20 August 2017

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2017 Edition) Pt 3

How to Return

It seems much easier to go than to return. Rather, it is easier to go to some place new and different than it is to pack up and return home. At least, in my experience. When it was time for me to return home after I went to Beijing to teach a course at a university, there were enough problems to make a blog post!

Having scoped out the Beijing Capital Airport on my previous trips, I knew where to go, what the best timing was, and how to prepare for the gauntlet. My first trip I went through San Francisco, which meant a noon-ish departure from Beijing. This is actually impossible. Even when my Plan A was to go to a hotel beside the airport to save taxi time. (You can recount that ordeal in this blog post.) My second trip, I went through Chicago, which meant a 4 p.m. departure, which was much better.

This time, I made my way to the big, shiny Hilton Hotel next to Terminal 3 (the international terminal). I'm not a rich person or a celebrity but I like to play one when I'm traveling. Actually, I selected that hotel purely because it is literally the closest hotel to the terminal. So to make my send-off spectacular, after checking in and being treated like royalty, I invited a dear friend to dine with me in a very expensive restaurant on the premises. 

When she finally arrived (subway from the city to the airport, then hotel shuttle from terminal to hotel), we went to the lobby cafe for some tea. I just ordered "Oolong" which is about all the teas I know. The uniformed server brought us a full tea service. We just stared at it, not sure what to do. There was a pair of cups for each of us, one tall narrow cup upside-down in the shorter, wider cup. In the middle of the tray was a small teapot. To the sides were apparatus somewhat familiar. We sipped the tea that had been poured. Still confused, we asked for instruction. Ahhhhh! It all made sense! We continued drinking our tea until we felt hungry. (*See instructions below.)

Dinner was a multi-course extravaganza that mixed Asian and Western foods, plus the right wine to go with each course. First was the bread and salad, then soup, then main course of cod and lamb, then dessert. As delicious and artistically presented as the food was, however, the best part of the dinner was the thoroughly delightful conversation about very important matters, which made the dinner seem to last for years. In a good way, of course.

Alas, finally, it had to end. Strolling about the huge hotel, all the marble walls, floors, and columns echoing every secret, we knew it was time to part. Another summer visit done. It was truly sad - but also a happy evening. It was the perfect way to end my 4-week visit to Beijing and begin my travel home.

After pleasant dreams, I arose as planned and made my way to the VIP lounge for the breakfast buffet. Plenty of time, no rushing. I had packed my suitcase full of laundry already. So I went down to the lobby at the appointed time, carefully measuring everything like a billiard player. Check out, get on the shuttle, arrive at the terminal, go up the elevator, and walk over to the check-in counter of my airline. Piece of cake.

My impeccable timing had me arriving at the counter with no one ahead of me in line. I was between the flights! Mwah-hah-hah! After getting rid of my laundry (in suitcase), I strolled to the first of several choke points in the departure process. First was the gate beyond which only those with boarding passes may go. Then the tram to the outer terminal. And so on. (You can read about the steps required in this blog.)

Due to my perfect timing, everything went according to plan. I even had a spare set of clothes to wear after going through all of the lines and sweating out the clothes I began the day with. No need to wear "used" clothes during a 13 hour flight. Plus 3 hour layover. Plus the 2 hour flight to my home city. I had tried that one set of clothing for the whole 24 hour gamut and those sitting next to me were not pleased.

Boarding the flight, I took the window seat I had chosen, thinking I could lean that way and sleep. Unfortunately, the window well did not match with the seat back, so it made my neck twist at an uncomfortable angle. Not even the soft new neck pillow I got with my last Yuan helped. Then the seatmate arrived. He was scheduled to sit next to me, the middle seat, with a girl on the aisle. She quickly claimed an empty seat in another row and the young man in the middle seat graciously moved to the aisle seat to give us both more room.

Why was more room a good thing? Because from the time this young man boarded, he was sniffling. We had to wait about an hour before we could actually take off into the sky. In that time, he rushed to the lavatory twice, his hand clutching his mouth, a sure sign of oral evacuation. I do not wish to alarm the senses of my readers, so I will allow you to use your imagination. Flight attendants nursed him throughout the flight. I tried not to breathe the same air. He began with chills, shivering, blankets all around but later in the flight had discarded them for what cool cabin air there was to bring down his fever. 

Twelve hours later I was sniffling. My throat felt scratchy. I tried to hold on. Indeed, I made it through the connecting hassles in Chicago and made it all the way home. The next morning I experienced what that young man must have been feeling during the flight. Stomach malady, with chills then fever, and evacuation from both ends. A miserable existence. I doubt I picked up his digestive illness; rather, it was yet another bout of "Mao's revenge" that I had been fighting throughout my visit. 

It is unfortunate that while we cannot choose our parents we also cannot chose our neighbors on an airplane. Nor can we be comfortable with whatever we may eat. That is what makes the world so exciting. Will one need to rush home at a moment's notice? Or will one need to make a pit stop in order to remain polite and decorous? There are maladies a plenty, something for everyone. At least I was not so indisposed for my wonderful send-off evening! Nor for the entirety of my 24 hours of travel back home!

Next: Mao's Revenge

*Instructions for the tea service. The tall, narrow tea cup which was presented upside-down in the short, wide cup is meant to be removed and sniffed. Yes, to enjoy the scent of the tea which has collected inside the tall, narrow cup. Then, when satisfied with the fragrance, the tea leaves are compiled into the holder inside the teapot. Hot water is added. Time will turn the tea leaves and water into "tea". Pour the tea from the teapot into the short, wide cup. (Frankly, the short, wide cup only holds one sip's worth of tea; I use a super-sized mug from the airport gift shop [see photo].) To keep the tea leaves from infusing the hot water too long and creating a bitter taste, the strainer inside the teapot should be removed and set upon the holder (on the left in the photo of the tray above). Continue to drink tea until the teapot is near empty. Because we sat in a tea cafe a hostess visited regularly to refill our teapot with more hot water. It could have been an endless, bottomless teapot but for our need to transition to solid food for the next phase of the evening.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

13 August 2017

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2017 Edition) Pt 2

As many of my dear readers may be aware, I was on vacation last month. That is my story and I'm sticking to it. Actually, I was working - in a sense - so let's call it a working vacation. I traveled to Beijing, China for four weeks to teach a university course. As the class was only twice a week, I had plenty of time to get into trouble.

First, however, I had to get there. That part I had easy. At the early morning hour leaving Oklahoma, the lines were almost zero and the airline employees at the check-in were quite friendly and helpful. One woman, when learning I was headed to Beijing, thought to impress upon me that she was really a Ph.D. candidate studying economics. Her dissertation explored Chinese influence on global economics. We chatted a while on the topic, having plenty of time and nobody behind me in line. It was 4:30 a.m. 

Then the security checkpoint. I whizzed on through, having a kindly countenance and a lingering gait. I saw that my boarding pass had the "VIP" indicator on it. So, feeling like a VIP, I relaxed on my first flight of the day, napping until arrival in Chicago. As a connecting flight, I walked out already in a secure area and so I could continue to relax, even grab a Chicago-style pizza for my lunch. 

As I sat on a bench next to a bank of charging stations to eat my pizza, trying to stay away from the crowds, a woman arrived and sat on the floor beside the chargers to charge her phone. I invited her to sit on the bench instead of the floor. We talked, of course. She appeared to be Chinese so I thought she might be on the same flight with me. No, she was transiting between Syracuse, NY and Denver, Colorado. But she was born in China, so I got that much right. She was a masseuse, she said, so I told about the fabulous massage I had just before my trip, at a "Chinese" massage spa (the style is remarkably different than the standard fare).

On board the Beijing-bound flight, I was in the window seat, chosen so I could lean that way and sleep. I brought my neck pillow just for that purpose. There was still too much of a gap because the seats did not align sleepily with the window. My seat was one of a pair, not a trio, in the first row of the coach cabin. That meant no storage under the seat in front of me. In fact, while everyone else had a video screen in the back of the seat ahead of them, we had some funky metal arm which swung up like a tentacle. With the tray tables also swinging up, it became quite a mess juggling all of the appendages. But we got 'er done, as they say, and I was not too wrung-out by the time we arrived in Beijing. 

Apparently, four airplanes arrived about the same time so the line at immigration was long. They had all the gates open, however, so it was better than previous visits. Then I followed all the usual steps to get to the outside world. In Beijing's Capital Airport, advertised as the largest terminal in the world, you get some exercise. From gate to immigration line was about 3 kilometers. From immigration to the tram is about 1 km. The tram takes you about 3 kms. When you exit the tram, it is time to get your luggage and go through customs inspection. That is about 2 kms. As usual--this has been the case since my first day in public school where I sat at the back of the room alphabetically--my suitcase was the last one coming out of the chute. My ID tag had been unceremoniously ripped off the handle and the little TSA-approved lock had also been removed. 

Then I was going out the doors into the real world! Many family and friends and work colleagues await arrivals there. It makes for a huge crowd, so they have set up barriers to draw out the crowd. The effect is that of being a celebrity walking a runway, perhaps for 1 km, until the barriers end and you can go on out and join the crowd. Having everyone peruse you as you arrive--after a 13 hour flight, clothes ruffled and hair matted, a grim facade greeting them--is rather daunting. Not for the faint-of-heart! And yet the sight of my name on a placard caused a grateful smile to appear on my face. My student assistant was there to greet me and escort me to my home for the month.

My assistant, "Catherine", had it all planned. She led me in as short a route as possible to the taxi cue. She instructed the driver where to go. En route we talked about the class, since she was a student in the class as well as my assistant. We arrived at the same hotel as always, the Yinghua, and she helped me with translation during the check in process. It was late enough in the day and I was hungry so we dropped the bags in my room (324; see the discussion of rooms on my previous blog post) and went out to get some dinner at a sandwich shop. That was Saturday, so I had a lot of time until Monday afternoon when the first class would begin. 

Returning home, however, was a much more disagreeable experience....

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

05 August 2017

How I Ruined My Summer Vacation (2017 Edition)

As many of my dear readers may be aware, I was on vacation last month. That is my story and I'm sticking to it.

Actually, I was working - in a sense - so let's call it a working vacation. I traveled to Beijing, China for four weeks to teach a university course called "Business Writing in American Context" (Chinese translation). My course, like all those taught at the University of International Business and Economics, was taught in English. Students must be fluent enough to be successful in their classes. I went last year, as well. And the year before. Yes, it seems it is becoming a habit.

The Game of Rooms

For our stay, the university puts us up in a Chinese-style hotel across from the campus. The Yinghua Hotel ("Cherry Blossom") is, overall, a comfortable and attractive place, Chinese enough to be interesting to a Western guest. But it has its quirks, I've found in a few stays, quirks which are not necessarily because its Chinese-style. The rooms where I stayed each had twin beds, desk and chair, TV, mini-fridge, Western-style bathroom, and Chinese decor with a good view of the campus across the street.

My first year I stayed in room 424, which had great feng shui. I was able to write in my free time, finishing my novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF, which I had begun months before. I had worried how I was going to write about an Inuit orphan girl in Greenland while in China. But I got 'er done! Packing a map of Greenland and a couple reference books, plus the soundtrack of the movie that will someday be made of this book, I was all set. When I got into the zone, it did not matter where I was physically in the world, I was in Greenland in my head. (Read more about writing in a strange place here.)

Room 424 after I moved in.

Last year, I again was working on a novel, my mighty tome EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS. In fact, I wrote about half of the 233,000 word book during the month, almost ruining my laptop. When I checked in, I was assigned to room 624 but it did not have the right feng shui. Actually, it did not have the right A/C. Fortunately, the next day I was able to move back into room 424 and enjoy my writing venue once again. I came prepared, with half a novel done and a plan to finish it. I hunkered down, often typing 6+ hours a day, and came to the end of the draft before I jetted home. (Read more about writing in strange places here.)

This year was a challenge. First, I had started writing a sequel to EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS, starting with my efforts in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) event in November. Of course, I "won" by writing 50,000 words during that month. In fact, I had 57,000 words picking up the story from where the original book ended. I assumed that would be my summer project in China, as well. Then something weird happened. A chance encounter with dark esoterica, led me to consider a different sequel: a sequel to my 2014 "medically accurate" vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN. Again, a story presented itself and I decided to "play" write to see where it would go.

With about 15,000 words written and part of an outline, I left for a month in Beijing.
View from room 426 (looking southeast)

I did not get room 424, even though I had asked the powers-that-be at the university for it weeks in advance. It is my sweet spot for writing. Instead, I was given room 324. That seemed a step down from 424. In fact, at that level, all I could see was a wall. That was the butt end of the roof which stretched out from the hotel to the street. Above the wall, I could see some clouds and the tops of the taller buildings of the campus. In fact, when I first entered that room, the curtains were open and two men were crouched on that roof (the top of the wall) working on fixing an A/C unit. We waved to each other. I closed the curtains.
View from room 426 (looking east)

Immediately, I knew there would be no good feng shui in this room. Through the translation by my student assistant for this summer's class, who met me at the Beijing Capital Airport and escorted me to the hotel, I asked for another room,. Room 424 was occupied and would be for two weeks. Likely it was another summer teacher enjoying MY feng shui writing room! I fell into a deep depression. But then, thanks to the A/C not working very well, I complained again and was moved to 426 - the room next to 424. Close enough, I thought. I could absorb the 424 feng shui by osmosis, by sleeping with my head against the wall of 424. 
View from room 426 (looking northeast)

Well, 426 had good feng shui but the A/C was barely working. Even on the coldest setting I was down to undies and sweat.

Happy to be able to write, I tried to stick it out. 

Then one morning, after only a week, I was awakened by the steady drip-drip-drip sound of something leaking. The A/C unit was leaking! Water was coming down from the ceiling and making a puddle in the carpet. And as I waited until business hours to notify the appropriate personnel, the leak increased. I put down a cup, then another cup, to catch the drip. As I waited, I showered and got ready for the day, ready to tell the hotel people about the leak. I also packed up my belongings because I knew I could not stay in that room. At the least, they would be working on the problem in the room while I had to be away to teach my class.

Two men came to check on the leak. The water was coming down through a speaker (for the doorbell, I think), and so presented an electrical danger. As expected, a hotel supervisor escorted me to see a different room for my approval. I approved. So we moved my belongings to room 516. Once everything was settled, I went to my class as usual. After class, I grabbed dinner. Then I returned from the campus to the delight of my new room, where the A/C worked properly and the feng shui seemed adequate for my writing.
View from room 516 (looking left)

Room 516, where I would remain for the rest of my stay in Beijing, was slightly larger than the others. It also faced south. Rooms 424, 426, and 326 all faced east so the morning sun would awaken me and warm the room mercilessly even with the heavy curtains drawn. This 516 room was very nice. The view was of the side of the restaurant next door (FYI, I ate there last summer and this summer; excellent food and sumptuous decor inside), with all of its ventilation system on the outside, but I could still glance to the east and west from the window and know the city still existed. I could check the weather, see who came and went from the restaurant, and on weekends enjoy the soulful stylings of the karaoke parlor below.

View from room 516 
So I worked on the sequel to A DRY PATCH OF SKIN in earnest in room 516. With my class in the afternoon this year, I would get up early and type away, listening to my soundtrack, until the housekeeper knocked on the door. At check-in, I requested no housekeeper before 10 am, since I would be working in my room. So when she knocked at 10:03 (give or take a minute), I would let her in. She would see me typing and know I was not just some lazy slob who sleeps late; I was working. Just 10 minutes of straightening the room and bye-bye. Then back to writing. 

In all, I brought 72,000 words home with me at the end of the month. I completed two of the three acts, so room 516 had some decent feng shui - despite the almost constant annoyance of the chattering housekeepers in their office / hang-out room just steps away from room 516. 

Next: Arriving & Departing

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.