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Thursday, March 2, 2006

I noticed that I put a place holder in the blog for Thursday, March 2.  However, I now realize that nothing is going to happen that day.  I am leaving from O’hare at noon on Thursday, but since I’ll be crossing the International Date Line, I won’t arrive in Beijing until 3:30 pm on Friday.  So this is going to be a very anti-climactic start to my blog. 

The morning has been uneventful.  Mike and I ate breakfast at Steak n Shake, and then he dropped me off at O’hare.  I got in the line for United International check-in, but when I finally got the front of the line, they told me that I had to check in at Domestic because I had an e-ticket.  So I waited in that line for awhile.  I needed the person checking me in to look up my frequent flyer number, because I didn’t know it.  This caused a problem because she was looking at my passport and it has my maiden name on it.  It took me awhile to get her to understand that my frequent flyer number was under a different name.  But finally, it was all checked in.  I was very happy to see that I have an aisle seat.  I’d prefer the window, but aisle is better than the middle of the 4 seats in the center of the 747.  There was no line at security, and I did not get searched.

At the gate, I discovered that O’hare has wifi, but it costs $7.  Since I only had an hour before boarding, I decided $7 wasn’t worth it.  

The flight was completely full – every seat on the 747 was occupied.  It was very hard to sleep because people were talking and walking around throughout the flight.  Even with ear plugs, it was too loud to sleep.  The woman in front of me was constantly shifting in her seat, causing her seatback to smash into my knees.  There was always a line for the bathroom.  In general, it was pretty miserable.  At least it was smooth.  It barely felt like we were moving at all.

The sun did not set throughout the 14-hour flight.  The cabin was dimmed in an effort to trick us into thinking it was night, but it didn’t work.   I thought it was strange that the sun never set.  I had thought that in the winter, it was always dark at the Arctic Circle.  Apparently not.  It was bright and sunny for 14 consecutive hours.  We flew over a lot of snowy wastelands - tundra and mountains that were so white that at first I wasn't sure if it were clouds or snow.  And then the mountains turned brown, and then we started to see signs of civilization.

All in all, the 14-hour flight was not nearly as bad as I had thought it would be.  We arrived in Beijing on schedule, breezed through immigration and customs, and met up with our tour guide Leon.

Friday, March 3, 2006

Once we arrived in Beijing, our tour guide, Leon, whisked us into a chartered bus and we were on the way to the hotel.  Leon is Chinese, but he must have been educated in England.  He has a bit of a British accent, and told us to “queue up to get onto the lift” to get us to the right level in the airport.

 As we drove through the congested streets of Beijing, Leon gave us a little tour and an introduction to the city.  The number of people living in Beijing is huge, and obviously overcrowding is a problem.  The government is preventing the construction of more high rises, in an attempt to cut the population density in the city. 

 Bicycles and rickshaws are everywhere, since it’s so hard to get around by car.  Leon warned us that traffic laws in Beijing are much different from what we are used to in the States.  In China, traffic signals are merely a “suggestion.”  He warned us not to assume that it was safe to cross on a green light.  “If other people are crossing, you cross.  If no one else moves, you don’t move,” he advised.

 Our hotel is beautiful – five star all the way.  When we arrived, tea and snacks were prepared for us in the Executive Lounge on the tenth floor.  We have unlimited access to the lounge, including daily happy hours with food and drink, as well as free use of the business center’s computers, fax, copy machine, and wifi access.  Nice!

 After we got settled, we ventured out to see the city.  Our hotel is located in the heart of Beijing.  It’s a very clean, safe area.  The streets are so clean you could practically eat off of them.  There is a cop on almost any corner – the slightly military-looking kind of cop that carries a semi-automatic weapon.

 The area of the city around our hotel reminds me a little of New Orleans and a little of Las Vegas.  Since it was Friday night, there were throngs of people walking the street.  There were lots of little souvenir-type shops and restaurants.  There were also high-end retailers:  Lancome, Rolex, and little boutique stores I hadn’t heard of.  And of course, the ubiquitous KFC.  There is a KFC every few blocks in this town.  The Chinese are obsessed with KFC.

 We stumbled upon a little area of street vendors, selling everything from food to souvenirs.  All of the food was in stick form.  We saw chicken on a stick, corn on the cob on a stick, squid on a stick.  One unique vendor was selling fruit on a stick that had been coated in a crunchy sugary candy shell.  Those were pretty good.  We also saw one guy selling scorpions on a stick.  The scorpions were still alive and wriggling, though they had been impaled with the wooden skewer.  I did not stick around to find out if they were going to be cooked before someone ate them.

 As we walked through the narrow street lined with vendors, the sellers (mostly women) called out to us, “Hey, lady, lookie lookie!  Lookie what I have!”  And then she’d thrust some trinket under our noses.  This got to be a little annoying, since I didn’t think we were planning to buy anything.  However, Mitesh became enamored with a fake Rolex.  Of course, the woman selling it claimed it was real.  She wanted 750 RMB for it.  Mitesh talked her down to 60 RMB – about $8.  Yep, Mitesh got a “real” Rolex for $8! 

We ended up back at the hotel around 9 pm, which is 7 am Chicago time.  So I have now been up since 7 am the previous day.  Hopefully I’ll sleep tonight and be adjusted to Beijing time when I wake up tomorrow!

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Today was my first full day in Beijing.

 Phil and Erica had warned us that we would probably wake up at 2 am and not be able to get back to sleep.  I did not think that there was any chance of this happening.  I managed to stay up until about 10:30 pm, but then I crashed hard.  When I finally went to bed, I felt like I could sleep for about 12 hours straight.

 But sure enough, I was wide awake promptly at 2 am.  I told myself that this was not acceptable and that I’d have to go back to sleep.  I was marginally successful.  I managed to sleep off and on until about 6 am.  At that point, Margaret and I both decided to get up.  We took our time getting ready, and headed down to breakfast at 7 am.

 Breakfast was amazing.  The free breakfast buffet here is a far cry from the continental breakfast you get at most hotels in the States.  The buffet was full of every kind of breakfast food imaginable:  donuts, pastries, bagels, bread, pancakes, French toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, fruit, and tons of Chinese food that I didn’t recognize.  Everything was wonderful.  I’m usually not a big breakfast person, but I stuffed myself.  When I was about half way through my first plate of food, someone discovered that there was a made-to-order omelet station in the corner.  That’s what I’ll be having tomorrow!

 Leon showed up about halfway through breakfast, and herded us all down to the bus around 8:30.   We had a 20 minute drive to Tiananmen Square.  On the bus, Leon warned us about the Hello People.  The Hello People are at every tourist attraction in Beijing.  They greet you as you exit the bus, saying “hello, hello, want to buy a…” They are peddling everything from post cards to silk scarves to fake Rolexes.  They speak surprisingly good English.  Leon warned us to be careful when buying from them.  There are good deals to be had if you are willing to haggle, but you can just as easily be ripped off.  And it’s not unheard of to receive fake money as change.  We were told to use small bills and keep track of our money.

 Leon expected Tiananmen Square to be full of tourist groups like ours.  Most tour guides carry a sign with a flag on it, so that their groups can find them easily.  Leon had forgotten our Lake Forest sign, so he tied a little Santa Claus penguin stuffed animal to the end of his flag pole.  We would be following the penguin all day.  He also told us that if we got lost and couldn’t find the penguin, we could approach any English-speaking tour guide, and they would help us.  As we exited the bus, he also handed each of us a business card.  On it was written, in both English and Chinese, “Please take me to the Tianlun Dynasty Hotel,” and then the address of the hotel.  We could give this to a cab driver if we ever became lost.

 In front of the entrance to Tiananmen Square was a huge picture of Chairman Mao, and we all stopped to take pictures in front of it.  The area was incredibly crowded – filled with tourist groups like ours.  A bunch of military-looking police men kept shooing us along, yelling in Chinese.  “I wonder what they’re saying,” said Frank.  “Probably something like, “Stupid American tourists!  Keep moving or I will shoot you!”’ I replied.

 While waiting in line to enter the square, we were approached by a lot of beggars.  Most of them were missing limbs, or parts of limbs, like Thalidomide victims.  Phil kept us away from them as much as possible.  Any time one got too close, I would feel a strong arm around my shoulders, gently leading me away.

 Tiananmen Square is just a large open area, paved with bricks, surrounded by pagoda-type buildings.  You have probably seen dozens of pictures of it.  If you’re like most Americans, only one thing comes to your mind when you hear the words Tiananmen Square.  However, the Chinese are prohibited from discussing the massacre, so I wasn’t surprised that Leon didn’t mention it.  We did not linger in the square.  He rushed us through the palace doors and into the Forbidden City.

 The Forbidden City was the palace of several of the Chinese emperors.  It is so huge that they call it a city.  Historically, it was forbidden to all commoners, with the exception of the palace servants, of course.  The only man allowed in the palace was the Emperor himself.  He was served by women, children, and unics.  This was so that if ever a baby was born in the palace, it would be certain to be the Emperor’s.  Even the Emperor’s sons were required to leave the palace when they started puberty.

 If a male baby was born to a concubine or even a palace maid, the woman would be elevated to a much higher status.  Her son would be a prince, and would have the chance to become Emperor himself one day.  It was not a given that the oldest son would become Emperor.  Typically, the Emperor had dozens of sons (all with different mothers).  He would watch all of his sons grow up, and decide which one was smartest and best-suited to becoming Emperor.

 The palace is absolutely huge – truly a city unto itself.  It’s mind-boggling that it was built for just one person – especially when you know that in the time of the Chinese Emperors, most other people in China were starving to death.

 The last Chinese Emperor, Puyi, started his reign when he was only a baby.  His tutor was an Englishman, so Puyi brought many Western ideas to China.  He was de-throned in the 1920’s when the Communists took power.  I guess the Forbidden City became a tourist attraction at that point.

 Walking through the entire Forbidden City took a couple of hours.  All along the way, Leon told us the stories of its history, and gave us time for taking pictures.  That encompassed the Chinese history lesson for the morning.  I also got a lesson in Chinese culture, which was a bit more practical than the history side.

 In China, you will find two types of toilets.  One is the regular toilet that we are all used to seeing, called the “Western-style toilet” in China.  (We have the Western-style toilets in our hotel.)  The other kind is affectionately referred to as the “squatty potty.”  The squatty potty is like a narrow, oblong toilet bowl set directly into the floor, so that the rim of the bowl is about flush with the floor.  Therefore, you can’t sit on it – you have to squat over it, hence the name.  Apparently, these are the more common types of toilets throughout the world, except for Europe and North America.  Most of the public restrooms we visited (including my first Chinese public restroom at the Forbidden City) have about 10 stalls containing squatty potties, and one or two stalls with Western-style toilets (if you’re lucky – many only have the squatty potties).  As you can imagine, there is usually quite a long line for the Western-style toilets at these touristy places.

When we entered the public restroom at the Forbidden City, the maid working there directed us to the Western-style stalls, and we all lined up to wait.  Meanwhile, several Chinese women came in and quickly bypassed the line for the squatty potties.  Margaret and I glanced at each other and quickly agreed that we were not going to spend this entire trip waiting in line for the restroom, and made a beeline for the squatty potties.  They are really more hygienic, anyway – most public restrooms are not the cleanest, and your bottom never touches anything with the squatty potty.  By the second day of the trip, most of the younger women in our group were willing to use the squatty potties.  The older women weren’t willing to do it.  I’m not sure if this is because they are squeamish about trying something different, or because they are not sure that they trust their thigh muscles to get them back up!

We exited the Forbidden City from the opposite side from which we’d entered, and the bus picked us up there.  We went to a small Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The food was quite good, but I wasn’t very hungry, since I’d stuffed myself at breakfast.

After lunch, the bus took us to the Hutong district.  Hutong literally means “alley.”  Back  in the days of the Emperors, the area around the Forbidden City was a walled city.  It was made up of one-story houses with narrow, winding, twisting streets and alleys between them, which why it is called Hutong.  This area is also called Old Beijing City.  Most of these houses still exist today, although most have been greatly modified and remodeled. 

The bus dropped us off in a narrow street lined with small shops, restaurants, and bars.  In front of the shops were parked dozens of rickshaws.  Beijing rickshaws are like great big tricycles, with one seat up front for the driver and two seats in back for the passenger.  We all paired up and were assigned rickshaws, and we set off for our tour of the Hutong.

The transportation through the Hutong was somewhat nerve-wrecking.  The rickshaw drivers peddled us through the narrow, twisting alleys at break-neck speed – but somehow managed to avoid all the pot holes and speed bumps.  The alleys in the Hutong are too narrow for two cars to pass – really, they are even too narrow for one car, in my opinion.  But that doesn’t stop cars from driving through them!  And of course there were dozens and dozens of bicyclers to avoid as well.  It was scary, but also fun.  The temperature had warmed into the mid-60s, and it was sunny.  It was a beautiful day for a rickshaw ride. 

The buildings we passed mostly looked run down.  However, the streets were clean and full of well-dressed people.  We passed many restaurants, stores, and bars.  Really more bars than anything else.  I assumed that the buildings that didn’t have any signs on the front must be houses, but they didn’t look like any houses I’d ever seen.

We screeched to a stop in front of one such building, and were told to exit our rickshaws.  We were going to get a tour of a local Hutong home.  An English-speaking guide (not Leon) led us through a gate and into a small courtyard.  The courtyard was paved in brick, and surrounded on all four sides by rundown buildings made of grey wood and stone.  A small, squat building made of red brick was in the center of the courtyard.  There were several doors into the buildings.  The one nearest to us had a small area fenced off around it with scrap plywood.  Two small dogs wandered about in this makeshift pen.  Several of the doors had plywood overhangs above them, creating a kind of roofed patio area.  Under the roofs were tables and chairs and bikes and toys and all kinds of other items. 

Our guide explained to us that hundreds of years ago, when the Hutong was built, each courtyard and the buildings surrounding it was owned by a wealthy Beijing family.  Each of the buildings on the fours sides of the courtyard was an individual house.  In the largest house lived the parents.  In the other houses lived their sons and daughter-in-laws and grandchildren.  Only the largest house had a kitchen.

Today, about 90% of the Hutong is owned by the government.  Families with at least one member working for the government have the opportunity to rent one of these houses.  This is substantially cheaper than renting a privately-owned house.  Actually, there are not many privately owned houses in Beijing.  If you do not have the option of living in a government space (or don’t want to), the most available private option is a modern high-rise.  (The government also owns high-rises for employees who prefer the high-rise life to the Hutong life.  However, the government high-rises are generally pretty lousy compared to the more expensive privately owned high rises.)

In the houses surrounding the courtyard in which we were now standing lived 9 separate, unrelated families – a total of about 40 people.  The original 4 houses had been carved up into 9.  This is a very typical situation in the Hutong.  There was not room to put a private kitchen in all of the houses, so the small brick building had been constructed in the center of the courtyard.  This building contained kitchens for the houses that were too small to have their own.  However, this building was in no way connected to the others.  The users of these kitchens had to walk outside to get to them. 

 Each of the houses had the option of installing a private bathroom.  Not all of the families wanted to give up the space for that.  Therefore, there was also a public bathroom in the kitchen building – again, not connected to any of the houses.

 We were led through one of the doors and into a house.  We were introduced to the lady of the house, Madam Song.  Madam Song did not speak English, but we were encouraged to ask her any questions while our guide interpreted.  We learned that Madam Song lived here with her husband, her mother and father in-law, and her 10-year-old daughter.  Her husband worked for the Aviation Ministry, as did at least one member of each family in this Hutong house cluster.  The entire cluster was owned by the Aviation Ministry.  Madam Song used to work for a private company, but she was able to retire because she made more money by allowing the tour company to drag groups of tourists through her home every day.

 We were given a brief tour of the house.  The living room was small by our standards, but was nicely furnished and had a large Sony TV.  The dining room table was also in this room.  Besides the front door, there was only one other door in the room, and this led to a bedroom.  The bedroom was tiny, and contained a twin bed, a sofa, and a dresser.  Another large Sony TV was perched on the dresser.  There were two other doors in this room.  I stuck my head in one of them, and saw a squatty potty, a table, and a floor drain with a shower massager affixed several feet above it.  Apparently, this was Madam Song’s private bath.

 The other door led into the other bedroom.  It was slightly bigger than the first bedroom, and also contained a twin bed, a sofa, and a dresser.  A door in this room led to the tiny kitchen – barely bigger than a closet – which contained a dorm room-sized fridge, a sink, and a two-burner stove.

 And that was it.  That was the whole house, in which 4 adults and one pre-teen lived.  Madam Song was very proud of her home, and much preferred it to living in a high-rise, since the government high-rises are not so nice.  She felt very fortunate to be living there.

Seeing people living like that really makes you realize that it is possible to live very happily with a lot less than what we have.  We complain when the internet connection is low, and we don’t think we’d survive without TIVO, but guess what?  You really need so much less than that.

 One of the girls in my class had an interesting observation.  If Paris Hilton had taken that same rickshaw tour, and then immediately afterwards taken a tour of our neighborhood in suburban Chicago, would she be able to tell the difference between the two?  About half the class thought that she would not.  She is so far removed from real life that all our everyday experiences and surroundings would blend together and look the same to her.  I’m not sure I agree with that.  I think the way we live is a bit closer to the Paris Hilton lifestyle than it is to the Hutong, but I could be wrong. 

 After the stop at Madam Song’s house, the rickshaws took us to the Price Garden.  This was Emperor Puyi’s playground when he was a child.  It’s a very pretty park full of sculptures and weird twisted, knotty trees.  It looks like something right out of Dr. Seuss.

 Our final stop was the Beijing Bell Tower.  One of the Emperor’s constructed two huge towers in the end of Old Beijing City.   One contained huge drums and one contained a huge bell.  The drum and the bell marked each hour of the day in ancient times.  To reach the top of the bell tower, you must climb 75 extremely steep, narrow stairs.  The climb isn’t too bad, but coming back down is a bit scary.  From the top of the bell tower, the panoramic view of Beijing is breathtaking.  The bell tower is the southernmost structure built by the ancient emperors on the meridian line.  The meridian line is a north-south street that ran through the center of Old Beijing.  It was considered lucky to live on this line (feng shui thing).  The bell tower is the southernmost point, then the drum tower, then Tianenmen Square, and finally the Forbidden City and the emperor’s palace.  And now the Olympic Village for 2008 is be constructed on the meridian line, extending the line north of the Forbidden City.

 After decending the bell tower, we stopped in the tea shop at the base to learn about the traditional Chinese tea ceremony.  We were all seated at a long table, and a friendly English-speaking young lady taught us about the ceremony.  She was very funny and entertaining.  We were each given a small square china tray holding two tiny tea cups.  One cup was wide and low, and the other was tall and narrow.  Our host told us about all the different types of tea that are available in China, and explained how some of them were infused with fruit juice or herbs.  Then she brewed some tea in a small pot and poured some into our tall, narrow tea cups.  We were shown how to invert the wide cup over the top of the narrow cup, and then flip the whole thing over so that the tea ended up in the wide cup.  Then you rub the inverted tall cup around the rim of the wide cup 3 times.  Then roll the tall cup between your hands several times, and then smell it.  It smells strongly of whatever type of tea you are drinking.  Then you pick up the wide cup using three fingers, and drink the tea in three sips.

 Following the tea ceremony, we returned to the hotel.  On the bus, Leon asked if anyone wanted to get a massage that night.  He could arrange for a girl to come to our rooms and give 1.5 hour reflexology massages for 160 Yuan, which is about $20.  A 90 minute massage for $20…amazing!  I signed up.

That evening, Margaret went out to dinner with a friend of hers who lives in Beijing.  After she left, I went to the hotel fitness center and had a good workout.  Then I took a shower and went to the Executive Lounge for Happy Hour.  Everyone staying on the executive floor got two free drinks during the Happy Hour.  I had one beer with some of my classmates before it was time to go back to my room and wait for the massage girl.  I returned to my room and put on my pj’s.

 The massage girl was running a bit late.  She looked extremely young.  I assume that she must have been at least 16 or 18, but she really looked about 12.  She had me lay on my bed with my head at the foot on my back.  She started out with scalp massage, and then moved on to my neck, back, arms, and legs.  This was not like any massage that I have ever gotten at home.  The massages I have gotten in the States have all been slow, kneading, relaxing massages.  The Chinese massage was not exactly relaxing.  She attacked me with vigor, and there was no way I could have fallen asleep or even really relaxed completely.  But it felt wonderful.  Even when I get deep tissue massages at home, I never feel like they really get deep enough into my muscles.  This girl did.  She poked and prodded and moved my joints around.  I wore my pj’s the whole time, and she did not use any kind of oil.

After she finished with my legs, she disappeared into the bathroom.  I had no idea what she was doing, but soon I heard the bathtub running.  “What the heck?” I thought, “Is she going to bathe me?  Weirder and weirder.”

 I walked into the bathroom and saw that she had brewed a bathtub full of hot tea.  She had me roll up the legs of my pj’s and sit on the edge of the tub to soak my feet in the tea.  While my feet were soaking, she massaged my scalp and neck.  Then she rubbed my feet and lower legs with the tea bag. 

 She had me step out of the tub onto a waiting towel, and she dried my legs and feet.  Then she had me come back to bed, with my feet at the foot this time.  And then she went to work on my feet.  Wonderful!  I’ve never had a foot massage before, and it was fantastic.

 When the massage was finished, I paid her and she left.  I felt amazing.  Although I wouldn’t have described the massage as relaxing while it was in progress, every muscle in my body was completely relaxed afterwards.  I felt totally content.

 I got dressed and met some people from the class for dinner.  We walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant that Leon had recommended.  I got a big plate of noodles and veggies for about $3.  Tsing Tao beer was served in 22 ounce bottles for 12 Yuan – about $1.50.

After dinner, I went to bed, still feeling totally relaxed and content.

I need to mention something here that doesn’t really fit into any particular day.  There is a guy in my class, Dave, who is really overweight.  I mean, REALLY overweight.  He’s shorter than I am, and probably weighs over 300 pounds.  He does not carry the weight well.  It’s all focused in his belly.  He does not move easily, and always looks uncomfortable.

 There really aren’t any fat people in China.  Everyone you see on the street is thin, and almost everyone is beautiful as well.  It’s like walking through a Japanese Anime cartoon.  We are something of a spectacle, since we are not Chinese, but Dave is even more of an oddity because of his weight.  People treat him as a kind of a freak show.  They stare and point.  They walk up to him on the street and rub his belly.  (It probably doesn’t help that there are statues of fat Buddha everywhere, and rubbing Buddha’s belly is good luck.)  

 Dave was put alone in a rickshaw for our Hutong tour, so as not to overtax the driver.  Apparently, the driver was a bit overexerted anyway, because he tried to ditch Dave.  As we were all boarding our rickshaws after one of the stops, his driver just took off without him.  We all had to wait while the driver was retrieved.  At the time, I didn’t know what we were waiting for.  We were a huge group, and Margaret and I were in one of the first rickshaws.  Dave’s rickshaw was at the end.  Dave told this story over dinner.

 I do feel bad for Dave.  I hate being the center of attention for a negative reason.  But on the other hand, he should have known what he was getting himself into when he came to China.  I knew that a group of American tourists would be a spectacle, and I also knew that there weren’t a lot of overweight people in China.  He should have known that this would happen, but he complains about it a lot.

 I think having Dave in our group really personifies what most of the rest of the world thinks about Americans:  fat, slow, lazy.

Sunday, March 5, 2006

I got my omelet for breakfast, and ate too much again.  After breakfast, we piled into the bus and headed out to a jade factory.  Jade is a natural resource of China, and is used to carve all kinds of figurines and jewelry.  The factor had some very cool stuff on display.  Near the entrance were two huge jade ships.  Each was about 3 feet long, and had been carved out of a single piece of jade.  The detail was amazing.  Masts and sails and portholes, but the coolest thing was the chains.  Linked chains had been carved out of that single piece of jade.

We were shown an assembly line of people working on various stages of the jade carving and polishing process.  We learned about all the different kinds of jade.  Green jade is the most common, but white and red jade are the most valuable. 

Of course, the factory had a huge gift shop.  I was extremely overpriced, and I didn’t buy anything.

After the stop at the jade factory, we headed to the Great Wall of China.  It took about an hour to get there.  We passed miles and miles of city, which all looked very similar.  Huge high-rise apartment complexes stretched as far as the eye could see.  And suddenly we were in open country.  There was no suburban-type area.  The city just ended and the country began. 

The terrain became more and more mountainous.  It probably would have been very pretty in spring, but since it was March, everything was dead and brown.  Leon pointed out the sites and gave us some history of the Great Wall as we drove. 

We passed the Trans Siberian Rail Road, which will take you from Beijing to Moscow in about a week. 

The Great Wall was originally built thousands of years ago to keep invaders out of China.  It fell into disrepair, and was built again in the 1500s.  It is long enough to circle the globe if it were stretched out into a straight line.  It is not true that you can see the Great Wall from space.  It is an urban legend that it is the only man made structure visible from orbit.  You can read the de-bunking on Snopes.  The great wall is no wider than a standard interstate highway, and you can’t see highways from space.  It just doesn’t make any sense that you could see the Great Wall.

We finally arrived at the Great Wall of China at Badaling.  We were greeted by throngs of Hello People as we left the bus.  It was very cold.  The sun was shining, but it was terribly windy up in the mountains.  

From the parking lot, we headed up a steep cobblestone street.  There were shops and restaurants on both sides.  At the top of the hill was the Great Wall itself.  It looks just like all the pictures you’ve seen.  It goes on forever and ever, up and down through the mountains.

After a group picture, Leon told us to go explore the Wall and regroup in 2 hours.  Walking on the Wall is extremely difficult.  It’s very steep, and there are loose bricks everywhere.  Some of the steeper places have handrails, but they were built for Chinese people, not for 6-foot tall Americans.  It was very hard for me to use the handrails because I had to bend over to reach them. 

We walked from the entrance up to the first of many towers.  The climb was difficult, and I could tell that it was going to be more precarious going back down.  When we got to the first tower, I decided that I wasn’t going on any further.  I am very clumsy and accident-prone to begin with, and this just didn’t seem like a safe activity for me.  Three other people in our group had the same thought.  We walked back down to the shops and restaurants.  We browsed in the shops for awhile.  The weather warmed up a bit, and we sat in a beer garden out of the wind to wait for the others.

The Great Wall of China is supposed to be one of the wonders of the world.  It is breathtakingly beautiful up in the mountains.  However, it’s not something you’d want to spend your whole day looking at.  The wall goes on as far as you can see, and it’s all pretty much the same. 

 Later, after we were back at the hotel, I read in my Beijing guidebook that that area of the Great Wall at Badaling was actually constructed in the 1950’s.  The original Great Wall was not made of brick or stone.  It was made of tamped earth with wooden supports.  It didn’t even serve its function of keeping invaders out of China.  Most of it was largely unguarded, and the guards were easily bribed anyway.

 The Great Wall was mostly forgotten in history, until someone had the bright idea to turn it into a tourist attraction about 50 years ago.  The section at Badaling was rebuilt with bricks and stone, and the towers you’re used to seeing were added.  So the whole thing is less than authentic.

 The drive back down from the Wall was not so fun.  The roads were very twisty, and the bus driver took them at breakneck speeds.  I was feeling very carsick.  I didn’t want to take Dramamine, because I kept thinking that surely we must be almost to the bottom.  But it went on and on and on.  I really thought I was going to be sick by the time we finally arrived at our destination.  As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.  Just about everyone on the bus was looking a little green.

 Our next stop was a Cloisonné factory.  You have all seen Cloisonne before, although you probably didn’t know what it was called (I didn’t).  Cloisonne vases, knick-knacks and jewelry are brightly colored, with a kind of mosaic patterned.  Copper wire divides each colored section.  Cloisonne is made of brass.  First, the brass shape is formed.  Then the design is painted onto it.  Next, copper wire is painstakingly laid along the lines of the design.  The whole thing is then fired in a 1000 degree oven so that the copper wire becomes permanently attached.  Then the piece is painted and glazed.

 It was interesting to walk through the factory and see all of these steps.  They had quite the little sweat shop going there.  The store attached to the factory was huge, and they had a lot of really cute pieces.  Very expensive.

 For lunch, we went to a small Chinese restaurant.  No one was very hungry, due to the carsickness.  One of the girls on the trip, Kris, is starting to drive me nuts.  Maybe it was because I was sick and cranky anyway, but she really started to get under my skin at lunch.  Kris is a typical sorority girl.  She’s about 30 years old and lives by herself in the city.  She complains about everything.  We haven’t done a single thing on the trip that she enjoyed.  It seems like she wants everything to be exactly as it is at home.  I am starting to wonder why she came on this trip. 

 Kris has a really annoying way of talking to Chinese people.  She speaks quickly and is not careful about choosing simple words.  If the person doesn’t understand, she repeats the same thing again, but louder.  They’re not deaf; if you just speak slowly and use simple words, they will usually understand.  If someone is having trouble with what I’m saying, I try to say it again using slightly different words.  All Chinese people under the age of about 50 have taken 6 years of English, but most haven’t practiced it since grade school.  If you’re patient with them, they will get it.  I haven’t had much trouble making myself understood.  Yelling at them is not the answer. 

 After lunch we went back to the hotel to relax, shop, and eat dinner on our own.  After dinner, Margaret and I both got massages.  Two girls came to our room and did the massages simultaneously.  The seemed to be a bit older than the girl I had the first time.  They had us both sit on the edge of the bathtub and soak our feet in tea together.  There is a mirror on the wall behind the bathtub, so we were sitting there looking at ourselves the whole time.  This was just too much for Margaret, and she got the giggles.  She laughed so hard that her girl had to stop the massage and wait for her to regain control.   Margaret is one of those people who is just constantly giggling, especially when it’s inappropriate. 

Monday, March 6, 2006

Monday morning started off with our first company visit.  Since technically we are supposed to be learning about doing business in China, and not just taking a vacation, the school set up visits to several different companies.

After breakfast, we boarded the bus and drove to Beijing Bama.  Bama is an American company based out of Tulsa.  Their main product is the apple pies for McDonald’s.  When McD’s moved into China, they asked Bama to come with them.  This was a really good idea for McD.  They wanted to be able to maintain the same quality of food at all of their restaurants all over the world.  Importing from their reputable, hand-picked suppliers in the US was too expensive.  They needed everything to be produced locally.  For some items, McD found local suppliers.  For other things, they asked the suppliers to set up locations around the world. 

On the way to Bama, we passed miles and miles of high-rises; all government housing complexes.  The Bama building was located in front of a very new housing complex.  It was obviously privately owned.  It looked like a townhouse development right out of the American suburbs.  There was even a flashy billboard in front of it, advertising that there were still units available.  I did not ever see anything like this anywhere else in Beijing.

Bama was located in a small, free-standing building.  We were led into a conference room by a Chinese woman who spoke perfect English.  After we were seated, a tall, curly-haired American man of about 50 years old walked in and greeted us.  He was Bernie Sheridan, the General Manager of Beijing Bama.  (Genreal Manager is the same thing as a CEO in China.) 

Bernie had been living in China for about 17 years.  He spoke fluent Mandarin.  He used to work for McDonald’s in China.  McD wanted to send him back to the US, but he didn’t want to go.  He offered to help get Bama up and running in Beijing.  Bernie was out-going and charismatic, and obviously loved his job, his employees, and China in general.

Beijing Bama was founded about 6 years ago.  About $12 million US had been invested in building the factory – and it would have cost three times that much to build a similar facility in the US.  When the plant first opened, they had only one pie line.  They have since added an additional line. 

At first, Bama made only apple pies.  Apple pies were not a big seller in China.  It’s just not something that the Chinese people are used to.  McD did some market research and recommended some other flavors for Bama.  Today, their biggest seller is taro pie.  Taro root is kind of similar to a sweet potato, but it’s purple.  Their second-biggest seller is pineapple.  They also sell chicken, tuna, and several other flavors of fruit pies.  I sampled the pineapple, and it was very good.  I am assuming that the meat pies are not sweet – they are probably more like a pot pie or a Hot Pocket.  The pies sold in China are still deep-fried, unlike the ones in the US, which are now baked.

Bama now sells products to companies other than McD.  They make pocket-type pies for several companies in China.  They also have a line of baked goods such as cakes and breads.  The cake and bread business is still very small.  All of those items are still made by hand in a giant kitchen. 

Bernie took us on a tour of the plant.  Their pie line was not running that day, so the plant floor was very quiet.  We had to wear lab coats and hair covers, although we did not need shoe covers, gloves, or masks, as would be required in a drug plant.

The pie line itself looked very similar to any pharmaceutical manufacturing line I’ve seen.  Lots of stainless steel equipment, large tanks, a filling line with a conveyer belt.  Bernie showed us how the raw materials are taken from a huge refrigerated warehouse, loaded onto a conveyer belt, and poured into a huge mixing tank.  Pie shell ingredients go into one tank; filling ingredients go into another.  After mixing, the pie shell dough is extruded onto a moving conveyer belt.  Filling is extruded onto it, then another layer of pie dough is added.  The individual pies are cut apart, deep fried, and flash-frozen before packaging. 

I have seen many plants like this, but this was the first plant tour for many of the people in the class.  Everyone had a million questions, and Bernie was very good about answering all of them.

One thing I found interesting was that the plant had its own well-water supply.  At drug plants in the US, municipal water is usually purified for use in drug manufacturing.  This is not really an option in Beijing.  I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but you can’t drink the tap water in Beijing – not even to brush your teeth.  The locals can’t drink it either.  Everyone drinks and cooks with bottled water.  A gallon of water costs more than a gallon of milk in Beijing.  Bama would not have been able to cost-effectively purify tap water that started out that dirty, so they drilled their own well, far below the contaminated water table used by the city. 

After the plant tour, we returned to the conference room and had a chance to sample some of the different pies.  Bernie told us how he had built a world-class company in China.  He was very devoted to his employees.  He paid above the median wage, and offered them plenty of career development opportunities.  He was the only ex-pat working for the company – everyone else was Chinese.  I was very impressed with Bernie and his company.  He really had a nice little organization set up there.  When we left, he gave us each a Bama Beanie Baby.

After the Bama visit, the bus dropped us off at the hotel and we were left to find lunch on our own.  Leon recommended a noodle shop a few blocks away from the hotel.  Margaret, Kris, Jamie and I walked there.  The noodle shop was small, and set up like a fast-food restaurant.  The girl working at the counter did not speak English.  She brought out a menu that was written in English so that we could point to which item we wanted.  However, the menu didn’t give a description of the item; just the name.  I ordered plain chow mein, not really sure what I would get.  Kris was not so adventurous.  She wanted to know what was in each dish.  She kept asking the poor counter girl over and over, but she just didn’t understand.  Kris was getting frustrated and started yelling at her.  Finally, a manager who spoke a (very) little English came out.  Kris was finally able to order, but as we walked to the table, she continued to grumble. 

My chow mein turned out to be spaghetti noodles in tomato sauce with onions and green peppers.  It was pretty good, and was a huge serving.  I’d paid about $2 for it.  Kris was mildly happy with her lunch, although she continued to complain that it wasn’t exactly what she wanted.

After lunch, I wanted to find a place where I could buy a small notebook.  Somehow I’d forgotten to bring my leather notepad, and I didn’t have anything to take notes with at the meetings.  I wanted to stop in a drug store and pick one up, but Kris said she’d been in a drug store the day before and all they had was drugs.  We walked by a mall on the way back to the hotel, and I decided to stop there.  I didn’t end up finding a notebook, but I did find something interesting – a dollar store.  Actually, it was a 10 Yuan store.  Ten Yuan is about $1.25.  I wandered around in there looking at all the stuff.  It was very similar to an American dollar store – everything from cleaning supplies to shampoo to underwear.  But of course, all the brands were weird and all the packaging was printed in Chinese. 

In the afternoon, we went to the US embassy to meet with someone from the Commerce Department.  The embassy office was located in a large office building.  We had to show our passports to get in.  The embassy seemed to be staffed mostly with English-speaking Chinese.  We were led into a conference room and left there by the receptionist.  We waited for a long time.  At first we didn’t talk much, but then we started getting a little silly.  Someone wondered whether the Chinese government was taping everything we were doing. 

Finally, the guy we had come to see arrived (I don’t remember his name).  He didn’t seem like he wanted to be there.  He was an American working for the Commerce Department, and was on a 4-year assignment in Beijing.  His office helped American companies get established in China.  They only worked with American companies that wanted to export goods to China; not companies that wanted to manufacture in China and import into the US.  They do market research and provide local contacts and things like that. 

We asked him a few questions about how one would go about breaking into the Chinese market.  His answer to just about every question was, “Well, that’s outside our area of expertise.  You’d have to hire a private consultant for that.”  Finally, I asked him, “What is the advantage of working through your office rather than just going through a private consultant to begin with?”  He replied, “Well, we’re cheaper.  We do charge a fee for our services, but it’s nominal.  Also, we can provide some assistance in dealing with the Chinese government if needed.”

I asked, “Do you keep any metrics?  Do you know if you’re actually helping any companies?”  He said, “Yes, we keep track of which companies have consulted with us.”  I prodded further, “But how do you track whether you actually make a difference, or if those companies would have figured things out in China on their own?” 

At that point, Phil interrupted me and brought the meeting to a close.

I have a big problem with this whole thing.  Providing assistance in dealing with the government is one thing, but I don’t feel that doing market research in China is a good use of my tax dollars.  I don’t think this office has any place in the US government.  I mentioned this to some of my classmates after we left.  Most of them disagreed with me.  They felt that hiring private consultants would be too expensive for small companies, and working through the Commerce Department would be the only way for them to break into the market.  Based on what we’d heard at the meeting, I really didn’t get the impression that the Commerce Department was helping anyone break into the Chinese market.  They seemed to be in the business of charging fees to give referrals to private consultants.  

Furthermore, I don’t believe that the government should be paying for something just because you can’t afford to buy it on your own.  Again, my classmates disagreed.  I go to school with a bunch of socialists.

After learning about the socialist nature of the US government, we stopped at a market to witness Chinese capitalism in action.  The market was located in a gigantic 7-story building.  Each floor was dedicated to a different type of merchandise.  High-end jewelry was on the top floor, then costume jewelry, purses, housewares, and clothing.  All of the purses and watches and clothing were designer knock-offs.

 Each floor was set up in a grid with a single seller occupying each square of the grid.  It was extremely crowded.  As we walked down the aisles, the sellers were constantly saying, “Hello, hello, lady.  Lookie!  You want to buy purse?  I have Coach, Gucci, good quality!”  It never stopped and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Mitesh and Manzoor became infatuated with some fake Rolexes.  They spent hours at the watch counter, and eventually walked away with about 30 watches for around 80 Yuan each – about $10.

 I spent a long time wandering around, but didn’t buy much.  I really wanted a new fake Prada purse, but couldn’t find one.  One girl told me that it had gotten “too dangerous” to sell Prada, but tried to talk me into a Louis Vitton instead.

 Shopping at that market was really exhausting.  I was so tired of being harassed by the sellers by the time we left.

 I got down to the bus about 15 minutes early.  Jaime was there, and mentioned that he had just eaten a sandwich from the Subway across the street.  He and I walked back over there and got two Tsing Tao beers to go for a total of $3.  You gotta love Beijing.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Today our first company visit was with Motorola.  They had reserved a meeting room for us at a local hotel, since space was limited in their office building.  The hotel was amazing.  If our hotel was a 5-star, this one was at least 10.  

Two Motorola executives were there for the presentation.  Biao was the VP of Corporate Communications.  He was a China native, and spoke perfect English with a deep British accent.  Lee was VP of Human Resources.  He also spoke fluent English.

They gave us a brief overview of the cellular phone market in China.  The market is only about 30% saturated right now, which surprised me.  It seems like everyone in Beijing is talking on a cell phone.  The youth market is huge.  Most teenagers buy a new phone approximately every 3 months.  Kids in China have a lot of disposable income.  The teenagers of today are the second generation of China’s one-child policy.  None of them have any brothers or sisters or aunts or uncles or cousins.  Each of them is not only an only child, but an only grandchild to two sets of grandparents.  Chinese children are therefore very spoiled. 

The latest things in Chinese phones are pen-based phones.  These phones have a large touch screen and a stylus.  You can write on the touch screen with the stylus, and the phone translates it into text.  This is a huge improvement in Chinese text messaging.  Text messaging in English is pretty straightforward.  You have the 10 phone buttons to cover 26 letters.  Chinese has over 16,000 different characters.  Previously, in order to send a text message in Chinese, you had to type the word in regular English letters phonetically.  Then the phone would make it into a Chinese character.  This is cumbersome, since there are so many sounds in the Chinese language that really don’t translate into English.  Chinese text messaging has almost become a completely different language, which I find very interesting.  The pen-based phones eliminate the need for this.  You can just write your message directly in Chinese.

Biao passed around the phone he’s currently using.  It’s as thin as a RAZR phone, but has the large touch screen.  It also has a feature that can scan a business card and import all of that info into his address book automatically.  Pretty slick! 

Motorola is a huge brand in China, and it’s considered very prestigious to work for them.  Every time they have a job opening, they receive thousands of applications.  Mitesh (in my class) works for Motorola.  He’s a little bit psycho as far as his company loyalty goes.  He talks about Motorola all the time.  Every time he sees an ad for Nokia or LG, he gets angry.  Manzoor swears that Mitesh has a Motorola chip implanted in his head – he’s been assimilated into the Motorola collective.  I have to wonder what will happen to him when he loses his job.  It happens to all of us sooner or later.  I don’t think it’s healthy to have that much loyalty in a company, because a company will never be loyal to you.

After the Motorola meeting, we went back to the hotel area for lunch.  We ended up eating in another noodle hut.  I was not very hungry, so I didn’t order noodles.  I just had a plate of veggies with some kind of spicey sauce.  Very good. 

After lunch, we went to our next meeting at the Bank of Montreal.  This was within walking distance of our hotel.  This meeting was not very interesting to me.  I have never been too interested in the finance side of business, and investment banking just isn’t too exciting to me.

When I got back to the hotel, I took my laptop up to the Executive Lounge and worked on homework for awhile.  Then Happy Hour started, and some of my classmates showed up.  Then we all went to a nice restaurant for Peking Duck. 

We split into groups of 3 and took taxis to the restaurant.  Steppen and Jaime were in my taxi.  Steppen is a slightly crazy Korean guy.  I never see him without a drink in his hand, and often also a cigar.  In the cab, we were discussing whether it was feasible to ship some stuff home so that we didn’t have to take it to Thailand with us.  I asked Steppen, “How long does it take for something to be shipped from Asia to the States?”  Steppen replied, “Only about 6 or 7 days.  I asked my wife to ship me a bath towel yesterday, and I expect it to be waiting at the hotel in Bangkok.”  I said, “A what?  A bath towel?  Aren’t the towels in the hotel good enough for you?”  “They’re too small,” he said.  “Steppen,” I said, “I’m at least 6 inches taller than you, and the towels work fine for me.”  The whole towel issue became a standing joke.

At the Peking Duck restaurant, we were led to the second floor and down a long hallway.  We passed by a number of small, private rooms.  Apparently this restaurant was all private rooms.  In our room, we all sat down at 2 large, round tables.  We were served almost immediately, family-style, everything except the duck.  Leon had bought some wine, which the waitresses served.  Phil and Erica had met with Budweiser China earlier in the day, and they had brought a few large bottles of a new Bud product to dinner:  Bud Ultra.  We each got to sample it.  Not so good.  Tastes a lot like water. 

We made a number of toasts to Leon and Phil and Erica.  Then the Peking Duck was brought in.  The chef carved it at the table, and then the waitress showed us how to dip the pieces in sauce and wrap them up in a tortilla.

After we finished eating, Steppen announced that he was going out to have a cigar.  I had been telling Erica about his towel issue, and as he passed our table, she gave him a little crap about that.  Steppen FREAKED out, and yelled, “I DON’T HAVE TO DO WHAT YOU SAY!  YOU AIN’T MY MAMA!”  And then he ran from the room.  I have no idea what that was about.  I guess he must have been drunk.  

As we left the restaurant, we were handed a business card that said, in English and Chinese, “Take me to Bar Street!”  We hadn’t really experienced any local nightlife yet, so we hopped in a cab and handed the card to the driver.  Bar Street turned out to be a street lined with little pubs, and it seemed a little touristy.  We saw plenty of Americans and Europeans walking around.  The first bar we entered had live entertainment.  Three Chinese girls were singing along with recorded back-up music.  They sang songs in both English and Chinese, and they were pretty good.  When they took a break, we tried to talk to them, but it turned out that they really didn’t speak much English.  They were just imitating the songs.

The next bar we tried was a little hole-in-the-wall place.  Above the bar hung all kinds of money from different countries, with writing on them.  I took out one US dollar and wrote on it, “LFGSM 2006” and gave it to the bar tender to hang.  At this bar, I got a chance to talk to one of my classmates, Jim, for the first time.  He works for Aon, which is a company that Mike has done a lot of business with.  Jim doesn’t work with the consulting side that Mike worked with, though.  He does something with engineering and fire protection systems.  He does a lot of work with the city of Chicago.  We figured out that he probably works with our friend Aric.  Small world.  I also learned that Jim had a daughter who was 25 years old – only 4 years younger than me.  I had no idea he was old enough to have a 25 year old daughter! 

We moved on to one final bar.  It was a really nice lounge-type place with plush red furniture.  They had a really nice bathroom, too.  At this bar, I got to talk with another classmate, Pete.  Pete had lived in Belgium for 2.5 years, on an assignment from his company.  While there, he had met his fiancé, a Hungarian.  She now lived with him in Chicago.  She was keeping her EU citizenship so that they would always have the option of living either in the US or EU.

At some point in the evening, we started playing the “Guess How Old I Am” game.  I guessed everyone’s age within one year.  For my age, I got guesses of 38, 36, and 33.  There was a lot of back-pedaling when I revealed my real age.

 Very interesting day.  I got to learn a lot about my classmates.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Today is my last day in Beijing!  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been away from home for almost a week.

I awoke early in the morning, and went to the hotel fitness center for awhile.  Then I had to pack and drop my checked baggage off in the lobby.  Leon was going to take it to the airport for us. 

After breakfast, we set out for our final Beijing company visit.  For each of these company visits, one student has been assigned to research the firm ahead of time, and kind of lead the Q&A.  Then they give a “debrief” of their key takeaways from the meeting when we return to the bus.  Today was my turn to be the debriefer.

The company we were visiting is called CMEC.  I had checked out their website ahead of time.  Basically, they export equipment and heavy machinery from China to other countries.  The website detailed a couple of projects they had worked on.  They had actually exported a few entire power plants – they provided all of the equipment and trained the personnel and set up the plants in foreign countries.  

CMEC’s office was in a large high rise building.  I was surprised to see a lot of people in the office wearing jeans.  This was the first time I’d seen any business people wearing anything other than a suit and tie in China.  We were led into a multi-purpose room for the presentation.  It had a kitchen, a TV, some video games, a bunch of chairs set up theater-style, and a projector screen.  We were seated in the chairs, and a young Chinese woman introduced herself as some kind of VP and then started the presentation.

The woman’s English was not very good.  I don’t fault her for that.  I do fault her for her lousy presentation.  I am so sick and tired of our over-reliance on crappy Power Point presentations.  All of her slides stated things like mission statements and company visions.  “To leverage our strengths to become one of the top firms in the nation…”  blah, blah, blah.  I hate having to sit through that kind of crap.  I think that most mission and vision statements are so broad that they are practically meaningless.  I also think that most of the ideas set forth in these statements should be a given – yeah, no kidding you want to leverage your strengths – now cut to the chase and tell me something interesting about your company. 

We went through about 20 slides while the woman read them slowly in broken English.  They were all high and lofty statements about what a fabulous company they were building at CMEC.  It was excruciating.  The presentation did not give us any clue as to what the company actually did.

After she finished, she opened the floor to questions.  No one had any, probably because no one had figured out what business this company was actually in.  I started asking some open-ended, leading questions based on what I’d learned from their website earlier.  I kept trying to get her to expand upon some of the projects I’d seen on the web.  She really didn’t bite on that.  She really didn’t give us any interesting information. 

We got back to the bus and I gave my debrief.  Most of the others students’ debriefs have been a quick re-hashing of the basic facts, and then highlighting of what they found most interesting, followed by a little discussion of the implications of what we’d learned. 

Since we really didn’t receive any facts at this meeting, I took a slightly different approach to my debrief.  I started out by explaining what this company actually does based on my web research.  Then I gave a nice little monologue on how much I detest these over generalized presentations.  If I had to guess, I would have said that this crappy way of doing presentations was an American phenomenon.  I found it interesting that we saw the same thing happening in China.  

After the company visit, we returned to the hotel to finish packing.  We checked out and piled onto the bus to head to the airport for our flight to Bangkok.  I watched the city through the window as we drove through the streets of Beijing for the last time.  I was sad to leave.  I had really gotten to like this city.  When we had first arrived, everything had seemed so strange – all I saw were the differences.  Now it was just another city.  Not so very different from what I had always known.  I loved the Chinese people.  Everyone was so friendly and helpful, and they all seemed to love Americans.

As we neared the airport, Erica stood up at the front of the bus to say good bye to Leon.  She didn’t make it through her first sentence before she burst into tears.  She sobbed and sobbed.  She told us how Leon was such a good friend, and she couldn’t stand to leave.  Erica is kind of a drama queen. 

Leon passed out his business cards to everyone on the bus.  They had his email address, mobile phone number, and then simply said, “Leon Liao:  A Friend in Beijing.”  Sweet.

The airport was a zoo.  We made it through the initial customs screening pretty quickly.  Then we had to wait in line at the Thai Airways counter to check it.  Thai Airways does not do e-tickets.  Above the ticked counter were monitors that were counting down the time left until check-in started.  Meanwhile, the line was growing.  We noticed that a bunch of Thai employees were lined up against the wall at the side of the room.  At the moment the countdown reached zero, they all moved behind the counter and started checking us in.  I wonder if there is a law that they can’t start before the appointed time.  Bizarre. 

The security screening was quick and easy, and we reached the gate with more than an hour to spare.  I hadn’t had any lunch, so I went to find something to eat.  There wasn’t much.  There wasn’t even a convenience store or newsstand type place.  I ended up at Starbucks and got some coffee and a Danish.

We boarded the plane exactly on time.  It was a huge plane.  Nine seats across in the economy section, and it had an upstairs.  The flight attendants were all Thai, and they were wearing traditional Thai clothes:  long silk skirts, blouses, and sashes over their shoulders.  That was a nice touch.  They all spoke very good English.  Before we left the gate, they came around and gave each of us a hot, damp wash cloth.  Then they collected the cloths and gave us each a little bottle of water.  And this was in coach!  I can only imagine the treatment that the First Class passengers received.  They did it all with a smile and a pleasant demeanor.  This was miles away from any service I’ve received on any domestic airline.  And it really didn’t cost the airline anything extra.  The US airlines could take a lesson from this.  Even just having stewardesses who didn’t seem to hate thei lives would go a long way. 

I slept for most of the 6 hour flight.  I did wake up briefly for the meal, and it was fantastic.  It was spicy Thai beef and rice.  Nothing special, but it actually tasted good!  The stewardesses took very good care of us for the entire flight. 

When we landed in Bangkok, there was not jetway; we had to walk down the stairs onto the tarmac.  The heat hit me like a brick.  It was 10 at night, but it must have been 85 degrees with high humidity. 

We cleared immigration in no time, picked up our bags, and piled onto a bus.  We were whisked quickly to the Amari Watergate Hotel.  The hotel was just as beautiful as the Tianlun Dynasty in Beijing.  There was a bit of a snafu with the rooms.  They had given many of us rooms with a single bed instead of two beds, but they quickly remedied the situation.

I collapsed into bed and fell asleep.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

BANGKOK!  Oh my gosh!  I don’t think I have the words to adequately describe this city.

The first thing you notice is the people.  The Thai people are the sweetest, kindest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met, and they always have a smile on their faces.  Their way of saying hello, “sawadee,” literally means, “your well-being is my concern.”  How sweet!

The next thing you notice is the traffic.  I thought Chicago traffic was bad.  Then I thought Beijing traffic was bad.  I now realize that I had never seen real traffic problems before I arrived in Bangkok.  Bangkok has some serious traffic issues.  Every street looks like a parking lot, at all hours of the day.  Even coming from the airport at 1 in the morning, there was traffic.  Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 green lights to get through an intersection.  It seems that motorcycles do not have to follow any traffic regulations.  They zip between the cars, along the shoulder, and across sidewalks at break-neck speed.  Motorcycle is the only quick way to get anywhere in Bangkok.  There are even motorcycle taxis.  The motorcycle taxi drivers all wear bright orange vests, and they carry an extra helmet for their passengers.  They are about twice as expensive as a regular cab – but taking a regular cab anywhere in Bangkok only costs about $2 to being with!

The other important thing you notice about Bangkok is the weather.  We were there in the cool season, so it was only in the 90’s during the day, and 80’s at night.  The hot season is much worse.  (Actually, someone told me that there are three seasons in Bangkok:  Hot, Damn Hot, and Bloody Hot.  Ha-ha.)  Bangkok is a very dirty, smoggy city, and the heat probably plays some part in it.  Even on the clearest days, you can see a dark haze on the horizon.  After walking through the city all day, you have to clean the dirt off your face.  Many people wear surgical-type masks because of this.

Our hotel was located on the corner of Petchaburi Street and Ratchaprarop Avenue.  These are two major streets, and there is a large street market surrounding the intersection and extending about 2 blocks in all directions.  The street vendors set up their stalls on both sides of the wide sidewalk, which reduces the actual walking space to allow only single-file passage.  There is always a crowd hurrying through the market, which makes getting around the neighborhood slow and crowded.  I didn’t mind, though.  I enjoyed being in all the hustle and bustle of the city.

The street vendors are selling everything from underwear to jewelry to Buddha statues to grilled squid-on-a-stick.  I did not see anyone selling fake watches or purses, as they were in Beijing.  The vendors were not as pushy as the Chinese vendors.  It was fairly easy to walk through the market almost totally unmolested.

Besides the street vendors, there were also lots of stores and restaurants in our neighborhood.  We had McDonald’s and KFC.  We had Swenson’s, a British ice cream chain that looked similar to Oberweis.  There was Mr. Pizza, serving the Thai version of deep-dish pizza.  (Thai deep-dish is not quite the same as Chicago deep-dish.  The crust is pretty undercooked – close to raw.  Some of my classmates tried ordering their pizza “well done,” but I don’t think the pizza people really understood.)  There was a 7-Eleven on every block (literally), which sold unidentifiable snack foods with packages written only in Thai, as well as beer and prepared, hot foods.  There were little massage parlors everywhere.  And tons and tons of tailor shops.

Directly across the street from our hotel were two malls.  One was the “fashion mall.”  It actually reminded me of the market we’d visited in Beijing.  It was many stories tall, and divided up into tiny “shops” that were really more like booths than real stores.  Each one had a single person working in it (almost always a girl), who would call to you as you walked by.  Most of the clothes sold there were cheaply made, and most of them didn’t fit me.  I’m a little bigger than the average Thai.

The other mall was the electronics mall.  Imagine an entire shopping mall with nothing but electronics shops.  Computers, printers, cameras, computer components, software, and on the bottom level – DVDs and CDs, most of them pirated.  It was a computer geek’s paradise.

We started our first full day in Bangkok with an early breakfast.  The buffet at the Bangkok hotel was just as good as Beijing.  Then the charter bus took us to our sister school, Chulalongkorn University.

When we arrived at Chula, the conference room wasn’t quite ready for us, so Erica told us to explore the area around the building.  The campus looked a lot like any typical college campus, with a mix of modern and traditional buildings.  There was a pool with a little fountain in it in front of our building, which was pretty.

Directly in front of the building was a Thai “spirit house.”  A spirit house is a little house on a pillar.  Every home in Thailand has one.  The spirits of your ancestors reside there and bring good luck to your home.  You are supposed to put offerings of food and drink near the house.

Across the street was a lake with a traditional Thai house in the middle of it.  Thai houses are built on stilts, due to the flooding that occurs yearly in Thailand.  This house had been moved to the university from the countryside, and placed in the pond to represent what it would have looked like in the rainy season.  The house had a floor and roof, but no walls.  Walls really aren’t necessary in a climate where the temperature never drops below 70 degrees.  The kitchen was in a small, separate building away from the main house.  Thai cooking uses a lot of spices and is smoky and smelly; therefore, you don’t want your kitchen too close to your living quarters.

We had about ten minutes to explore the campus immediately surrounding our building.  By the end of that time, I was already damp with sweat, even though I was wearing a skirt with no hose and a short-sleeved blouse.  I was very glad when we were called inside the building.  However, I didn’t get the relief I expected.  I found that in Thailand, the air-conditioning is typically not enough to actually cool the room; it just takes the edge off the humidity.

We were seated around a large table in a conference room, and a 50-ish Thai woman addressed us in perfect English.  She was Professor Surapeepan Chatraporn, our host at Chula U.  She welcomed us to Thailand, to Bangkok, and to Chula.  She introduced the vice president of the university, Professor Doctor Jeerasak Noppakun.  Professor Jeerasak welcomed us to Thailand, to Bangkok, and to Chula.  He gave a long speech about the honor of having us there.  At the end, each of us was presented with a name tag displaying our name in both English and Thai, and a Chulalongkorn University lapel pin.

Professor Jeerasak left after the welcome ceremony, and Professor Surapeepan seated herself at our table.  Throughout the welcome ceremony, she had been very formal, always addressing Professor Doctor Jeerasak Noppakun by his full name – as well as our Professor Doctor Phil Corse and our Dean Miss Erica Wilke.  Once Professor Jeerasak had left the room, and Professor Surapeepan was seated with us, she opened up and we saw the real Professor Surapeepan.  She was one of the warmest, sweetest people I’d ever met.  She had a contagious smile, and I instantly felt at home with her.  It was impossible not to believe her when she told us how thrilled she was to have us at her university.  And she had a great sense of humor and was a little bit of a smart-ass.

Professor Surapeepan introduced us to her assistants:  Bua (a girl) and Mee (a boy).  They would be our tour guides, interpreters, and general helpers while we were in Bangkok.  We were given their cell phone numbers, as well as Surapeepan’s.

Professor Surapeepan then gave us an introduction to the university, and to Thailand.  Chulalongkorn University was named after the king who founded it.  It was the largest university in Thailand.  Although it was a public school, there were strict entrance requirements.  We were to feel honored that we had been chosen to be guest students without having to take the entrance exam.

Thailand is one of the only countries in Asia that has never been under colonial rule, a fact of which the Thais are very proud.  The word “Thai” means freedom.  The name of the country was changed from Siam to Thailand to represent a fusion of the old with the new.  The word “Thai” refers to the free history of the country, while the word “land,” which of course is not a Thai word, refers to the acceptance and welcoming of modernity Western culture.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, like Great Britain.  They have a king, but also an elected Prime Minister and a Parliament.  The king is thought to be a direct descendant of Buddha – an incarnation of God himself, or a demigod.  The current king, Rama IX, is loved and adored by all his people.  Originally, his brother, Rama VIII, had been the king, but he was murdered after a very short reign.  His murder was never solved, and is something of a controversy.  As King Rama VIII had no children, his brother was crowned King Rama IX.

King Rama IX is a king of the people.  He was born in the United States, while his parents were in graduate school there.  He is the first king to wear Western-style clothes, speak English, and adopt other Western customs.  He has spent his reign touring Thailand, particularly the poor rural areas.  Although he has no political power, he has done a lot for the people of Thailand.

King Rama IX has four children:  A son, the Crown Prince, a daughter, the Crown Princess, and then two younger sons.  The Crown Prince is not very popular with the people, but the Crown Princess is.  She is always by her father’s side, and actively participates in all of his pursuits.  Always, the law had said that a woman could not rule Thailand, but King Rama IX changed this law.  He altered the law so that the oldest child of the king would be his successor, regardless of gender.  However, his son is his oldest child, so he will be king.  But if something were to happen to the Crown Prince, the role will now pass to the Princess, not to the next-youngest son.

Following Professor Surapeepan’s introduction to Thailand, we had a tour of the campus.  Then we had a very nice Thai lunch at a nearby restaurant.  After lunch, it was time to meet our clients for the first time.

Chula had arranged for three local companies to partner with the school for our consulting project.  Each company had a problem, which we were supposed to solve and present to the class on our last day in Bangkok.  Phil had warned us that the clients might not be very forth-coming with their problems.  He warned that in Thai culture, business is not done until both parties get to know each other.  He told us not to be surprised if nothing got done until late at night, over beers and karaoke.  He warned us that this would not be at all like doing business with Americans, and that it could get very frustrating.  The clients would most likely not be willing to share information right away, and we would have to coax it out of them; peeling back the layers and trying to find out what their problem was.

Bua led our group (Margaret, Steppan, Jaime, Manzoor, Mitesh, and myself) to the classroom in which we would be meeting with our client.  We sat nervously in the desks awaiting her arrival.  I suggested that we turn the desks to face each other to be more intimate.  The others disagreed.  They thought that due to the formal Thai culture, that might not appropriate.  Bua came back into the room and suggested the same thing, so we ended up moving the desks into a circle.

We waited and waited.  Finally, our client, Visutha Verasucha arrived, a half-hour late.  She was a lovely, 40-ish Thai woman, wearing a suit and hose (!).  Like most Thais, she was very soft-spoken and reserved.  We all introduced ourselves and asked her to tell us about herself and her company.

Miss Visutha had lived in Bangkok all her life, but had gotten a MBA at UCLA.  Therefore, she spoke very good English.  She was General Manager of a small medical supply importer/distributor.  (General Manager is the same thing as CEO.)  Her company partners with foreign medical device manufacturers, and imports their products into Thailand.  They employ a sales force of 15 people, who sell the products to hospitals throughout Thailand.  The products are things like operating room lights, operating tables, monitors, and other hospital equipment.

Her company had been in existence for about 7 years.  In the last few years, they’d been growing very quickly, mostly because they’d added a few big-ticket items to their portfolio.  The problem was, most hospitals didn’t have to buy big-ticket items very often.  Operating tables normally had a life of at least 10 years.  Once they had outfitted every hospital in Thailand with an operating table, what’s next?  Miss Visutha wanted a plan for the future of her company.  Should she add new products?  Pursue some other strategy?

This meeting was so contrary to everything Phil had told us about working with Thais.  Working with Visutha was just like working with any American.  Perhaps it was because she had spent a couple of years in the US.  She was very forthcoming with all the details, told us up-front what her problem was and what she wanted from us, and answered the million questions we asked.  We asked her about going out for dinner that evening, but she wasn’t interested.  We agreed to meet again the next afternoon so that she could show us her company’s sales brochures and other information.

The entire meeting took less than two hours, and since she didn’t want to go out to dinner, we suddenly had the afternoon and evening free!  We decided to reconvene as a group that evening to discuss how we would handle the project, and then we returned to the hotel and hit the pool.

The pool area was on the roof of the hotel, and it was beautiful.  The pool itself was small, but the area was landscaped nicely, and there was plenty of space to soak up the sun.  There was also a ping-pong table and a bar and a little restaurant.  When I arrived at the pool, I saw Phil and Erica lounging in the sun.  I spoke with them briefly, and told them how well our meeting with Visutha had gone, and how easy working with her had been.  Phil seemed surprised but happy about this. 

I spent about an hour laying in the sun – half an hour on my front and half an hour on my back.  I wasn’t sure how strong the sun was, and I’ve had bad experiences with underestimating it in the Caribbean.  A sweet Thai girl brought me a cold, wet wash cloth several times, and wiping down my face and neck with it was very refreshing.

A group of my classmates had gathered around the pool bar, and I joined them when I was done in the sun.  They were drinking Tiger Beer, a local brew.  I had one beer, and then returned to my room to shower and get ready for our group meeting.

We met in the hotel lobby, since that is the only place in the hotel with free wifi.  We had a lot of questions about the medical device market in Thailand, and we wanted to be able to do research while we met.  We hammered out a basic outline of what we wanted our proposal to look like, made a list of additional questions for Visutha, and assigned some action items.  I was rather distracted throughout the entire meeting.  The wifi connection was slow and irritating, and I was extremely hungry.  I probably shouldn’t have drunk a beer on an empty stomach.

After the meeting, we learned that some of our classmates had gathered in the hotel bar for dinner.  The bar was in the basement of the hotel, and was kind of like a Bennigan’s or Friday’s restaurant, although they served some Thai food.  We joined them, and spent the rest of the evening there.  The bar had a band that played covers of American music and took requests.  Margaret spent most of the night dancing, and trying to get the rest of us to dance with her.  She had quite a bit to drink.  By about 11pm I was getting pretty tired, and left to go to bed.  Most of my classmates had left by then.  Margaret, Peter, and Jaime stayed behind.  Apparently, after I left, Margaret started talking to some guys from Nigeria, and danced and drank with them until the wee hours of the morning.  (OK, I guess the hours couldn’t have been too wee, because everything closes at 1am in Bangkok.)

And thus ended my first day in the amazing city of Bangkok.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Our second morning in Thailand got off to a slow start.  In the hotel lobby, we waited and waited for Peter to make his appearance.  Finally, Phil called his room – and woke him up.  He had overslept and somehow missed the wake-up call that Erica made sure was scheduled for each of us every morning.  (Peter did not have a room mate.)

I thought this whole thing was a little strange.  Peter had been at the hotel bar with us the night before, but I didn’t think he had been drinking very much.  And Margaret reported that he had left for his room before she did.

Much later, I learned a very interesting fact.  Another classmate, Jim, had been having trouble sleeping and was spending his nights in Bangkok in the hotel lobby, taking advantage of the free wifi.  The night before Peter overslept, Jim saw him returning to the hotel around 3am with a Thai woman who could only have been one of the infamous Bangkok women of the night.  I was shocked.  Peter had spoken so highly of his live-in fiancé when we were in Beijing.  I’m not judging him, but Thailand has one of the highest HIV infection rates outside of Africa.  That is scary, regardless of your moral position on the subject.  It’s a good thing that the hotel provided free condoms on our nightstands!

Jim had started keeping track of the nightly traffic in and out of the hotel.  The ritual went something like this:  It was pretty quiet in the hotel lobby in the wee hours of the morning.  He would hear the elevator bell chime, then hear the click-click-click of high heels across the lobby floor.  He’d look up from his computer and see a Thai working girl hurrying across the room, rummaging in her purse.  By the time she reached the door, she had found her cell phone and was making a call.  Each woman seemed to go through this same process on her way out.  Based on the number of women Jim saw leaving in a particular period of time, and the number of rooms in our hotel, he extrapolated that approximately 17% of the hotel rooms in Bangkok had a whore in them at any one time.  Yikes!

At any rate, we finally arrived at Chula, sans Peter.  (He took a cab and arrived later.)  Professor Surapeepan began the day by giving us each some flowers that she had picked out of her garden.

Our first lecture of the morning was on the Thai political situation.  We had visited Bangkok in the middle of a very interesting time in Thai politics.  The current Prime Minister was not very popular.  He had been involved in some business dealings, on which he had not paid taxes, that were not very becoming of a government official.  There were a lot of protests going on, calling for him to be removed from office.  Parliament had been consumed with the debate, so the Prime Minister dissolved the Parliament.  We were supposed to be visiting Parliament on Tuesday, but now it looked like this wouldn’t happen.

The PM had been elected mostly due to his support from the rural community.  Rural Thais liked him because he had instituted a national healthcare program.  Up to that point, no healthcare had been available for poor or rural people in Thailand. Now any Thai citizen could receive healthcare for a co-pay of only 30 baht, which is less than one US dollar.  While this seems like a good idea on the surface, the funding for this program is not there.  

Our second lecture was about the Thai economy, but we ended up really talking more about the political situation, since it was such a hot topic.  I was shocked to learn that the vast majority of Thais do not pay income taxes.  Only people earning more than 15,000 baht annually pay taxes.  The median income in Thailand is only 8000 baht.  How the heck is this government supporting itself?!

After lunch, we had a chance to meet with our clients again.  Visutha had brought some of her sales materials for us to look at.  Her company did not publish any of its own sales or marketing materials.  All she had brought were the brochures that were put out by the medical equipment manufacturers.  They were all in English.  Her lack of establishment of a brand for her own company was a big problem, in our opinion, as well as the lack of product information in the local language. 

Aftrr returning to the hotel, a few of us decided to do some shopping at the street market.  We wandered around, looking for Thai souvenirs.  I bought some silk pillow covers for throw pillows.  As we meandered down Petchaburi Street, someone happened to glance at a tailor shop and see Mitesh and Manzoor sitting inside.  We went in to see what they were doing.  They were having suits made.  This shop would make a men’s suit for about $75-$100.  What a steal!  Soon we were all looking at fabric samples and studying catalogs. 

The tailor shop was owned by an Indian family, which was why Mitesh and Manzoor had originally been drawn inside.  The guys spoke Hindi with the shop owners the entire time, although the owners did speak English as well.

Jim and Jaime ended up ordering three suits and several shirts each.  Kris and Jamie each ordered two suits with both skirts and pants.  (I should mention here, so that there is no confusion, that Jaime and Jamie are two different people.  Jaime is a boy, and although he was born in Chicago, he is of Columbian descent.  Technically, his name is pronounced like Hy-may.  However, since he’s lived in the US all his life, he has given up correcting people and now uses the pronunciation Jay-mee.  Jamie (whose name is spelled slightly differently than Jaime) is a girl, and also pronounces her name Jay-mee.)

I did not really want to order a suit.  I already have two suits, and I rarely wear either of them, since my company is business-casual.  Instead, I ended up ordering a silk Chinese-style jacket with matching silk pants.  I was measured by a young Thai man.  At least he looked Thai.  I noticed that he spoke Hindi with the shop owners.  Later, Mitesh explained to me that he had been working for this shop for years.  He had taught the owners to speak Thai, and they had taught him to speak Hindi.  (They all spoke English.)  They called the young man Sandeep, a common Indian name.  I thought this was really funny.  They had given him a random Indian name because his Thai name was too hard for them to pronounce – much like we might call a foreigner Joe or Bob if he had a difficult name.

Later that evening, Margaret convinced me to return to the hotel bar.  I had kind of wanted to go out to see some of the local nightlife, but I was starting to feel like I was coming down with a cold.  I decided it would be better to stay at the hotel so that I could retire early if necessary.  The hotel bar was having a Salsa Night.  Margaret loved salsa. 

So Margaret and I ended up sitting at the bar together.  She found some people to dance with, but I am not a big dancer, so I just watched.  Then she tried to convince me to do Tequila shots.  She liked to do “Tequila Boom-Boom” shots, which is something she picked up while living in Italy.  You take a shot glass half-full of Tequila, and fill it the rest of the way with club soda.  Then you put your hand over the glass and bang it twice on the bar.  This causes the drink to become foamy.  Then you drink it down.  I did one of these shots with her, and was not too impressed.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything special.

On the other side of the bar from where we were sitting were three middle-aged British ladies.  They were slightly overweight, slightly frumpy.  I had noticed them just sitting there, silently watching the band, not dancing, not even really talking to each other.  I started to imagine their story.  They were three moms from a suburb of London.  They wanted to get out and do something wild and crazy, so they came to Bangkok for a few days.  But they didn’t know how to be wild and crazy, so they sat in the hotel bar, watching a mediocre cover band, not talking to anyone, and wondering why this wasn’t as fun as it had sounded back home in the burbs.

Meanwhile, Margaret continued to try to convince me to do more shots, but I wasn’t too interested.  Then she pointed at the British ladies and said, “Do you want to end up like that?”  Well, of course I didn’t.  I am not as young as I used to be, but I hope I have not lost all ability to have fun.  So I did a few more shots and danced with her a little.  Later that night, we met some businessmen from Australia who bought us drinks.  Margaret ended up drinking way too much and got sick after we returned to our room.  There is a fine line between knowing how to have a good time, and being a lush.  I think Margaret and I each teetered on opposite sides of that line that night.

This is something that I think about quite a bit as I approach the ripe old age of 30.  The things I do for fun now are definitely not the same as what I did ten or even just 5 years ago.  Every once in awhile, someone wants to relive their youth, and hosts a “Girls’ Night Out” at a dance club in the city, or a drunkfest at a football game in Champaign.  I have found that these events have mixed results.  Sometimes they are fun; sometimes they are lame and boring.  But I always end up thinking the same thing at the end:  I’m not as young as I used to be.  Even if I have fun, I wake up with a hangover – and that is something that didn’t happen too often in college.  And if I don’t have fun, I always wonder, were this evening’s activities really lame, or have I just become really lame? 

I am definitely not ready to throw away my drinking shoes and resign myself to a life of Friday night Prime Time (every week) and vacations in Door County instead of Jamaica and Vegas and Bangkok.  I hope I’m never ready to go that way completely.  But more and more often it seems like more fun to stay home on a Friday or Saturday instead of making the effort to go out.  And I’m sure things would change even more if I ever had kids.  It’s important to be a grown-up sometimes, but I think it’s also important to remember how to have fun, and I really hope that I never forget that.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

As it turned out, I was right when I thought I might be getting sick on Friday night.  I felt really lousy when I woke up on Saturday morning – and the tequila shots probably hadn’t helped.  My head was throbbing, my nose was running, my throat was scratchy, and I thought that I might have a bit of a fever.  I stayed in bed as long as possible, and missed breakfast.  I really didn’t feel like eating. 

We were supposed to be going to Ayuttya, the former capital of Thailand to look at some temples and ruins.  Then we were going to take a boat ride back to Bangkok.  I thought I would be able to tough it out, so I didn’t tell Phil and Erica that I wasn’t feeling well.

The bus ride to Ayuttya took over an hour.  I have always gotten airsick, but I had rarely gotten carsick before this trip.  I have felt sick every time we’ve taken a long trip in the bus on this trip.  It seems so bouncy.  The roads don’t physically look like there is anything wrong, so I wonder if they do suspensions differently in Asia.  Anyway, I was feeling really bad by the time we got to Ayuttya.

We piled off the bus and went inside a little museum.  Our tour guide, Terry, led the group around, explaining exhibits on the history of the former capital.  I was tired and having trouble paying attention.  I wandered away from the group and sat down on a bench.  Phil came over to see what was wrong, and I told him that I was getting a cold.  He told me that if I wanted to take a cab back to the hotel, I could, but I needed to decide soon.  Further on in the trip, it would be harder to find a cab.  I told him that I thought I could make it.  He gave me some Airborne.  It’s a super-concentrate of vitamin C and some other vitamins that is supposed to boost your immune system if you take it when you first feel a cold coming on.  It’s a tablet that dissolves in water, kind of like Alka-Seltzer.  It is orange-flavored, and it made me even more nauseous than I was before.

We got back on the bus for a 20 minute ride down the road to look at some ruins.  Terry told us that we had 2 hours to look around on our own.  I guess he must have been telling the group about the ruins back at the museum.  Since I hadn’t stayed with the group, I wasn’t too sure what I was looking at.

We walked along the edge of a wide lawn.  Near the sidewalks around the edges were vendors selling souvenirs.  After we had gotten past the vendors, we came to a large, crumbling wall with a gate in it.  This was the entrance to the ruins.  Inside were buildings in various states of decay.  The ones near the gate were in the best shape.  They were round, beehive-like buildings with tall spires on top.  They were made of gray stone.  Each had a single door, which was about one story above the ground.  Steep stairs led up to the door.  We were allowed to climb up the stairs, but the doors were sealed shut.

As I walked further into the ruins, I came upon similar buildings that were in worse and worse shape.  Finally I came to a point where the buildings were little more than piles of rubble.  It was extremely hot, and there was no shade.  I don’t think I’ve ever had to walk around in the sun with a fever before.  It’s not pleasant.  I had a bottle of water, but my stomach was upset, so I wasn’t really drinking it.  Everyone was wandering around on their own, and I kind of got away from the group.  I walked and walked, occasionally snapping a picture.  Finally, I had had enough and left the ruins area.

I walked back through the gate to the lawn with the vendors.  I looked at some of the stuff they were selling, but wasn’t really in the mood to haggle.  At one end of the lawn was the Buddha temple.  There seemed to be a lot of people going in and out of it.  I decided to go there, hoping that it would be air-conditioned.

Wide marble steps led up to the temple.  You had to take off your shoes before ascending the stairs.  I placed my shoes on a rack at the bottom of the steps with the countless other pairs that had been left there.  I wondered for a moment about the chances of my shoes being there when I got back, but no one else seemed to be concerned about this.

I slowly climbed the stairs.  The marble was very warm under my bare feet.  I stepped through the huge, dark door and into the temple, and was totally floored by what I saw there.  In front of me was the biggest Buddha statue I’ve ever seen.  It wasn’t the fat-bellied Buddha from China.  It was the Thai-style Buddha – thin, sitting in the lotus position, wearing a pointed helmet.  It was seated on a pedestal.  The pedestal was taller than the top of my head – which is about 5 feet, 10 inches above the ground when I’m barefoot.  The very top of the Buddha’s helmet was at least 5 stories above the ground.  The shear size of the thing was breath-taking.  I simply hadn’t expected to find anything so huge.

Many people were kneeling and bowing on the floor in front of the Buddha.  When Buddhists pray, they kneel on the floor with their butts resting on their heels.  They stretch their arms straight above their heads, and then bend forward so that their foreheads touch the floor and their arms are stretched out in front.  This is what the people were doing in front of the Buddha statue.  Some of them were holding cardboard canisters full of incense sticks.  They would shake the canisters and bang them against the ground until a stick fell out.  Then they would light the stick.

I stood and watched this scene for a few minutes, then tried to explore the area around the statue.  There wasn’t much else to see.  In one corner was a woman seated at a table, selling some sort of literature written in Thai.  In another corner was a kind of tree with money paper-clipped all over it.  Donations, I guess.  That was it.  There weren’t any people on the sides of the statue or behind it.  Apparently you only worship Buddha from the front.

The temple was not air-conditioned, and it was stifling hot.  The heavy scent of incense was not helping, either.  I left the temple and retrieved my shoes.  I stood on the lawn, trying to figure out what to do next.  I had almost an hour before we left.  On the opposite side of the temple from which I had come I saw a little covered gazebo with benches in it.  I decided to sit there, out of the sun.  As I approached it, I saw a little path leading down to an area full of little tents.  I decided to investigate.

The tent area was another little market, but it seemed to be exclusively food.  Each tent was selling something different.  Some of it looked good; some was unidentifiable.  I walked through for awhile, but some of the smells started to turn my stomach.  I left the way I had come, and sat down in the gazebo.

There were a few other people there, staying out of the sun.  I drank some of my water, ate a granola bar that I’d brought with me, and ate some Tums.  My stomach was still upset, my nose was running non-stop, and my fever was raging.  I felt completely crappy.

Finally, it was time to meet up and move on to our next destination:  the boat ride.  I found Phil and told him that I didn’t think that I was going to make it.  I just felt too lousy.  He told me that it was no problem, and he’d ask Terry to find a cab for me.  It would be expensive to take a cab all the way back to Bangkok, but I didn’t care at that point.

Terry thought that it would be easier to find a cab when we got to the boat dock, so I rode the bus there with the others.  When we arrived, the others left for the boat, and Phil stayed behind with me while Terry looked for a cab.  I asked if there were a bathroom I could use before I left.  Terry asked the bus driver (who didn’t speak English) to take me to a restroom.  Phil walked with me.  I was taken to what looked like a kind of outdoor restaurant, and led to the back.  There were several free-standing toilet stalls – or were they outhouses?  What had I gotten myself into?  A Thai woman came over to me and smiled and said something like, “Women’s bathroom,” and gestured towards one of the outhouses.  I reluctantly went inside.  The entire structure, including the floor, was made of wood, and held a single squatty potty.  Most squatty potties have an overhead tank with a chain to pull for the flush, like an old-fashioned toilet.  This one didn’t have a tank.  Instead, next to it was a kind of cistern with a spigot over it.  The cistern was already full of water, and there was a plastic bowl floating in it.  Apparently to flush, you used to bowl to pour some water into the toilet.

Although the facilities were somewhat rudimentary, they were immaculately clean, so I didn’t mind using them.  When I left the stall, the woman came running over and led me to a sink and gave me some hand soap.  Then she held a towel for me and dried my hands.  Five-star treatment.  You’ve gotta love the Thais.  I gave her 10 baht for a tip.

Phil put me in a cab, and Terry made sure that the driver understood which hotel I needed.  I slept the entire drive back to Bangkok.  I felt considerably better when we arrived.  I went to the mall across the street from the hotel and got some noodles from the food court.  After eating, I went to bed and slept for a few more hours, until the others returned.

That evening, most of us had to go to the tailor shop for a fitting.  My jacket and pants were coming along nicely.  I had a few things I wanted changed, but I was really happy with the progress.  Everyone else seemed happy with theirs as well.  Except Kris.  She wasn’t happy with anything.  In fact, she claimed that some of her clothes were completely different from what she had ordered.  The tailor showed her the order slip which explained exactly what she had told him, but she still insisted that it wasn’t correct.  Although the tailor was doing everything he could to try to fix the situation, she threw a little temper-tantrum.  It was actually kind of embarrassing.  I really couldn’t believe that she thought that that was an acceptable way to act.

Finally, they thought that they had it all worked out.  Kris was going to have to come back again the next day for another fitting.  She ended up ordering an additional pair of pants and a few blouses.  I couldn’t figure out why she wanted to order more when she was so unhappy with what she had seen so far.

The rest of the evening was uneventful.  I spent it in the lobby using the internet, and in my room reading.  I went to bed early and slept for almost 12 hours.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Monday, March 13, 2006

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Friday, March 17, 2006

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Sunday, March 19, 2006

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