Monday, March 29, 2010

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. I

Just Getting to the Damn Airport

When the alarm goes off at 4 am, Ellen says, “You’re an idiot.”

“Hey,” I say, “you want to pay 10 million dollars to fly to Shanghai?  Earlier is cheaper.”

“It wasn’t ten million dollars.”  She climbs out of bed, picks up my pile of clothes from last night off the floor and drops them on my head, not very gently, I might add.  “It was a thousand dollars.  Hong Kong.”

“Each,” I say, from under what I assume are my blue jeans.  “And whose idea was it to have three kids?  I wanted a beagle, remember?”

But she’s already gone, or at least I think so, because I can’t hear her anymore, and from under my pile of dirty clothes I can’t see her either.  And my lids are getting heavy . . .


Next thing I know, something heavy has dropped on my head. 

“Oh,” Ellen says, “you’re still in bed.  I thought you were up, making the kids breakfast.”

I push whatever it is—a suitcase, it turns out—aside, touch my feet to the icy floor, and stumble to the bathroom. 

After a quick shower, Ellen and I turn on all the lights in the flat, including in the closets.  Then we nudge the kids awake. 

“What time is it?” Lucy asks, squinting. 

“Nine-thirty,” we say.  “Wakey-wakey!”

Throwing each of them into their clothes, we shove a bag of Quaker Oatmeal squares into their hands, grab the suitcases, and drag everything out into the hall. 

“Hey,” says Lucy, “it’s dark out.”

“I told you they lie,” says Will.

Ignoring them, we trudge down the hall, into the elevator, up 4 floors, and back into the night air, where the taxi we ordered the night before is waiting for us.

Or not. 

It’s funny:  you can’t sneeze in Hong Kong without hitting six taxis (a little peculiar, I admit, when you’re in your bedroom), but before day-break on a Friday morning in March, they suddenly become scarce, particularly out in the boon docks.  Taxis are cheap in Hong Kong, but even so, the airport is about as far from Tai Po as one can get and not be in Malaysia.  Generally we book ahead of time, with help from our friend Valerie, who knows somebody who married somebody who used to be in a triad with somebody named Lefty with only one hand (I’ll let you decide which on).  This gets us a cheaper rate, which is great, but when or if the taxi doesn’t actually show up, we’re kind of screwed, since Lefty doesn’t speak English and he definitely doesn’t like gweilos, except in movies, and then only if they look like that actor from My Cousin Vinny, the one with the annoying accent whose name I can’t look up right now because the internet is down.

“What do we do?” says Ellen.

“Call Valerie.”

She looks at her watch.  “It’s 4:36.”

“That’ll teach her to be nice to gweilos.”

“She’s married to a gweilo.”

“He’s from New Jersey.  That doesn’t count.”

Going to where the kids are curled up on the pavement, fast asleep, we nudge them with our toes and urge them to the guard’s booth, where we ask him to call a luc dic, a green taxi.  He does.  We stand there, stamping our feet and blowing on our fingers to keep them from going numb.  Eventually one pulls, up, heater blasting, and we pile in, saying “Ngoi sai, ngoi sai,” and collapsing into sleep for another 45 minutes. 


Why We Love Asian Airports

Coming down the ramp into the Hong Kong airport, we see what we can only assume is a mini-riot in front of the China Eastern ticket counter—maybe 6- or 7 hundred people, many of them armed with Gucci bags, designer umbrellas, and medieval maces.

“Geez,” I say.  “Told you we should have bought later tickets.”

Ellen just sighs and pushes Jamie’s stroller down the remainder of the slope.  I poke Lucy with my foot, trying to wake her up, but she remains asleep on the luggage trolley, so I roll her along, Will stumbling bleary-eyed behind us. 

Taking our place at the back of the line, I’m just beginning to think that maybe we should just forfeit our tickets, grab a taxi back home, and spend the weekend in our flat watching movies about Shanghai and saying things like, “That looks really pretty, gosh, I wish we could go there sometime,” when a woman in a red suit comes up to us and says, “You have three children?”

“We’re keeping the big ones,” I say, “but if you want the little guy, we’ll trade him for a puppy.”

Ellen gives me an elbow in the ribs.  “Yes,” she says.

“This way please.”  And the woman leads us to an open counter.

“What just happened?” I ask Ellen, eyeing the 6- or 7 hundred now mildly peeved, umbrella wielding people we’ve just jumped in front of.

She shakes her head, handing the ticket agent our passports.

Lucy doesn’t really like to fly, but she loves pizza, so months ago I made a deal with her that whenever we flew, she and I would eat pizza.  So once we’ve made it through customs, we grab some pepperoni and anchovy ‘za to supplement our breakfast, then make our way to the gate.  Taking a couple chairs near the window, we spend the next hour saying, “Lucy stop that!  Will, stop teasing your sister!  Jamie, pull your pants up!” 

When boarding time nears, I head to the bathroom for one more quick stop, and return to find a line snaking from our gate halfway back to customs. 

Ellen and the kids are still sitting in our chairs by the window.

“What happened?” I say.

“We were waiting for you.”

“You could have waited in line.”

“Our seats will still be there.  What difference does it make?”

“It’s a race,” I say.  “Whoever gets on the plane first gets a big prize.  How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Ellen’s just about to ask me what the prize is, when a woman in a blue uniform comes up to us and says, “You have three children?”

“A wheelbarrow,” I say.  “A good one, with air in the tires and grips on the handles.”

“Yes,” Ellen says. 

The woman gestures towards a second gate, through which we are lead after handing over our tickets.

In Shanghai it was even better—or stranger, or more annoying, depending on if you’re us, or some poor bastard with no kids, one kid, or a really homely kid.  We are just joining the end of the line to get through Chinese customs (three post-plane potties almost guarantees you will be at the end of the customs line) when a woman in a black suit rushes over to us—rushes—and says, “You are traveling with three—“

“A pony,” I say, “with a leather saddle, a year’s supply of oats, and one of those glue-on unicorn horns.”

Turns out there’s a special line for diplomats, first-class travelers, and—wait for it—families with small children.  Who knew?  Making the Shanghai airport even better is the fact that our bag is already on the conveyor belt when we come to the baggage claim.  No exaggeration:  plane to taxi in Shanghai takes us less than 20 minutes.

Love that airport. 


Maybe a Dingo Ate Your Baby

Shanghai is known for its art deco, and our hotel doesn’t disappoint:  the lobby has marble floors, ceiling-high mirrors trimmed in gold geometrical patterns, and long, hanging chandeliers made up of faux crystal. 

Staying in hotels in Asia can be tricky.  For one thing, most rooms consist of two beds, slightly larger than what we’d call twin beds in the States, but not really large enough to sleep two people comfortably.  Given that we’re a family of five, in practical terms what this means is that we need to have two rooms.  In the States, this would simply mean getting two rooms with an adjoining door—and pretty much every hotel, from a Super 8 to a W, has lots of these. 

Not so in Asia, or at least most of the time.  What we need to do as a result is get two rooms that are side-by-side.  With that arrangement, we’ll put the kids down in one room and spend the remainder of the evening in the adjacent room fighting over who gets the one bottle of white wine in the mini-bar, leaving the door to the hall open so that if someone attempts to abduct our children, we’ll see and/or hear them before they get into the room, and be able to give them a couple pointers (“Lucy likes her grapes peeled.”) before sending them on their way. 

Once the adult bedtime rolls around—or the mini-bar is empty, whichever comes first—we’ll transfer one of the (remaining) kids to the second room, then each of us will sleep in a room, which is one way, or so I’ve been told, to guarantee that our brood doesn’t grow any larger. 

The worst-case scenario is when we have two rooms located at opposite ends of a hall.  The one time this happened, we nevertheless attempted the kids-in-one-room-us-fighting-in-the-other model, until, about six mini-bottles of chardonnay into the evening, we both confessed to feeling a little nervous that we’d find ourselves on the front page of the New York Post in one of those “ A dingo ate my baby situations”—though in our case, I’m fairly certain the Chinese would assume I’d just eaten the little runts myself, leaving nothing for the dogs but bones and two stuffed turtles named “Tiny” and “Dimbutt.”

All which you need to keep in mind, because as we’re checking into the hotel, Ellen mentions to the clerk that it would be great if we could have two rooms with an adjoining door.   There aren’t any of those, the clerk explains very kindly.  The hotel was built in 1934. 

No problem, we say back.  It’s a lovely hotel, and we’re very glad to be here.  As long as we can have two rooms side by side, we’ll be fine. 

The clerk punches some keys, then shakes her head.  No, the best she can do is give us two rooms at opposite ends of the same floor. 

What this means, in practical purposes, is that either Ellen and I go to sleep at 8 o’clock with the kids, or we hunker down in the bathrooms—separate bathrooms, mind you, each at one end of the hall—reading quietly with the lights low, hoping the kids won’t be kept awake by the light, the turning of the pages, or the noise of us shifting uncomfortably because the only seat available is on the toilet. 

“We requested adjacent rooms,” we say to the clerk.

“I’m sorry,” she says back.  “But the hotel is full tonight.”

I glance at my watch.  It’s only 4:30. 

“So everyone has checked in?” I say.

The clerk keeps her eyes fixed on her computer.  “Every room is booked,” she says. 

I glance at Ellen.  I glance at our three kids, poking each other on one of the lobby sofas.  Normally I’d, let this go, take the high road, accept the keys, go upstairs, and complain about it for two days until Ellen finally told me to shut up or I’d be looking for a new wife.  A while ago, though, when we were checking into a hotel in Zhuhai alongside our friend David who’s a native Hong Konger, he ran into a similar problem.  The clerk told him they couldn’t accommodate some request regarding room size, or type of bed, or some such thing.  Rather than giving up, David had simply stood his ground, very politely, and asked the clerk, over and over again, why the request couldn’t be met.  Eventually the clerk had given him exactly what he wanted.

“That’s the way it works around here,” he’d explained to Ellen and me later, over dinner.  “They’ve already checked you into the hotel.  They don’t get paid more for checking you again.  So they just say no, and expect you to go away.  Eventually, though, they’ll push some buttons, and give you exactly what you want.  It was there the whole time.”

Remembering this now, in the lobby in Shanghai, I say to the clerk:  “So has everybody checked in for the night?”

“The hotel is completely full,” she repeats.

“Yes,” I say.  “But has everybody checked in?”


“But there are no rooms—absolutely no rooms left—that are side by side?”

“Sir,” she tells me, “the hotel is full tonight.”

I feel like a jerk, I have to admit.  I really am much better being passive aggressive, terrifically good at wimping out face to face, then walking away and saying to the urinal in the men’s bathroom all the things I wish I’d said to the person who’s made me angry.  This is a much safer approach to life, you see:  there’s less risk of a fist fight with a urinal, or of being told to your face that you’re an ass, or rude, or simply wrong.  I don’t like blood and I don’t like shame and I spend a lot of time in the bathroom, so generally I stick with this approach.

Except today.  Today I’ve already waded in up to my waist and there’s absolutely no point in getting out now, half wet, and sleeping down the hall from my wife.  (Take that sentence out of context, I dare you). 

So I forge on.  “So what you’re telling me,” I say to the clerk, “is that not everyone has checked in tonight, but there are absolutely no rooms left in the entire hotel, that are side by side?”

The clerk punches some more keys on the computer.  The assistant manager comes over, leans over her shoulder, says something in Shainghainese.  This is a dialect, I don’t understand, it goes without saying, but even so I swear I hear her mention something about “bald” and “jerk” and “the room next to the mass murderers from Russia.” 

But it works.  Eventually she hands me two keys, for two rooms, side-by-side.  I take the keys, blushing and apologizing, but only a little, and saying thank you extravagantly.  We take our bags, head into the elevator. Neither Ellen nor I say anything as we ride up to the 5th floor.  When the doors open, we step out, roll down the hall.

“I feel kind of bad about that,” I say.

“I know,” says Ellen.  “It’s weird:  if they have the rooms the whole time, why don’t they just give them to us?”

“I hope,” I say, “she doesn’t hold it against us.  I’d hate to end up sleeping in the dungeon.”

We reach our rooms, key the lock.  When the door opens, we stop dead in our tracks.   

The room is gorgeous.  Art deco, with high ceilings, clean lines, geometric designs on the trim, the pillows, the frames around the mirrors.  The bathroom is done up with opaque green and yellow tiles, the floors also tiled in mosaic patterns.  We don’t know it yet, but in the room next door, the bed is roughly the size of a yacht, so large that I can lay on it with my feet and arms extended, and not touch from one side to the other. 

It’s exactly what we wanted—better, actually, better than anything we could have imagined.  And she had it all along.