the number of lives they save each year - very often those of tourists who didn't heed Bryson's many warnings. I was all primed to show deference, and to be awed by their derring do. The other thing about Australians is their tendency towards understatement. Take our friend Gary here in Sydney. Last night over dinner (thanks again Ludi and Gary - it was excellent catching up) Gary explained the difference between saltwater and freshwater crocs. While the salties are viscious monsters and therefore should be afforded some respect, freshies are harmless and you'd have to practically stand on one to force it to give you a 'bit of a nip'. It was news to me that crocs did 'nips'. Pekinese dogs do 'nips'. A terrapin, if handled inexpertly, will give you a 'bit of a nip'. Crocs do not nip. At least not in Hiberno-English, or indeed just about any dialect of the English language. Except Australian.

So when I presented poor Sara to the lifeguard, I expected him to manfully take over and burst into action. Instead he offered me directions to the showers, and told me to come back for some ice packs. He did, in fairness, also pluck off one of the remaining tentacles from Sara's right leg, protecting his fingers with his sleeve - something I should have done myself. But as far as first aid was concerned, we were getting nothing but water. A shower and some ice.

Compare this to what happened on the beach in Santa Margherita di Pula in Sardinia when Sara last got stung by a jellyfish. The 50 or so people on either side of us went straight into action, organizing themselves wordlessly into teams:

  • One team dived into their beachbags and retrieved every form of medicine that can be legally purchased over the counter in Italy (which is a lot, by the way) - and given the number of doctors on the beach, we also had a choice of prescription-only products. Ammoniac, antihistamines, cortisone creams, pain-killers - you name it, somebody was running towards us holding fistfuls of it.
  • Another team moved swiftly towards the part of the sea where the offending creature was presumed to be, armed with buckets, nets and, most probably, more drugs.
  • A third team, lets call them the 4th estate, set up an impromptu incident centre through which all information related to the 'attack' was relayed, compared to similar incidences, and analysed based on severity, age of the victim, profession of the parents, and of course the likely efficacy of the drugs being used.

I'm not saying that the Italian approach is necessarily the correct one, but I must confess I would have preferred it to the stoic 'No worries mate, a bit of ice and she'll be apples' attitude that I was getting. I'm all for being stoic, taking it on the chin, grinning and bearing etc. I'm not so keen on it being expected of my 6-year-old baby girl.

This all happened more than 24 hours ago now, and in the meantime, Sara is just, well, 'apples' (she did get the ammoniac and anti-histamine treatment from her mother's mobile pharmacy, mind). We visited the superb Sydney Aquarium today where we read, apropos bluebottles, that the best course of action is rinsing with fresh water and applying ice-packs. I didn't have a felt-tip pen to hand, so I couldn't add some extra helpful hints or pharmaceutical product names.

It might have been worse. Gary told us that when he was just a few years older than Sara, and visiting Sydney from his native Melbourne, he got stung right across the chest. His uncle proved even more rugged (and unhelpful) than our Coogee lifeguard: "Just rub sand into it and you'll be right". You just know how that particular 'cure' came about: Gotta do something - now what have we got to hand? I mean when you stung yourself with nettles as a child, and instantly grabbed a fist of 'Doc' leaves and rubbed them into the sting, did you ever stop to think that 1) they never NEVER made the slightest difference and 2) they were always growing next to the nettles. No? Me neither.

Anyhow, all's well and tomorrow we'll return to Coogee, though we'll stick to Wylies' saltwater pool there. Below is a photo from today's trip to the aquarium. Look our for these buggers - apparently they can give you a 'bit of a nip'.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sydney: First Fleeting Views

Almost exactly 220 years ago, the First Fleet commanded by Arthur Philip sailed into Port Jackson, and according to their own records of the event, decided that it was the most magnificent harbour they had ever set eyes on. They had spend a number of disappointed days anchored a little further south in Botany Bay, wonder where were the lush meadowlands, and safe landings Captain Cook had described. Although it looked a great deal more promising than Botany Bay, this new location proved to be a purgatory of disease, famine and mutiny for a number of years, until a dependable agricultural base took hold and the future of the city that was to be known as Sydney was assured.

Maybe it was because I has read up a little on the subject of the founding of Sydney (or maybe because I'm a pretentious git who can't just shut up and take in the sights) but the emotional impact of seeing Sydney Harbour Bridge and then immediately afterwards the Opera House, was on a different scale to anything so far on the trip. Much more intense, for example, than Tiananmen gate and the Forbidden City, though these have a longer and more powerful history. Perhaps it's precisely because the story feels so recent and so far away from the seats of power of the time, that it also feels so human and personal.

I tried to imagine (unsuccessfully) how the place would have looked back then to the sailors, and how the ships might have been observed from the perspective that I now occupied, Bennelong Point (named after the first of the Eora to befriend the arriving English - though they did have to kidnap the poor sod first in order to make the necessary introductions and initiate the relationship).

And then I found myself conjuring up the image of that same First Fleet sailing into present-day Sydney. Arthur Philip left the place in 1792 and never returned. He felt, with some justification, that he had done everything possible and necessary to sow the seeds of a successful outpost of the British empire. But what he left behind was still very fragile, and had a long struggle ahead of it. What would he have thought if he too had caught sight of Sydney Harbour Bridge for the first time today, springing out as it does from the location of his first settlement? He'd have seen ferries and jetboats churning up the water, skyscrapers stacked up in the background, and of course, if the view were not alien enough to his 17th century experience, the Opera House reflecting the sun from many points at once.

It'd be nice to think that after a nice warm cocoa, and a bit of a lie down (during which someone would have been kind enough to mention to the poor chap that not only was the British monarch still head of state of New South Wales, but had extended its power to cover the entire continent of Australia) he would have taken a deep satisfaction in the role he played in making the 'Botany Bay Experiment' into such a spectacular city.

Australia Day is on Saturday. The whole country - with the probable and understandable exception of Bennelong's people and the other Australian aboriginal groups - celebrates the landing of the First Fleet 220 years ago in Sydney Cove (named after Lord Sydney who was the Home Secretary at the time - though apparently nobody is quite sure why the man himself chose the name for the peerage which died with him). Officially sanctioned activities include BBQing and talking ill of British cricket. I'm up for a bit of that!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Now I know why they're called 'Samsonite'

'Cos you need to be Samson to carry the buggers.

Travel light, me arse.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Being There

You can read all the books and watch all the TV you want, but there are some views that can only be appreciated in the round, and some experiences can only be had in person. You just have to be there.

I didn't manage to hear the erhu played well (I heard it played, alright). I didn't get around to tasting snake either. But as far as my three themes for this trip are concerned, I can tick two of the boxes. I did learn a lot about my wife and daughters in these three weeks. They are quite an amazing band of fellow travellers. They are flexible, positive, patient and funny. We drive each other daft regularly, and there is a lot being asked of the kids in terms of endless walking, eating and uprooting. But they seem genuinely happy and at ease within the newly mobile family unit, and extremely adaptable to the new conditions. Letizia, who went along only reluctantly with my desire to see China, embraced the experience fully. I couldn't have asked for better company.

On the topic of 'Collapse' I've seen some things with my own eyes that previously I had only read about: on the Yangtze, in the countryside and in the cities. Diamond's 'Lurching Giant' is indeed a colossus. The scale of the country and the speed of its journey from poverty to prosperity is hard to take in. The Irish government, in their own little way, have been doing a fairly patchy job of managing growth for the benefit of the many, over the last two decades. And that has been with all the advantages (yes, they are advantages) of a free press, and independant judiciary and centuries of growing up as a part (albeit neglected or abused) of Britain's modern economy and society.

China is trying the same thing on a scale that is three orders of magnitude greater than Ireland's, with a political history of unbending autocracy for 3 millennia. I would put money on the wheels coming off within a decade or so, though I hope it will be a temporary setback.

This trip has changed the face of China for me. It was an iconic abstraction before, defined in terms of numbers, names and dates. Now it has a human face. It's not always pretty, but I can relate to it. I can see the young ambitious faces of people working in tourism, the kind smiling faces of grandparents looking at Nina and Sara, cheeky teenage grins and shouts of 'Laowei' from behind steaming pots on Xi'an streets, earnestly attentive taxi drivers trying to figure out where the hell this foreigner wants to go, unctuous salesmen and saleswomen of overpriced tat, the haughty countenances of young Shanghainese women on the Huaihai Lu, and the openly curious expressions of Chinese children.

Sting only wrote one decent lyric after the Police broke up (monkeys, typewriters etc.): "I hope the Russians love their children too". However closed the Chinese government remains to international scrutiny and censure, much less to democratic reforms, the Chinese people as a group are open and welcoming, curious and interested. Yes, they love their children too, and you, if you are reading this from outside this fascinating country, have to come and meet them.

You smell that?

We stink.

Or so Letizia and the girls tell me. Despite my generous (not to say handsome) proboscis, and accompanying nickname of 'Buckbeak', I have all the sense of smell of a shoe. A shoe with a cold. My three fellow-travellers, princesses-on-the-pea every one of them, are blessed with the ability to isolate odours at the twitch of their little button-noses. In fact they can classify and order by date our acquired fragrances over the past three weeks. A 'taste', if you will:

  1. Sara's jumper still reeks of an unhappy encounter with with cheese and chive Pringles in Beijing.
  2. Letizia's jacket carries with it the olfactory imprint of Sichuanese cooking since Chengdu.
  3. Nina, incredibly, has emerged unscathed and untainted, and still smelling of, well, Nina.

I just stink. So no change there, right? Boys, eh?

What really amazes me is that we don't smell more. One of the reasons for this is the very wise investment we made in thermal underwear. Wait - wait - don't hang up! I'm not going to post any pictures, and just forget about the longjohns with flaps in strategic places that you remember from Grizzly Adams. It's all gone upmarket since then.

When Conor Goulding was leaving Ireland for Australia via South America a few months back, he made the mistake of asking me what I thought he should pack. Actually, come to think of it, he may not have asked me, but that has never stopped me giving generously of my wisdom before. 'Thermals' I said. Probably shouted it across the room in a packed lunchtime pub, in fact. 'Essential and easily compressed. Like oxygen.' (Warning: I may be making some of this up as I go along.)

And so it has proven to be. These thermals may not have flaps, but they are anti-bacterial and you would have to eat a lot of fish-flavoured pork to stink them up. And God knows I've tried.

We will have our very own washing machine in Sydney, and the anticipation of this momentous change in living conditions is strongly felt in some quarters of the Lawlor family right now. Three quarters, to be precise. If I'm not very careful I might just find myself gasping for breath in the middle of the 'heavily soiled' program, wishing their were flaps after all.

When we get to Oz, we'll finally be able to reply to comments on our blogs (reminder, Letizia is blogging here and even if you can't read Italian, she's posting a lot more photos than me). So if you've been reading for a while, but not sure about commenting, please do! We really look forward to hearing from you, whether we know you already or not yet.

Planet Shanghai

Shanghai is a strange planet. At first it felt - no, looked - more Western than the West, as our taxi made its way past the countless neon-lit skyscrapers between Hongqiao airport and our hotel on Nanjing Dong Lu.

Now after a few days of getting ever so slightly under the skin of this city, I'm convinced that it's just as Chinese as any other city we've seen.

Beyond Nanjing Dong Lu, the streets disintegrate into the broken pavements we've become used to. The pedestrian zone, already under constant guerilla attack from mopeds and motorbikes, give way to aggressive Chinese driving (admittedly not to the same degree of lawlessness as Chengdu). Despite the glass and metal storefronts, the occasional shop still sports a tinny loud-hailer assaulting the public ear with what are presumeably sales pitches. The hawkers and vendors, beggers and grifters are still there, and still picking us out of the crowd.

Don't get me wrong - this is all good. I'm relieved we're still in China.

On our first full day we took the girls on their long-promised shopping trip for Nintendo games. We took the metro to Xujiahui station which had a direct entrance to the Digital Pacific Plaza: Six floors of technological bazaar. The process was complicated in that games were on offer on CDs rather than on cartridges, which meant that we also had to buy memory cards, and USB readers for the cards, in order to download onto the girls devices. We had to find what was on the CDs, make sure it was stuff that the girls wanted, was in English, and actually worked. In doing all this we discovered that in Shanghai it is no easier to get yourself understood in English than anywhere else in this country. So my poor battered brain, and poor tattered dictionary were given another workout. Almost 2 hours later we had 1000 games, and two 1G memory cards plus USB readers for 65 euros. I have no idea if that is a good deal for here, but based on Irish prices I can feel reasonably happy with it. I also put into practice the very important haggling technique of 'letting your arse do the talking' (anyone who knows me will no doubt reflect on how easily that will have come to me). What I mean is that we were seated behind the counter, with the salespeople, going though the disks. When they wouldn't come down far enough in price, it was enough to lift my arse off the chair, and begin to gather my belonging, for the price to come down. Energy well spent.

I took a good look at laptop prices as well. i'm starting to feel the limitations of the Nokia N800 a little. In fairness to the poor device, it's standing up well to the demands we're making on it. But the browser is having a hard time with some of the AJAX-based sites we use so much, and regularly falls over. And it just can't handle Google spreadsheets updating, so the budget is getting done by hand. There were some nice little machines like a Sony Viao or Fujitsu Lifebook for around 1100 to 1400 euro. But I think I'll keep my powder dry.

On day 2 in Shanghai we went shopping for 'antiques' (if that thing is old, then I'm flippin' ancient!) on Dongtai Lu. Nina is BIG into the whole browsing and haggling experience (I think she gets it from her Italian nonna's side of the family) which makes a welcome change from her previously held attitude of money burning holes in her pockets. I'm definitely getting the hang of this haggling, managing to get prices down to an eigth or even a tenth of the asking price. Must try that on the property market back home.

On Wednesday we visited Chinesepod on the Huangpi Nan Lu. CPod is a very successful company co-founded in Shanghai by an Irishman called Ken Carroll. They teach Mandarin Chinese online to thousands worldwide, and have become one of the world's most listened-to podcasts. I've used it regularly over the last 2 years to supplement my lessons from my very talented local teacher Liping, and it was great to see the premises, meet Jenny Zhu, Aggie and John Pasden (much to my disappointment, Ken wasn't in that day) and talk to some of the folks behind the scenes like John Biesnecker and Ross - another Irishman - who has just joined ChinesePod but has been living in Shanghai for the last three years.

(Jenny, Aggie, some mug wearing thermal underwear, and John)

Keep an eye on the company behind CPod - Praxis Language. They've been teaching Spanish on SpanishSense using the same business and pedagogical model as Chinese for quite some time now (we met the SpanishSense guys too - what a great bunch - I'm looking forward to tuning in to those lessons, along with Letizia, in preparation for South America). Early this year they'll be rolling out three more languages, including French (Nicolas - this might be your chance to finally be understood in Paris) and Italian. Russian and Arabic will eventually follow.

In the meantime, we've been looking at a few museums, checking out some of the other quarters of the city, and generally hanging out. Shanghai is something of a wind-down for us. It's a place to catch our breath, and catch up with our blogging. In truth, we can already feel the pull of Australia, and we've very excited about our next stop: Five whole weeks in Sydney!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ghosts of the Yangtze

Our first stop on the cruise was the town of Fengdu. It's known as the City of Ghosts because it is to here that all Chinese must return when they die, even those living abroad (did you hear that, xiao Wang?), to be judged by the King of the Underworld. The good go to red heaven, and the bad go to blue hell.

There are ghosts aplenty here - some very recent ones. Almost all the temples in the Fengdu complex were destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The fact that these officially sanctioned hooligans were scared of destroying the temple of the King of the Underworld himself, gives an idea of the amount of power that was handed - locally at least - to the ignorant and superstitious, all just for the sake of a powerplay back in the capital. The Red Guard was motivated by violence and petty power. Maoist principles were just a lick of red paint on the shithouse wall.

This wasn't a Chinese problem. The parallels are easily seen with the early SA in inter-war Germany, the blackshirts under Mussolini, and the pickup-driving, Kalashnikov-wielding Taliban. Ignorance and violence are a natural match. The repeating pattern of unholy alliances between destructive and arrogant youth and cynical manipulative experience makes me very angry - and very frightened too when I think of what kind of circumstances could bring about the same pattern for me or my daughters. Because despite what some bestsellers say, I don't think anyone can really believe that history is over.

The other ghost that haunts this part of the Yangtze lies a few hundred kilometers downstream - the Three Gorges Dam.

There is a background eeriness in the many references to what has already been submerged under the rising waters of the dam, and what awaits the final phase of the project in a few months time. Life around the Yangtze is coloured by numbers: 156 metres above sea level - the current height of the water here. 175 metres - the final dry season level. 13 cities, 140 towns, the homes of 1.4 million people - all under water when the project is complete. Everything that we look at has a question mark over it: Will it still be here in a year's time? Everything we see can be compared dramatically with pictures of 10 years ago or so. The river banks today are unnatural - their ecology needs time to adapt to the new reality.

The spell of numbers and levels is only broken when we finally move through the locks of the great dam itself. The landscape is once more fixed and reliable. No more disappearing towns. But just before that happened, there was time for one more moment of surreality. The the boat made its way through the 5 chambers of the shiplock, snow began to fall. Nina, Sara and I went uptop, along with the Australian/Indonesian family we shared the dinner table with, and had a snowball fight under the cold glow of the locks neon lights, while moving slowly through the belly of the largest dam in the world. If you ask the girls what they remember most about the cruise, they will probably say the snowball fight. Me too, actually.

Should the dam have been built or not? This is the question that was posed by Luther, our Yangtze Guide on the Victoria Star, after a powerpoint presentation on the pros and cons of the project. He left the question open, and left plenty of room for both sides of the argument in his talk. He raised negative consequences of the dam that I hadn't thought of or heard about before. Most importantly, he avoided the temptation to be didactic or propagandist on the matter.

My own impression is that although national pride is noted as one of the minor reasons for the project, it has at least as much to do with the decision to build as the three major ones: Flood control, Power generation and Improved navigability. I don't know what decision I would have made, but I'm uneasy with the knowledge that only a political system of almost absolute centralized power could decide to relocate 1.4 million souls, and that this very same monopoly on power has led to the kind of corruption that can jeopardise the safety and viability of a megaproject such as the Three Gorges Dam

See and (banned in China).

Make up your own mind.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Counting in Chinese

I've been teaching Nina and Sara to count to 10 in Chinese, complete with the correct tones. They seem to enjoy this a lot - it's a bit like singing a song. So here, for the benefit of blog readers, is the same lesson, with some annotations to help the memory.

(The tones are 1 - high and flat, 2 - rising steadily, 3 - down and back up, 4 - down abruptly)

  1. yi1 (The number of polical parties allowed to hold power in the People's Republic of China)
  2. er4/liang3 (The number of official heroes of the PRC - Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping)
  3. san1 (The number of weeks we're spending in China, or alternatively the three T's that you have to be careful about mentioning: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen)
  4. si4 (The size of our travel party, otherwise known as the family)
  5. wu3 (The number of claws one a Chinese dragon - Japanese have six)
  6. liu4 (The number of places we have slept in China, including the train from Beijing to Xi'an)
  7. qi1 (The number of levels to a Chinese pagoda - thanks to Sandra for that bit of info)
  8. ba1 (The number of times, admittedly approximate, I have been tempted to chuck the Rough Guide to China into the nearest bin, river or ditch)
  9. jiu3 (The number of men who run China - the standing committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, the largest political party on Earth with 66 million members. Fianna Fail eat your heart out)
  10. shi2 (The number of RMB you can squeeze into a single euro, or alternatively, what you should mentally divide by when converting what a vendor asks for when deciding what to offer back)
(Corrected san3 to san1. Rookie mistake, thanks for catching.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Yangtze Stories

When we got on board the Victories Star with the indispensible help of Jolin Cheng (with whom we booked the cruise), and after the initial relief and relaxation had worn off, I started to have some regrets about including three days cruise in the itinerary. We were moving from being independant travellers to packaged tourists. We were amongst the youngest passengers aboard, and I was starting to hear English accents around me - atheir familiar ring reminding that we were not so adventurous after all. Letizia told me that I was actually being rude to some of the people we met - I thought at the time that I was merely being distant.

I don't like being rude to people who aren't being rude to me, so I copped myself on and started to engage a little. Two English ladies in or around retirement age shared their stories with me and I'm glad I got out of travel-snob mode, because teh stories were facinating:

Wendy's next step after the cruise, like our own, was Shanghai. She was going to track down the church where her parents had wed, one month after they met on a ship to that city. Wendy's mother was American, and only 21 years of age. By the time Japanese bombs started falling on Shanghai, she had given birth to Wendy's oldest sister, and both mother and baby were evacuated back to London, followed eventually by Wendy's father. Of course this wasn't much of an escape as within a short space of time, German bombs wre raining down on London. I tried to imagine life for the 21-year-old American girl, caught up first in a coup-de-foudre, then bombed out of Shanghai with baby in arms, to the cold comfort of wartime Britain, without her husband, who was presumably her only connection to that place. Wendy's mother died last June, though apparently her memories of such an extraordinary episode in history died many years before.

Marian used to cycle around England as a teenager, going from hostel to hostel. When she maried a Turkish man who had no interest in travel and adventure, she left behind all ambitions to see the world. She eventually split from her husband, and had to bring up her children on her own and in financial hardship. Now her children are grown up - one is living in Shanghai, the other in Spain. Marian now owns her own property in England, which she rents out occasionally to students to fund her worldwide travels. She spends at least four months a year on the road, usually staying in hostels (like us, the cruise was something of an exception for her) and basing her travel plans on such excellent logic as sticking to one 'language zone' at a time, travelling slowly, and leaving places nearer to Britain to later year - when she might not be so mobile (she already had both hips replaced). And yet she feels she is always working against the Big Clock. "If I put it off till next year, will I still be alive to do it?"

Marian - the same logic applies to the rest of us.

Chinese Rules of the Road

I don't think you'll find these rules written down anywhere, but I have observed Chinese driving for 2 weeks now, and extracted the following basic rules:

  1. The car is king, pedestrians are expendable scum. Every other form of road user fits somewhere between these two. Know your place.
  2. The direction of flow of traffic for a given lane is subject to change without notice, and based on simple majority rule.
  3. The meaning of the car horn, like the chinese language itself, depends a great deal on context. One sound can mean :

    a. I am going for that improbably small space - don't get in my way.

    b. I am about to overtake you (in a lane of my chosing) - don't try to stop me.

    c. I'm in a car. I'm travelling at speed. I'll honk if I bloody well want to honk.
  4. Precendece is always given to those with the least to lose.
  5. Traffic lights are not only decorative, they also serve as an indication of traffic conditions immediately ahead.

I may have missed some, in which case I'll add them afterwards. Assuming I survive another week of these rules.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Inside China, Outside Beijing

Blog's been a bit quiet for the last few days. Connectivity in Chengdu wasn't great, and then we had 3 nights on board the Victoria Star on the Yangtze where we decided to stay away from the 'net. More on both Chengdu and teh Yangtze later. For now, here's my musings on some of the grimmer and grimier sides to China. (Don't worry Mr. Clancy - it's still a great place to visit and you do well to extend your stay.)

In the soft-seat waiting room of the Chengdu North railway station, and damn glad there were no hard seats available on our T888 to Chongqing. Chengdu was a good place to relax, to save money, and to eat good food. We saw the two main things we planned to see, and had the good sense not to run around too much. Sim's Cozy Guesthouse was our oasis - it's bar especially - and given that the city itself had nothing much to recommend it, and the cloud of pollution (or was it really fog?) made it even less attractive, we felt no pressure to leave Sim's without good reason.

In the last few days we have seen a very different side of China. We've taken more public transport, got much further outside the city limits, and seen the countryside, through a dense cloud of ever-present smog. The tidiness we noticed in Beijing remains - there is no shortage of people who can be employed to sweep the streets clean. But Beijing now appears relatively organized compared with here in Chengdu. When you hear about the increasing inefficiency of the Chinese economy, and the fact that it needs more and more investment to extract the same level of growth, you feel you can almost see the physical manifestation of this on the streets. The country is creaking under the weight of its own success. It clearly needs some period of consolidation to concentrate on doing things smarter, laying the way for future, more sustainable growth.

(In software terminology, the country needs some time to refactor itself. It has rushed headlong to meet its deadlines, but the economy has probably lost so much of its shape as a consequence that it cannot be further built upon for much longer without losing its ability to return on any investment.)

Some ideas and practices will have to be thrown away (how can entrepreneurs feel secure about their efforts if basic issues like private property are so nebulous?) and others will have to be modified (can the one-child policy be sustained in the face of an aging population and a widening gender imbalance?). It's hard to change the behaviours and mindsets of even a modest-sezed group of people - I have no idea how you go about doing it with 1.2 billion people.

Here's some concrete signs of an unstable economic platform that, for want of a better term, I'll call sino-sprawl:
1) The traffic:
It's not that there aren't any rules - it's just that they're not the same as the ones that are presumeably written down somewhere. You get the feeling that the roads have outgrown the old rules and have evolved new ones. The result is a kind of intelligent system, but one which is firstly not amenable to any kind of further planning or rationalization, and secondly is teaching a new generation of road users all the wrong things. I will never EVER complain about Italian drivers again. Their somewhat ambivilant attitude to lane discipline is just a change in accent compared to the indecipherable language of Chinese driving.

2) Pollution:
I haven't seen a blue sky since our first day in Xi'an. "So what" say the Irish readers, "we haven't seen one since September". Well, let me put it differently: I haven't seen more that 5 city blocks into the distance in these past few days. Some locals here have defended the situation by saying to me "What about the famous London fog?" Well I think it might still have been around in Sherlock Holmes' time, and I suspect that this is why it's so famous. But I seem to remember that even this 'fog' was a product of England's industry rather than its climate. Suffice to say that certain part of China seem to be choking themselves, and there are surely kids around here who have never known anything else.

In Beijing we marvelled at the newness and the growth. In Cork, the tallest building in the Republic of Ireland is nearing completion,but it would be lost in scale, and long forgotten in construction time, if it had been build in Beijing. All very impressive, until you look at the skyline of Chengdu. There are a great many successful large building projects underway here, but there are also some skeletal remains of buildings that have run out of financing - and some eyesores that you kind of wish had suffered the same fate. China is building fast, yes, but also loose.

This is only a superficial observation (well of course all these observations are), but if I were a foreman on Shopfloor China, I'd like to ask half my workers what the hell they were doing. A lot of jobs seem to involve hanging round a lot, or playing cards waiting for something to happen. I wouldn't like to get up on the scaffolding I saw being erected in downtown Xi'an by 4 lads, 2 of whom were blindly banging their spanners against joints, looking at the passing city crowds instead of concentrating on the job in hand. I've never worked on a building site, so perhaps I've got it all wrong. Maybe it wasn't dangerous - just inefficient. But I think this is the whole point. When you have enough people available to work at low wages, you can afford to be inefficient. China has appears to have allowed herself to go this way.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Pannacotta Warriors

We're a little over a week on the road now, so it's worth making a few observations about how the kids are coping with the experience.

What I find the most remarkable, when I look at their expressions, watch them interact with each other, and when I talk to (or at) them, is how little anything has changed. They are neither thrown by the situation, nor bowled over by it. The usual emotional triggers still apply: tiredness, hunger, desserts and gift shops. Just like at home.

In one way, this is great. I was following a Freakonomics blog thread a few weeks back about whether it is a good thing to aim to make our kids happy. Of course we want them to be happy, but should that be the primary objective or should we concentrate on other things and let happiness take care of itself, in whatever form that might take?

What I would wish for my daughters (and I am not suggesting for a minute that this is within my gift) is that they be robust, that they take no shit that they don't think they deserve, and always want to keep going even if it's easier to stop. That they be able to distinguish a friend from an enemy, and a setback from a disaster. The fact that the last week has changed nothing in the dynamics of our family might just be evidence of this kind of robustness. They still bicker, and then eventually hug and then go back to bickersville. I still have to tell them to do the same thing three times before they even begin to listen. They are still more interested in dessert than main course (in fact they are more interested in dessert than in most other things they've seen with the possible exception of the pandas in Chengdu.)

So what on Earth was the point in bringing them around the world in the first place? Travel isn't a collection of sights with their explanatory plaques alongside. Travel is supposed to be about who you are and how you relate to what you find on the way. We are moving around as a unit and much of this trip is about who we are as a family. Because we are living in such close quarters ("Daddy, what did I tell you about snoring? - Sara 3am) and doing everything together, then the good and the bad get magnified. There's nowhere to hide. No school, no office, no green out the front, not even another room at the moment. If there's something we're doing wrong then we'll simply have to fix it. And when something good happens, like an unsolicited confidence from Nina - a very private young lady - then it's harder to take for granted.

So how are the kid's? They're doing great. They're having fun, learning lots about China and about their own family. They're wide awake, taking it all in and wondering what's for dessert.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Buckbeak in Xi'an

Beijing is already a 24-hour old memory. It is a monumental city. Quite literally. I think that almost every day we were there we visited a UNESCO World Heritage site. And it's changing almost daily. Our Rough Guide was bought only a year ago, but already it needs updating - including some of the maps! One of the last images of the city was of the face of a new tall office block builiding, with its glass front being hoisted into place one window at a time, while a steady raiin of welding sparks fell from the top floor above. And I have never seen a train station as large as Beijing Xi. It's larger than any airport in Ireland, and is relatively centrally located in the city. But again, it was well orgainized and I found it easy to make my way to the correct section to wait for our overnight departure to Xi'an (I found it a great deal harder to convince Letizia that I had found the right place, but I'm kinda used to that).

Xi'an is an altogether different proposition. From the outset, let me tell you that I think it's a fantastic spot, and even though we haven't gone to see the Terracotta Warriors yet, I'm very glad it was on the itineray. It's an older city than Beijing, with a longer imperial history. The warriors that we'll go to see tomorrow were created as part of the funeral ceremonies of one of the most important and most terrible of Chinese emperors: Shi Huangdi of the Qin dynasty, which although it goes back more than 2 millenia is probably where this country got it European name. Xi'an was Shi Huangdi's capital after he united, for the first time, what is now China.

Now it's a well-to-do provincial capital which thanks to its surviving city wall, has a walkable inner city. The highlight of this place has to be the Muslim quarter. This is a foodstall and market area spread across a large number of streets and alleyways. But there is nothing like the in-your-face street vendor attitude of Beijing. We still stood out like sore thumbs, and drew the occasional prolonged stare, but for reasons that I can't explain, this provincial capital seems more urbane and at ease with foreigners than the national capital.

Needless to say we got thoroughly and royally screwed at the market today - at least at the start. Letizia bought a set of chopsticks which I (very proudly) haggled down from 16 euro to 14, only to find the exact same ones around the corner for less than 4. We hadn't much intention of buying much or indeed anything today, but once we realised how lame we had been, we embarked on a series of terrifying reprisal purchases, buying things we neither wanted nor needed (which we will now have to post home from Shanghai) for prices that enduced scowls from the vendors. We're not proud of what we did, and we know that in the end, there were no winners here today(except for the bugger with the 16 euro chops).

On an unrelataed note, a Beijing Harry Potter poster provoked a dinnertime conversation about who in the family corresponded to which charactor in the Potter books. Sara needed almost no time to figure me out: Buckbeak. I ask you!? A combined 5000 pages or so of heros both major and minor, and I get Buckbeak. I think I might be posting more than just chopsticks from Shanghai.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Tea, and a show...

On the Qianmenxidajie there is a teahouse, well indicated in the guidebooks, called Laoshe Teahouse (Laoshe chaguan) where for a reasonable price you can get watered and entertained together. We went there yesterday after a morning in the spectacular Temple of Heaven and a browse through the little alleys of Qianmen. For 210RMB (a little more than 20 euro) the whole family could be treated to a show of acrobatics, music, comedy, shadow play and the like. And the price included "tea and a snake".

What now? Snake is definitly on my to-eat list but I wasn't expecting to encounter any here, and certainly not with tea. Dammit - turns out it was "tea and a snack". The snake will have to wait (presumably in long grass somewhere). But despite this initial disappointment, the show itself was great. From the very start, the tea was flowing. I got a cup with some jasmine tea leaves, and the waiters come very regularly to add some more hot water. The girls didn't think much of it, but I sipped away and needed a refill each time.

First act: Shadow play. From behind the screen, a group of puppeteers recreated scenes involving the Monkey King and various other charaters I'm too ignorant to identify.

Slurp of tea.
Then came some vocal imitators - birds, jets, trains. Nina and Sara lapped it up. More tea slurping. Peking Opera. Slurp.
Vase juggling. Slurpedy slurp. Another hour of all kind of wonderous entertainment involving magic, song and (apparently) satire, all accompanied by refills of tea.

The highlight for me was something called Kung Fu Tea. My colleague Simon Wang had told me about this already. 'Kung Fu' (actually Gong Fu) is an adjective that can be applied to any activity taken to its ultimate height in expert execution. In this case, two tea waiters performed synchronized acrobatics with very long-handled teapots, pouring tea in improbably difficult ways and directions. Sluuuuuuuuurp.

I don't know how many litres of jasmine tea I consumed, but when the curtain came down I made straight for the gents where I put on an inpromptu demonstration of the little-known, but exceedingly satisfying occidental art of kung fu pissing. I haven't included photos.

Liping and Ian: Today we went to the Summer Palace - photos will be uploaded presently - and on the way I chatted - yes chatted - with the taxi driver all the way there. I'm not saying it was the most scintillating conversation the man ever had, but personally I've been treated to worse by Dublin cabbies. So anyone in Cork who wants to learn Chinese, note that you have an excellent local teacher available in Xiong Liping.

Tomorrow we'll check out the Forbidden City before jumping on an overnight train to Xi'an to see the terracotta warriors, and of course, have more tea.

Giangi: I've reduced the exposure. Thanks!
Simon Moore: Now that you know the trip isn't an elaborate hoax, I'd like to see photographic evidence that your new offspring isn't one either...