Saturday, March 24, 2007

Shanghai: Jetlagged Observations

Four weeks ago today, well yesterday, depending on which side of the International Date Line you're sitting on, my bossy-boss (the boss of my boss) came and asked me if I'd be interested in going to Shanghai to work with some people in our office there to gather some requirements for a financial reporting application. I told him that was the wrong question, because my answer would always be, "No." The right question would be, "Would you be willing to....?" and then I'd answer yes.

China has never been on my list of places to go. I mean, I can't even say it's been at the bottom of my list, it's never been on my list at all.

He told me to think about it and get back to him. So I did, and the more I thought about it, the more I was sure it was fine for me to not go. Then I called Linda and she said, "Why wouldn't you go?" And when you put it that way.....

I went back into his office and told him I'd go. That was, as I mentioned, four weeks ago. Between then and now I haven't thought a lot about it, other than getting the necessary visa processed and buying a travel guide book on Shanghai. People around me have been more excited about it for me than I have. As I've thought about that, I've not been able to reason out why that is. The only thing I can think of is that it's not like it's a vacation for me or anything. I mean, I'm here to work and churn out a 20-something page requirements document. Honestly, Cinnamon is more excited for this trip than I am and promptly started looking up places for me to visit and explore. I do hope to have time to do those things and that my days aren't so busy that I can't escape a little early and go do a river tour and take the 46-second elevator ride up 124 stories (or whatever that is).

Meanwhile, here I am. It's Monday morning where I am, and Sunday night where you are. I think I'm handling the time change nicely. I tried to not sleep very much on the plane ride so that I could be ready to fall into bed on Sunday night local time. I think I did okay with that considering that I started dozing off at about 8:00 p.m. last night after doing 1.75 miles on the hotel's elliptical machine and showering. I was going to order room service, but decided I wasn't hungry enough to justify it. I was more tired than anything, and my elephant-sized ankles and legs insisted on just lying down and doing nothing else. I was more than happy to accommodate them.

When I finally got through customs and collected my baggage, it was already 5:30 p.m. I found a representative from The Four Seasons hotel who told me there are two different options on getting there -- a car which would cost about $500 yuan, or a taxi which would be about $160. I opted for the taxi and went outside to wait in the very long queue. I had just gotten there and prepared myself for what looked like it would be a hefty wait, when some man came up to me and said, "Taxi?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Taxis are over there," and pointed to a bunch of cars that didn't look like taxis. I obviously wasn't thinking clearly because I momentarily got out of line to check out what he was talking about. He kept gesturing and pointing, and I said, "What's that line of taxis over here, then?" Which is the line of taxis that everyone else was waiting for. He said, "No, no they're over there," pointing some more, but no one else really seemed like they were doing anything about it, so I got back in line (having lost about 10 places) and looked at him firmly. He still tried to get me to go to his invisible magical taxi place, but I stayed put. A few minutes later, some other guy came up and tried the same thing on me. He said, "Taxi?" I said, "Yes, that's why I'm in this line." He was also delusional about his little never-taxiland, but I didn't move this time and he went away.

I looked around me to see if these men were trying to lure anyone else to taxiland, and they weren't, so I figure it must've had something to do with the fact that I was a foreign woman traveling alone. I don't know what they wanted from me exactly, except to sell me a high-priced ride to who knows where, but honestly. I didn't fall off the rice paddy truck yesterday.

My taxi driver, when I finally did get a legitmate one, was awesome. I kept thinking that if I were on The Amazing Race, he'd be exactly who I wanted. He paid no heed to posted speed limits, going usually about 120 kmh and making lane changes that would make a Nascar driver cringe. I, however, loved every minute of it. Short beeps on the horn along with one blink of the blinker were used in tandem as lane change notification, and beeps with blinking high beams were used as "You're in my way so move," or "I'm coming over so move" notifications.

The initial highway, Hunan Highway, from the airport to the city was relatively easy to negotiate. The only thing of note was all the fireworks that were being set off from people's backyards. I guess people still have an abundance of fireworks left over from celebrating Chinese New Year. Other than that, there wasn't really anything of special note about the drive into the city. In fact, I thought it was kind of boring, if that's all Shanghai was. Whither the skycrapers? I wondered.

Then we pulled off that highway and started negotiating through more of a city scape. That was more of what I had been anticipating. I don't know of it's always that brightly and colorfully lit; I suspect that it's still in celebration of the new year. But my first thought was that it looked like what would happen if Las Vegas did New York. It has the skyscrapers and volume of buildings and people of New York, but the glitz and lights of Las Vegas. Okay, maybe not that bright, but it gives you the general idea.

Some of the buildings are truly jaw-dropping. There is one that looks like a robotic claw holding a huge pearl. It's tall -- probably 60 or so stories, and very pointy with its claws holding the pearl, or huge globe, inside of it on top of the roof. In the distance I could see the huge Oriental Pearl TV Tower. You may remember seeing it in in a scene in Mission Impossible: III.

There are just as many bicyles and mopeds/scooters as there are cars. It is amazing to me that for as much chaos and individuality everyone uses to operate on the roads that I did not see any accidents. it's like a beautifully choreagraphed two-ton steel dance of near-misses. The soundtrack is, of course, provided by the consistent and constant sound of beeps and honks.

The hotel is fabulous, as you'd expect a Four Seasons to be. My guide book had said that the staff anticipates your needs before you do, and that's true. Everyone is helpful and calls me by name, service is quick and efficient, and they even apologized to me when I blew up one wall.

Okay, maybe not an entire wall,'s what happened. I purchased some travel plug converters at Target. The set has four different plugs to accommodate almost every travel desitination, so I figured it was a crap shoot no matter what. In my room, there's a desk with a little fold-out drawer thingy that has some plugs in it, as well as a fax/modem plug. In one of the drawers is a travel converter. This morning when I was ready to start styling my hair, I tried using one of my Target converters in the bathroom plug, which incidentally, is different than any of the ones that are on the desk. I couldn't get any of my Target converters to work, so I brought my brush blow dryer to the desk and plugged it into the hotel-provided converter. Immediately, a little puff of black smoke came out of the blow dryer and charred my finger (mark's still there, even after washing my hands multiple times today). I thought, "That can't be good." So I had to resort to using the brush from my blow dryer thing in tandem with the hotel's blow dryer to try and style my hair, which means I'm having not a great hair day. Workable, but not an ideal solution.

Then I started trying to figure out this whole converter thing. I found a plug in my Target kit that fit into another one of the (still different) plugs on the desk. I plugged Cim's GBA into it, and nothing happened. I plugged my BlackBerry into it, and still nothing happened. I tried to turn on the TV, and it wouldn't go on. I tried to turn on the lamp on the desk and...nothing. (In this case, I believe that "nothing" is a better response than "proceeded to blow up every other electrical appliance brought with me.")

I found another outlet with yet a different type of plug and fished yet another Target converter out, and was able to start charging things on that wall, so I could tell that it wasn't the hotel's or even my converters issue -- I really had succeeded in blowing out that whole wall's electricity. Whoops.

When I went downstairs to come to work, I reported it to the front desk people, even going so far as to admit my part in it, and she apologized to me....I guess for...the inconveniece caused to me because I blew up my blow dryer and their hotel? I'm not sure how that worked, but she assured me that they would send an engineer up to look at it. I'm probably not the first dumb foreigner to blow things up in their hotel.

At around noon today, I wasn't terribly hungry but decided it was time to get something to eat since it looked like that's what everyone else was doing. I started putting on my coat, and one of the girls came over to ask what I was going to do. I replied honestly that I didn't know. She invited me to step out with her to get something since there's not really any place in this building to eat. One of the other girls assured me that going with this girl was the right thing to do since it's widely known and accepted that if you want something good to eat, just go with (R). When I took another look at her, I could see why. I haven't seen many people here that aren't skinny. (R) is definitely a bit chubby, even by American standards. I happily agreed to go with her.

We went to a place that she said was a mall, but just looked like one huge food court to me. You purchase a debit card, then go around to all these different little food counters and order what you want, paying for it with the card. She told me the good thing about it for me was that I could just point and they'd fix whatever for me. It was nice to have her along with me, but the point and order method will work nicely for when I'm on my own. Most of the dishes were between 7 and 18 yuan each, or 91 cents to $2.34 for one of the bigger, more complete plates. I got some dim sum items and a bowl of Hong Kong style noodles with bak choi. (R) got some other dim sum and rice stuff, then ordered some chicken feet, asking me if I wanted some too. I (hopefully) politely declined saying that maybe I'd try some later in the week. We both knew I was lying, so when we got back to the office, she brought them over to me and said, "Okay, try." I did. They weren't bad, but there's not a lot of meat on a chicken foot. It's mostly....foot and a little meat.

Walking back to the office she stopped to at a little store-front kiosk to get a drink. They looked more like smoothies, something I would want as a snack, not to accompany my meal, so I said I'd get a Coke or something. She said, "Try the milk tea, it's really good!" and was astonished to hear that I don't drink tea. She wanted to know why, and I said, "I've just never really had it. I drink herbal stuff if I'm sick, but that's it." She was very adamant that herbal tea is not the same as tea because it's not caffeinated. Which....exactly.

When we got back to the office, she told the assitant that I've never tried tea. I said, "No, it's just that I don't drink it." She said, "Well, same thing," and they agreed that while in China I need to do what the Romans do....or something like that.

So that's some brief highlights of my first 24 hours here. Believe it or not, I am actually expected to work while I'm here, so I hope to have enough time to see some of the sights. I'm low enough on the totem pole that I doubt the people in the office here will be arranging anything off hours for me, so I need to be adventerous all on my own. My computer clock tells me it's 11:50 p.m. on Sunday night, but my local clock here says it's 3:48 p.m on Monday afternoon, so maybe I'll go see if I can get to that Oriental Pearl Tower for that e-ticket elevator ride.

More to come later....