When Day Becomes Dusk

An ice cream cone sounded like the perfect way to end a hot, hot day in Santiago.

I bought a double cone: mint chip and chocolate. I took it to Plaza de Armas.

I sat on the bench and ate it while people watching.

The sun was setting and the temperature was perfect. I almost made it without a drop of ice cream on my shorts.

Then I went and stood around a couple chess boards in the square.

When Chileans play chess, I can understand everything they say.

A perfect evening.

Chileans Don’t Eat Breakfast or Dinner

Lunch is their big meal.

Breakfast is bread and butter. “Las Onces” is their dinner equivalent and it’s exactly the same as breakfast. Bread and butter and perhaps some cheese.

Naturally, for me, every day begins, “Will I have enough to eat tonight or will I be one of the many people in the world going to bed hungry?”

Forgetting My Briefcase in a Taxi in Cyprus

My last day in Cyprus I committed the worst mistake of my traveling life. I left my briefcase in the taxi as it dropped me off at the airport at 4 AM.

On flying days, I always pack knowing that my suitcase may have to be checked. I never proactively check it, but 1 in 100 times I have to, and if I do and it gets lost, I don’t want my valuables to be lost with it. Therefore I consolidate my most valuable objects (laptop, notebook, Kindle, iPod) in my briefcase.

My last morning in Cyprus, I set my alarm to 3 AM. I had a 5:30 AM flight out of Larnarca which is 40 minutes away from the Hilton in Nicosia. The hotel had reserved a taxi to pick me up at 3:30 AM.

In my half-asleep doze, I rolled out of bed, grabbed my bags, went into the lobby to check-out. The guy working the check-out counter was exceedingly friendly but did not seem to understand that I wanted my United mileage number to be put onto the reservation — you can earn United miles at the Hilton.

I was a bit of a dick to him as I was tired and frustrated he couldn’t get it done. After 10 minutes of discussion, I gave up and went out to the waiting taxi.

The taxi driver took my suitcase and put it in the trunk. I don’t normally like to do this — I prefer it in the backseat with everything else. But this time I put it in the trunk, put my briefcase in the backseat, and my suitcase in the front seat with me.

We started driving. The driver was awfully chatty for 3:30 AM. He asked about San Francisco and America. He asked me lots of questions. I became less and less responsive and tried to close my eyes, hoping to squeeze in another minute or two of sleep. Finally he got the point and stopped talking to me.

We arrived at the airport. I bounced out and put my suit jacket on. The driver went to the trunk and took out my suitcase. The hotel had pre-paid for the taxi. I shook his hand and went on my way. It’s about 4:15 AM.

I went into the terminal and waited for ~25 minutes to check-in. Wait, wait, wait. Finally, I get to the counter, check-in, get my boarding pass, and walk to passport control. There’s a line here, too, but I get through it and arrive at the security check point and x-ray machines. It’s about 4:30 AM. I wait and then begin to put my items on the conveyer belt. An agent says, “Take out your laptop and put it in a bin.” I look around.

HOLY SHIT WHERE IS MY BRIEFCASE WITH LAPTOP, KINDLE, IPOD, IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS, ETC???

A moment of panic struck me. I froze for about two seconds. Then I moved quickly. I’m actually impressed with how swiftly I took action. I jogged back to the passport control area to exit. But they said they had to hold onto my passport if I exited the area. They opened up a side door that I slipped out of and I started running to the check-in counter. I looked around. By this point my gut feeling was I had left the bag in the taxi, but I couldn’t be sure. I looked around. Then I ran outside where the taxi dropped me off. Nothing. I asked the taxi drivers who will milling around outside if they had seen it. They didn’t understand my English.

I walked to the information desk. An extremely understanding woman was working at the desk. She spoke perfect English and vowed to help me. First, she pulled out the hotel directory to find the phone number for the Hilton. Since the hotel reserved the taxi, perhaps it could call the taxi company which could call the specific driver. (Had I hailed the taxi off the street, of course, I would have been screwed.) She called the Hilton and handed the phone to me. The man on the other line had been the same who checked me out. I instantly regretted not being more friendly with him.

He told me he’s call the taxi company. He told me to call back in 5 minutes for an update. I hung up, and then walked to the airline to explain the situation. They told me there was no way I was going to make the flight. It was already 4:45 AM and the flight boards at 5:15 AM. Even if the taxi has my bag and turns around to return to the airport, there wouldn’t be time. I’d miss my flight to London and my connecting flight to San Francisco. I implored them to just alert the gate agents that I would be running late. They said they would, but made no promises.

My mind started racing, thinking through all the implications. Like: Ok, my laptop is lost, what data do I have on there that’s confidential? What data isn’t backed up? How much will it cost to buy a new one and get data recovered? What notes do I have on my notebook that aren’t stored elsewhere? How will I re-schedule my United flight to SF?

I went back to the information desk and called the Hilton. He told me he spoke to the driver, the driver confirmed he still had the bag in the backseat, and had turned around to come back to the airport. It would take 40 minutes. I thanked the Hilton guy profusely and hung up. I then went back to the airline agents and told him the taxi had my bag and would be here in 20 minutes, so I will make the flight. They looked skeptical but said they’d try to wait for me.

I paced around the airport curbside, anxiously waiting for the familiar looking taxi to pull up. In my wallet I had USD $40 and 30 Euros and some coins. I would give the driver all of it. He deserved to be paid the equivalent for a one-way fare back to the airport, plus more. After all, he could steal the bag and make off with ~$3k of electronics.

He pulled up, I grabbed the bag, paid him the cash, and started running. I ran into passport control, grabbed my passport, ran into the security line, cut everyone in line (with their permission), figured the x-ray guy wouldn’t actually be paying attention so didn’t take laptop or toiletries out of my bag, made it to the other side without incident, and then started running (with my shoes off and in my hands) to my gate. They were half-way through boarding.

I was sweating and a nervous wreck. And I had made it. I got lucky. Had I been in another country — one with more crime and more corrupt cabs — my bag would have been gone in a second. Had I hailed a taxi off the street, I would have been toast. Had the timing been a few minute different, I would have missed my flight and connection to SF.

It was a rookie mistake, I got lucky, and I hope never to leave a bag in a taxi again.

Knock-Offs in North Cyprus

North Cyprus has no IP laws. So there are knock offs galore. Two restaurants are particularly amusing examples. One is a restaurant called “Big Mac” which sports the golden arch and identical set-up as McDonald’s. Except it’s not McDonald’s. The second is called “Burger City” — replica of Burger King.

China has plenty of knock-off goods sold on the street, but at least there are laws so companies have some legal recourse if the fraudulence is egregious. In North Cyprus there are not even laws to begin with — so McDonald’s can do nothing but watch an entrepreneur copy every aspect of its store and logo.

Language Learning in Cyprus

Turkish-Cypriots in school study Turkish and for foreign languages usually choose from English and French.

Greek-Cypriots in school study Greek and for foreign languages usually chose from English and a European language.

Remember that the Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots live right next to each other on the island.

Neither government has its public schools teach the language of the other side.

It’s hard to come to a resolution of a dispute when you can’t understand who you’re talking to!

Agia Napa, Cyprus

Agia Napa was described to me as the South Beach of Cyprus. Party central for Europeans, in other words. It was also described to me as home to some of the bluest, most beautiful water in the Med. The first claim is not true, the second very well might be.

We headed out from Nicosia on Friday evening, following a jazz concert at the Embassy. It takes about an hour by car. Nothing on the island takes more than a few hours by car.

Agia Napa is a series of gorgeous beaches, warm water, and plenty of tourist infrastructure hugging the shore.

50% of tourists to Cyprus are British; some 20% are Russian. Agia Napa must be where all the Russians go. We saw more Russians than Brits, and our hotel staff were Russian as well.

It wasn’t crazy party central. Maybe because high season ended 1.5 – 2 months ago. The whole town’s tourists, but most are older or families.

Saturday I spent all day in a lounge chair on the sand on the beach, 20 feet from the water. The weather, as it’s been the whole trip, was simply perfect. McCullough’s Truman biography made an outstanding companion.

Thinking about other international beach experiences, it was more crowded than Costa Rica by far, less crowded than Odessa, Ukraine, and as crowded as Barcelona. And crowding / privacy is one of the main considerations, I think, when beach-going.

It’s worth walking the “strip” in Agia Napa to see the clubs and cafes and endless karoke bars. But the real action — or non-action, as you see it — is the beach. And it’s lovely.

First Experience KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

On my SFO-Amsterdam leg I had my first experience with KLM Royal Dutch airlines, based in Amsterdam.

I was impressed by the professionalism and warmth of the flight staff. Right after we took off, the head flight attendant came and sat with me and asked where I was going, how I was feeling, and gave some info about the flight. Then he asked about my Kindle and I asked him about his flight routes.

During food service, each time as the stewardess put something on my tray/table she said: "There you are." With lots of eye contact and a smile. Quite a lovely phrase.

I'll be back, KLM.

Sports Fandom is the Same the World Over

I went to a soccer game in Beijing (Beijing vs. Chengdu) and my takeaway was simple: sports fandom is sports fandom and intense, crazy fans are all over the world. It’s universal. Nothing felt as global / common as the soccer game experience.

Village Outside Beijing and Spending Two Hours in a Police Station

I took a 2.5 hour bus from Beijing to a village outside the city, aiming for a couple days of relaxation and reading. City life, especially a day as large and hectic as Beijing, can be draining, and a village in the mountains sounded like a nice reprise.

I packed a backpack with a few clothes, some toiletries, a copy of my passport, my Kindle, and a couple old-fasioned books, and set out for the subway which would take me to the bus station on the outer western side of the city. Unfortunately, with no access to a printer (truly unfortunate when you need to print out Chinese characters), I had only the pinyin name of the village.

It was my first time riding the subway alone which means I had to decipher the signs and figure out my route. It was easier than expected, with much additional English signage added in preparation for the Olympics.

I arrived at the subway station, exited, and tried to find the bus stop for bus 192. This proved more challenging. I asked a couple people, got pointed in a direction, and eyed the signs for the 192 stop. Eventually I found it, but I was already pretty tired, and I noticed the sky go from grey-from-smog to grey-about-to-rain, and I considered turning back and abandoning my village trip and just staying in Beijing to read.

At the 192 stop there were lots of taxi hawks and other people hassling me, screaming at me in Chinese, etc. The usual fare. When the bus arrived, I boarded, showed the ticket lady my destination. We tried to communicate. She pointed out of the bus and ahead on the road, as if I were not on the right bus. This confused me — two locals I had asked on the street said 192 in this direction was the right way, as did the online guidebook I consulted. The taxi hawks followed me onto the bus and started screaming “No! No! No!”.

I got off the bus. I walked ahead in the direction the woman pointed, as much to get out of the sight from the touts as much as to find the right bus.

Luckily, up ahead I found another stop, and waited, and a bus came. This time around, the ticket man looked at my destination and told me to come on-board. I gave him my pen and notebook (which I always had at the ready) and he wrote down the fare. 16 RMB. I paid and sat, awaiting the two hour bus ride ahead.

By this time it was already about 5:30 PM and darkness was approaching. Not good, because I was to arrive in a small town, and then find a taxi to take me to the village. Harder to do in the dark.

The ticket man tried to talk to me as we approached my destination — what he was saying, I have no idea, I just prayed he wasn’t trying to tell me the town was sketch or that there were no taxis or something.

I got off in Zhangtaing (sp). By now it was 7 or 7:30 PM and pitch dark. I couldn’t see anything, let alone any taxis who would be able to take me to the village that, while somewhat known, I did not have written down in characters so all bets are off. I decided 10 seconds after arriving in the town that I would go to the village the following day, and stay at a hotel in the town.

It was drizzling rain and there were puddles. I had to badly go to the bathroom, and I was also starving. The first people I bumped into started harassing me, of course — what they said, I have no idea, but it does pretty tiring to always be accosted and sold to.

I walked into a restaurant — their door, like so many restaurant doors, is not a door but rather vertical, cut pieces of plastic that you push open and through. Everyone at the restaurant turned and looked at me and laughed or talked amongst themselves while pointing at me. In small towns, away from a big city, they don’t see many tall, white men.

I made the eating motion with my hands (mime the hand sipping soup with a spoon by my mouth), the “waitress” nodded and told me to sit. A few people stood by my table and watched me. I flipped through the menu, which luckily had pictures, and once again faced the predicament of eating alone at a Chinese restaurant. Since everything is family style, it’s hard to pick dishes for just one person. You usually have go to with dumplings or noodles. Because I was feeling hungry, I ordered two full family style dishes.

After placing the order, I tried to ask how to go to the bathroom. In most parts of the world, saying the world “toilet” does the trick, but not in China. After a good full minute of body language miming, they figured it out, and pointed outside the restaurant, and across the street. That I was not going to do. I did not know whether I should fully trust the restaurant staff, and frankly the darkened shack across the street looked intimidating. So I held on.

I ate the food, paid the $1.50 it cost me, and then wrote the word “hotel?” on my notebook and showed it to them. They did a translation or figured out the word and made a phone call. Then one of the guys led me outside, to the left, and to the front of the police station. At first I hesitated. The last thing I wanted to do was deal with the police, and I thought they had maybe misinterpreted my request for a hotel. Then I remembered that Chinese law says foreigners are supposed to check in at a town wherever they spend the night.

This is where the real clusterfuck began. No one in the police station spoke the slightest bit of English. Not a single word or sound. As usual for China, it was wildly overstaffed, with about eight officers sitting in their chair, doing nothing.

They asked for ID. I first gave them my California iD card. Not, they needed more ID. Then I gave them the copy of my passport. No, they still weren’t satisfied. Then I realized that I was majorly screwed without my real passport. I considered bringing it, but decided against, thinking there was an above-0 chance I just stay the day in the village, and when it’s on my person and I’m robbed, I’m really screwed.

They talked among themselves and tried to communicate to me but failed. I didn’t really know what the hold-up was. One cop called a friend who spoke very broken English, and he got on the phone with me and told me, “They must require you passport.”

This was the problem. They kept thinking I had my passport but wasn’t showing it; in fact, I was trying to tell them I only had a photocopy. We were in a standstill. No one knew what to do.

I finally got the phone and called my contact in Beijing who spoke both languages. She explained my situation to the cop. They went back and forth a bit. Then the cop called his supervisor in Beijing who spoke a bit of English. They agreed I needed to leave the town right away and return to Beijing to be with my passport. “According to Chinese law it is illegal to travel without your passport.”

I got on the phone with the supervisor. We had an exchange, and then he said sternly and weirdly solemnly, “Sir, it is in your best interest to leave the town immediately.” For some reason this kind of freaked me out — I sensed some subtle warning in his voice, like if I didn’t leave the town something was going to happen. Something bad. So I agreed to leave, but how? It was almost 10 PM and Beijing was three hours away by car. The supervisor told me to take a 100 RMB taxi. He then checked with the local cop if there were any taxis…but no. There were none.

So they told me I was to stay the night at a hotel, but leave at 8 AM the next morning. I agreed. They walked me to a hotel. I paid 200 RMB and go on my bed and read.

The next morning was grey and drizzily. I left my hotel at 8:30 AM, wandered around the streets of the town a bit. Nobody was working. Dozens of people standing on the street, doing nothing. Not exactly surprisingly — there are few businesses in the town, other than a hotel or two and a restaurant or two. I’m guessing unemployment in the town is 40% or so.

Then I went to the bus stop, and went back to Beijing. No village, no reading getaway. Just some time in a bus and some time in a police station.

The Scale of China

It’s really, really hard to convey the scale of China. My usual strategy is to talk about the number of cities that have, say, over 10 million people in them, or whatever.

Here’s one fun fact we learned the other day: the best hospitals in China have on average daily outpatient numbers of 10,000 people. 10,000 outpatients every day. The biggest hospital in the world is in China: 5,000 beds.

Also, there are 470 million pigs alive in China right now.