Monday, May 28, 2007

Saturday is Murphy's Law Karmic Revenge Day

And it really is. Or at least on a small scale. Saturday is "I should have known" Day, though most of the time everything balances out in time for the afternoon. This Saturday was a pretty good example.

So really, Saturday just adheres to a strict policy of cause and effect, and therefore my story begins on Friday. Fridays are the days that I used to spend frantically trying to complete a worksheet unit for my Saturday morning students (who don't appreciate it so much, by the way) so that I could get it printed by 4pm, when I have to head back to class with Russ and Dave. Ever since I found out though that the printer opens at 7:30 in the morning, I've been putting off the work until the evening so that I can relax a bit in the afternoon and just wake up early (which I tend to do anyways) to get everything done. This worked fine for like one or two weeks, until one recent weekend where the machine kept choking or something and I wound up having to take a cab to make it to school on time (and the cab woman would not give me change for a 50, even though she had it, and insisted on looking in a gas station for change when they were either closed or didn't have it either and in this manner stalled me even further). My thing is that I like to take the bus cuz it saves money and I like to take it early because I don't like walking through a fog of recessing #1 school students to get to my classroom.

Anyways, last Friday, I was tootally not in the mood to spend my afternoon making this worksheet. I had some lunch, walked around a bit, and came home with the intention of napping for a while before getting started on it... but then I decided that maybe I wanted some lychees. I figured I could get some fruit and get in some brief conversation with the fruit guy and thereby put myself in a good mood to do work. The brief conversation became kind of an hour-long conversation, give or take, and by the time I got back I was even more tired and much closer to classtime. I ended up sort of not doing anything productive in the meantime and then left.

Putting the worksheet together at night normally isn't a problem for me either. I can stay up to do work if I have to, and really a lot of the worksheet is pretty automatic once I get the main idea set down. So this was not a big deal, nor was it out of the ordinary.

After class, I hung out with Dave and Russ as per usual. We often eat dinner together since it used to be we all had class relatively soon after, but recently it's just been a few snacks at some picnic tables near a bunch of vendors. By the time Dave and I got back (this particular class takes place in my neighborhood), Mrs. Liu and some of the parents were just standing around outside my apartment. After a brief chat, I headed in, BUT stopped short when I saw Tara's bike sitting there. I found that I could go no further. The whole idea of writing this thing with the constant distraction of her mere presence was simply too much. SO, I decided to go cool off in the little park area. I sat for a while... sent Alice some text messages describing my plight, and eventually pulled out my notebook and sketched out my worksheet idea. Eventually Alice texted me back and told me to go over to her place instead. So I walked on over, rested my head briefly, ate what amounted to a 2nd dinner, and at last the 2 of us came home. At that point I just wanted to shower and die, so I did just that. I didn't feel like wasting a bunch of time sitting around staring at Word, when I knew that I could get up early and have a nice serene work atmosphere all to myself. That's just what I did.

Saturday dawned. I arose as planned, and finished everything on time. I figured that the latest I should be headed to the printer was about 8:15, to allow for any copier troubles that could come up. Everything went all right UNTIL I couldn't find my USB drive. Couldn't find it anywhere. Still can't find it, as a matter of fact, which ain't good but whatever. I did, however, know the location of my 256k drive which I hadn't used in months because it was full. I decided to just delete some of the stuff for now.

I don't know if I was just dazed or what, but when my anti-virus/spyware monitor suddenly started asking me if Windows Help should be allowed to alter system information and access the internet, I just kept clicking allow. I remember thinking "this doesn't seem right... oh well!" Then I got the BSOD for the first time in ages and my computer shut off. Cue storm of cuss words and panic attack.

I restarted my system, and it all came back ok, at which point I was prompted again about Windows Help. I'm not sure why it said Windows Help, but the actual program in question was one RECYCLER.exe, which turned out to be a trojan/smashbot or stashbot or slashbot or something. I got sooo pissed. I'm pretty sure I got this virus from a computer at the #1 school last semester. But anyway, I couldn't access the drive at all, so I burned the files to CD to drop off at the printer so that I could come home and work this out while it was all getting done. I threw on a random outfit (jeans/t-shirt affair) and ran downstairs. When I got there, we couldn't get their CD drive open. When it opened, it couldn't read the data. SO. I had to run back.

By this time, Tara had gotten up and was getting ready to leave. Alice got up too, though I guess just to visit the bathroom. I waylaid her and begged her for her usb disk. She gave me her usb hub. We spent a moment trying to clarify this and finally I got a working disk with my files to the printer. While I was there they also killed the virus on my USB (though it involved deleting everything). At this point I had enough foresight to ask whether or not I should go make some change to pay for the printing. I did have to, so I went to the convenience store and bought random crap.

I got out at 9:15 wide awake with enough adrenaline in my system to last the rest of the day. At the end of it all, I decided to just take the bus anyway just to sort of reclaim my morning. I got to class exactly at 10.

Afterwards I went for a soothing coffee/student journal reading session and the rest of the day went all right.

So anyways, I'm not complaining, since everything worked out in the end, but it's just kind of a funny story to me. By the way, I fiddled a bit with the registry and it seems like my virus problems are solved...

actually a really short entry about laundry that was hard for me to title so this is it

Laundry day again. But this time it's a SPECIAL laundry day. Today I am washing all the clothes to be packed in my suitcase not to be unpacked until I've reached the landlocked shores of the big OH. Kind of exciting, though I still hate doing laundry here. I'd considered outsourcing this particular load, but the skinflint in me won over. I spend a lot of random money this month... on a hard disk, a dress, and coffee, so...

There's lots to say about this past weekend I guess, so I'll go ahead and start new posts for those.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dirty Weather

It's dirty. Just plain dirty. It's been cooling off a bit the past couple days and the wind picked up a whole lot. The clouds moved in and I haven't seen the actual sky for a while now. Anyways, yesterday when I left the orphanage, I noticed that all the cars parked outside were coated with something. I figured it was the weird seed fuzzies that have been floating around for the last week or so, clinging to what might have been a light drizzle leftover from when I was indoors. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that the cars were all covered with a dense layer of what looked like splatters from a mud-soaked brush. I thought maybe the rain had condensed whatever film of dust must be already stuck to the hoods, but I looked even closer at the windows on the bus I rode home, and yeah... it was actually just the rain. It was raining dirt yesterday.

Today counts as a sunny day, but the wind's pretty strong. I went out for lunch and the dust from the street was getting blown everywhere. Turns out, if you part your lips for even a second, grit will get stuck in your teeth, so when you close your mouth there's this mineral grind between them. I didn't realize where that was coming from at first, and then just resolved to keep my mouth closed.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Like a polaroid picture

A little more than halfway through my class with the primary-age kids last night, we had ourselves a bit of an earthquake. I was explaining some exercise from the textbook when our 2nd floor classroom did the rhumba. You got the sound too... a low grumble. That's actually the real sound effect! I didn't know! It was very cinematic. The kids started yelling and whatnot... some popped under their desks as a joke (I think). I personally wasn't really sure what had just happened, but one of the dads insisted that it was just a big truck driving by and that everything was fine. Whatever, everyone knew it was an honest to goodness di zhen.

Earthquakes aren't a big surprise for people in Baotou. Some years back, there was apparently a big one that caused the only school closure in recent memory. The English teachers who were working here at the time got moved out of their apartments to live in a bus, which I think sounds pretty rad.

Technically earthquakes aren't news for me either. My grandparents live in Berkeley, and according to my mom, every time we visit, there are tremors like every single night. It's just that I've slept through every single one (though I did once respond with a sleeptalked "rumblerumblerumble"). So while I've been party to numerous little quakes, this is the first one I've ever consciously experienced.

So yes, it was exciting for me. I remember sitting there asking myself questions like "will the lights go out? will a huge chasm manifest on the floor of the classroom? what exactly should we do?" until it stopped. Then I sort of waited to see if there would be any follow-up, but there wasn't, so life continued almost as normal. We got out of class sooner, which was awesome cuz I was really tired of teaching them last night. I don't know how focused they were anymore anyway, and outside you could hear indistinct chattering, and inside people were having trouble dialing out for info. As class ended, someone confirmed that yeah it was an earthquake, and so I headed home really interested to see if Alice had any commentary to make about it. She was totally oblivious though that it had even happened and was actually disinclined to believe me! Snap!

But everyone else knew. Folks in Hohhot knew. And now you know.

This morning, I found two late messages from students asking me if I knew about the earthquake and if I was all right. Bless them! I don't know exactly what that means... whether or not it was stronger elsewhere, or whether they just think I'm weak-constitutioned, but I guess it's cool that someone cared.

The kindergarten class I'm making up this morning was cancelled last night, but then was uncancelled this morning. So it's a good thing I ended up not sleeping in like I'd planned, cuz otherwise I would have woken up just as the first students started pounding on the door.

Random note: saw a commercial last night that used the star wars theme. then shortly after, was the commercial in which computer animated multicolored condoms threw a tantrum. it honestly might have been a commercial for vascectomies, but it was pretty hard for me to tell. anyways, the condoms cheered and threw a party at the end, so whatever it was worked out.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The ambrosial mango from across the straits

First off though, I'd like to mention the newest application of my fear of commitment, at its most socially crippling. So, just outside the south gate of my xiaoqu, the gate we most frequently use, is a fruit-seller. We've been buying fruit there on and off since we moved in, but there wasn't ever really any sense of attachment. One reason for this was the eventual rotation of every person who has worked there-- usually it's operated by a single person every day from morning to night until that person mysteriously disappears and is replaced by a new person who does the same. Another reason is that there have been times when the selection of fruit was slightly under the par set by other fruit sellers citywide, or the prices still sounded a little higher in comparison. For these reasons, I've had no problems just taking my business elsewhere, though often I just grew too lazy to buy fruit at all.

Anyways, two days ago I decided to stop and buy a few mangos, when the jolly young male fruit seller decided to strike up a conversation with me. I guess sometimes you can't help but notice the comings and goings of two girls who speak English all the time and who also rendevous with old white men nearly every day right in front of your shop. But since then, I feel somehow beholden to this fruit seller, who, unlike other sellers, makes friendly conversation in lieu of speedy wordless transactions. Because now we have the bare construct of a relationship, I feel like taking the extra steps to go buy fruit elsewhere would be an act of disloyalty, even though probably no one even cares. Also, when I pass the shop now, will I have to make eye contact and small talk? Aaaaargh! These are the concerns that keep my from functioning like a normal person all of the time.

Whaaaaatever, this post is actually supposed to be about mangos. Sweet, succulent Philippine mangos. The Philippine mango is a goldenrod-hued ovoid fruit that is more slender than the mango we are familiar with in the US. There, it's possible to encounter it in the dried fruit section, but here, it's been mango season for a couple months now, and they're everywhere in their fresh golden glory. The first thing you notice, I guess, is the frangrance, and after looking briefly for where that smell is coming from, you'll find the mango. On the street, in a bag on the couch, its tattered peelings in the trash can, wherever, there's that haunting... melodic scent. Instantly recognizable as mango, only it does make you wonder why you've never smelled it this strong before.

These mangos you peel and eat like bananas, and it is a messy endeavor. You'll invariably have to wash your hands afterwards. The skin is pretty tender, and comes away easily, though sometimes you do have to tug a bit. Then you just tear copious amounts of mango flesh off the large pit in the middle, and finish by using your teeth to comb through the remainder of the pulpy fibers, much like whales do, for whatever vestiges of that sugary sweetness are left. If your vigilance wavers, the juice starts dribbling everywhere, and you get neon orange droplets slithering down your wrist, onto your kneecaps or the toes of your socks, and all over your chin. I'm usually pretty careful about this, and had a method that was working pretty well until today, when I just removed the whole mango from its jacket and ate it two-handed. For me, pretty soon the area around my lips and chin starts to burn and itch from the pectin, or whatever it is in fruit that I'm mildly allergic to, and I have to stop.

They've been selling mangos for several weeks now, and I've passed by several mango peels scattered on the streets. For some reason I just didn't want to go for it, under the illusion that these had to be approached like the ones back home: with a knife and a blindfolded sense of disappointment. It seemed like such a small mango would really suck to eat, with more pit than flesh, and a truncated length enjoyment. Also, I had no way of knowing whether they were ripe or not. But anyways, since my first mango a few days ago, I've been hypnotized and can't actually stop thinking about them. The flavor is inspirational. I've cycled through all the cooking possibilities but can't get past the delicious notion of just consuming them raw forever. Now I understand why mango ice creams and candies taste the way they do. This is what mango should taste like! The flavor's so rich and... yellow. These mangos taste like pure nectarine sunshine. Or like a Beach Boys song (a pretty one, about the beach)!

If you ever get the chance, I encourage you to embrace this fruit for a transcendental gastronomic EXPLOSION!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

May Day!

So, I had a post started that talked all about class schedules and stuuuuff, but I don't want to deal with it, so I'm starting a new one.

At the tail end of my "vacation" now. We had a whole slew of makeup classes last weekend (and a few more this weekend), and then starting Tuesday and going until tomorrow, we've had days off. Not gonna bother checking back over the grammar of that one, so whatever. Currently doing laundry, which is taking predictably forever.

It's been a pleasant enough week. Tuesday, May 1, was a big deal, but one which thankfully didn't produce any fireworks. We'd been planning on hitting "the mountains" but were at kind of a loss as to which/where/how the hell to get there. Dave and I grilled some of the high school students about Meiligeng, which he'd somehow heard about, but most students said just not to go there. We didn't really know of any alternatives (weren't even really sure what Meiligeng itself even entailed), so Russ ended up asking one of his students, Ann, who ended up taking us to Meiligeng anyways, which ended up being gorgeous.

Tuesday morning, we met up at the walking street at 8am, and piled into a car. It was a taxi-ish car, but slightly bigger, nicer, and black. That ride cost us Y150, which I thought was pretty steep. We split it 3 ways to treat Ann, which honestly was unexpected... I don't mind saying that I thought we were gonna do 4 ways. Whatever though, not a huge loss (except then I might have considered taking a cheaper car... I can be an assy skinflint when I want). Apparently when locals go, they take a bus or even just their bikes. So yes, we were just basking in luxury in that car. It was the first time I'd gone to the east side of the city... I remember asking Alice during Chinese New Year if she wanted to walk that way, and she adamantly declined, saying pretty much that it's disgusting cuz the only thing there is Baogang. Well, she was sort of right. The sky turned outright gray, and the streets were crowded with coal trucks and other trucks, and so on. We had to drive a ways before the sky cleared up again. I started taking photos at that point, where you could just barely make out the outlines of the Qingshan range in the smog, and photographed the progression from that out to the countryside. There, garbage lessened, civilization was spread a lot thinner, and the sky turned an amazing crystal blue. You could see the mountains pretty clearly after that.

The drive wasn't even an hour, so I guess that means we were ripped off a bit on the ride. But you know, we got there fast, comfortably, and relatively safe, so... yeah I'm not really sure how much that's worth to me exactly, so I'll just leave the whole topic of money cuz I sound stupid when I talk about it.

Since most people take May 1st off, we were expecting a good number of people to be at the mountain, one of the few (but proud) places of interest around these parts. Alice had to go to the monastery again with her company, and reported that it was crowded there also. But since we got there early, the population was still pretty manageable. We really lucked out on the weather, which was absolutely perfect: few clouds, bright sun, slight breeze, warm, not hot.

Not sure what I was expecting when I heard "mountains," but for some reason it didn't occur to me that there'd be admission. It was only Y20 though, which is less than half the price of the monastery, and really for triple the chance for enlightenment. Alice told me that back in the day, it was a dangerous place to go, and people died in ways ranging from falling to drowning. She didn't say that this happened regularly, but that's the image I got in my head. Anyways, since then, it's been "cultivated" into a tourist-friendly sort of trek, through the addition of steps and railings, and a few well-placed "no-climbing" officers with walkie-talkies. Once you start up the path though, you're given a choice every now and then of the safer, easier route, or the "more dangerous and more exciting" one. Of course we took the latter, which consisted of railings plugged next to footprints carved into the rockface, some set for strides much wider than my own. To its credit, the "wilder" paths really did make things much more interesting than, say, Taishan, which is just stair after stair after stair. There was a surprisingly slim margin for error in some places, and people stumbled fairly often.

For the number of people at the mountain that day-- there were some bare areas where folks literally looked like they were meandering through an ant farm (I have photographic evidence!)-- there was still quite a bit of unobscured view. In all I took about 250 pictures of... well, more or less the same thing. Blue sky, gnarled pines, scrubby bushes, and rock. Mountains of beautiful frictive rock. It's the kind of landscape you really just want to clamber all over.

The attractions of Meiligeng are usually listed as the following... "green" and "water." People were in various states of denial over whether or not there'd be either at this time of year. Fortunately, there were both. The waterfalls and creekbeds were already flowing, in a very benign and non-lethal sort of way. The trek up the mountain passes a lot of smaller waterfalls, all unique and interesting in their own rights, to a tall gusher at the top. The volume of water was much less than, say, Taughannock-- people were skipping across the pool to stand on a rock just in front of it without getting so much as sprinkled-- but it was still pretty impressive. If you hold out your right hand in front of your face and turn it 45 degrees counter-clockwise, you have the rock formation that the waterfall's nestled in. It's called the "hand of Buddha" or some such, and the water flows down the crook between the thumb and index finger. The resemblance really is there too. I have a semi-detailed record of all the waterfalls, having been inspired by the h2o pictures on Drew's website. I could really sit around and take close-ups at the same stream of water for like... an hour or something. Of course, the outcome is different every click!

All around the "summit" as it were, are the people who got there before you, staking out rocks and other hard places for their families and friends. You see things like picnic blankets draped over boulders, heated card games, and cans of beer cooling in shallow pools (cuz that water was freeeezing!). People of all ages start at the foot of the waterfall and scramble downwards on the rocks to find a place to settle down. Uniformed guards stand here and there saying goodness knows what into kschhhhking radios while also taking photos for various groups of people and occasionally yelling at others to quit climbing stuff.

I ran into two students up there, which was vaguely awkward, but we took some photos and said "seeya" and moved on. I sat around a while, a ways from Russ and Ann (some interesting, but ultimately confused observations there) and ate a quick snack. Dave had marched on ahead of us long before and spent 30 min or so at the waterfall before heading back and bumping into us along the way. I took more photos. Eventually the three of us started picking our way down the rocks to go back.

Actually, going down was the hard part. It was only about 11, but more people had arrived by this time and were making their way up. Meanwhile, a lot of folks who had already been sitting around were making their way down. Here and there, both groups must use the same narrow path/bridge/stairs/footprints. Then there are the people who think they can take shortcuts but going off the path (I participated at times), and while that does get you there faster, it's still sort of at the expense of others. I have the utmost admiration for the parents who carried their babies/small children both ways.

We met up with Dave and headed back to the front to get some food. There's one restaurant there, and I guess it's part of the Meiligeng resort. Yeah, there's a whole litter of villas where dwell large parties of vacationers. Actually, I think the restaurant was booked mostly full of them. We may have been the only ones there who didn't live on-site. That food was expensiiiiive, but I have no complaints about flavor or any of that. I mean, service was slow, but it's cuz they were also taking care of 3 full tables next to us, and it ended up giving us time to just unwind. The most interesting dish was the last one... chicken and mushrooms, where the mushrooms were like... big honking mushroom caps and stems. Very chewy and, uh, resilient, but I got a kick out of them. They held the sauce pretty well.

Afterwards, we started the long walk back. Meiligeng is actually at the end of a long road along which there is nothing. It's apparently around 8km long, but we figured what the heck, we like walking, and just went ahead. We were like the only people walking at the time, even though I know we saw a whole bunch of people coming the other way that morning. It was maybe 2:30 at that point. We walked a real long time, but it wasn't the least bit tiring or anything. The sun felt good, but my right hand and wrist were turning gray and totally mummifying. I couldn't really wiggle my fingers so well because of how dry my skin was getting. Also my fingers had swollen quite a bit. When I finally looked down I was all like "holy crap!" On either side you could see piles of scree, some last trickling vestige of the waterfalls and streams, scrubland, boulders, and weird animal tracks. Every now and then a vehicle would come literally screaming by. There was a temple on the side of the road, but it was gated and quiet. Also there was a small colony of abandoned tourist yurts, which intrigued me.

The end of the road fed into the road home, and the mouth was clogged with people waiting for the bus. Ann had planned for us to take the train back, so we walked a ways further away from town to a totally deserted train station. I didn't even realize there was a train station there. Anyways, the first thing I thought when we got there was how much like a computer game it felt to be on a totally empty platform and to be staring at signs but at no people. Very Myst-like, or at least Syberia-esque. Despite that, we went inside to inquire about tickets and the employees informed us that the schedule had been changed and the train now comes at 3 instead of 4 or 5 or whatever we thought it was. Aaaand it was 3:30. So we turned around and decided to hail a cab. But the road wasn't really a happening place either, and most vehicles coming by were 3-wheeled cars and cargo trucks. Otherwise you'd see cabs that already had fares or which the owners were using to take their families out for the day.

We walked back past a mian jing restaurant (how much business could they possibly get out there?), where a woman standing outside started asking us if we were looking for a taxi. She said she could get us a car. We took her up on the offer of a van for Y80 and went inside while she called whoever it was. He wouldn't do it for Y80, but Y100 was about what we expected, so we offered that instead. Then we waited around for the van. The woman looked sort of like how you'd expect Natalie Portman to look if she were Chinese.

We went back in a nice white van along the very bumpy terrain of Liuyuan district (or something to that effect). Suspension on these vehicles is really, uh, springy (I don't even know if suspension is what i'm talking about), so a lot of bumps sent me bouncing off the rear seat to the degree that all body parts lost contact with all car parts. Getting air that way was pretty fun. Got some more pictures of the drive back. I kept dozing off and smacking my head against the window.

He dropped us off at the far end of the walking street, so I walked back home via the north gate of our xiaoqu (uh... small district/living district/apartment complex/subdivision/what have you), and took pictures! So now you can see what my neighborhood is like.

I got home at about 4:30 maybe, and fiddled with pictures until almost dinner time. Alice and I took the bike back over to her place and I took pictures along the street too. We posed with the bike a bit, and her mom took pictures of us. Then we had a nice fairly light meal. I ate mostly xiancai (pickes) and this tofu rind(?... i'm just calling it that)-cucumber salad cuz it was goood. We made fun of the tv for a bit, and came home to watch It's a Boy/Girl Thing.

I don't know why I've never heard of this movie, but actually it was... cute. Parts of it were really dead-on in the humor department... others, not so much. It's weird that after all these years since Freaks & Geeks and The OC, Samaire Armstrong is still playing a teenager. Anyways, it wasn't the best movie experience cuz Alice was QQing with some pilot the whole time, but whatevs. I then decided to sleep, and I did.