Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries: Japanese Edition, Part One - The Long Journey Nowhere

For Chinese New Year (or what some refer to as the Spring Festival, even though it occurs in late January/early February) my wife and I get three weeks of vacation time. Initially we had planned to spend some time with my sister and her husband on the beaches of Thailand. As we had been unable to make it to Hong Kong over the Christmas break, we planned a two-day layover there on the way. Then, after tanning for a few days, the wife and I were hoping to visit Vietnam and Cambodia.

All of this was very tentative, you understand. In fact several weeks ago we completely trashed those plans because of a message my mother sent. She told us that she and the father wanted to take all of us kids and spouses to Hawaii this summer. As that made two beaches in less than a year, we decided to scrap Thailand.

The brother-in-law and I beat the Japan drum pretty quickly, as it is a place we have both wanted to see forever. The wife and sister were less impressed with this notion, but in time came on board. This time plans were not so tentative as we booked the plane, the trains, and the hotels.

The excitement brewed, the bags were packed, and the day finally came. Snow had come to China over the weekend. Lots of it. More snow than the country had seen in 50 years. Shanghai, though, wasn't so bad - cold and miserable, but just a little snow. I, for one, was not worried.

The taxi ride over was a bit sloshy, but without incident. We exchanged our tickets for boarding passes, sent the bags through the x-ray machine, and headed over to customs. Forms filled out, I handed my information to the customs lady and received a stamp and got my passport and boarding pass back.

That moment hung in the air like sparrows in the wind. It is a moment I expect I will regret for months to come.

For a split second I thought to myself that something was amiss. I felt like I had not received all I needed. I almost asked my wife if we were good, but then I told myself that the customs official certainly knew which papers to keep and which papers to give back and so I went on my way.

We walked to our terminal, we bussed to the plane, we found our seat. We waited for the second bus to arrive. We waited for everyone to take their seats. We waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

About 30 minutes past the time we were supposed to take off, the captain's voice over the loudspeaker explained to us that there was ice on the wing and that we needed to taxi over to where the de-icing trucks were. He also noted that this might take a little while, as we were third in the queue.

Waiting is the word for what we did next. After about an hour the captain spoke again. This time he told us about how he had made a walk down the plank to check on the ice. He said that the wings looked good, but that the tail was still in trouble. Here he made a point to say that we would have to wait and see whether the tail melting or the de-icing came first to know when we would leave. We were still third in the queue and there was no way of knowing when we'd be ready.

This time we were given lunch while we waited. Then, after about four hours of being on the plane and going nowhere, the captain came on again to state that the tail was still full of ice but that we would shortly be heading towards the trucks with the de-ice spray. All we needed to do was wait a bit more and things would be a go.

After a bit we did indeed taxi, and we did indeed get de-iced, but things were not, indeed, a go.

It seems that after and only after we were sprayed by the trucks, the captain decided to run through his wing heater tests, and they failed. We went back to our original spot and waited for the engineer to come aboard and fix the problem.

After a bit we were informed that the engineer was moving swiftly for a fix, but (and the captain here informed us about how terribly sorry he was) the airport had now canceled the flight.

Six hours we had sat on the plane, and we'd gotten only as far the de-icing trucks. Eventually the bus came back for half of the passengers (including myself and my wife, but not the sister or her husband). We went back to the original terminal, where we were blocked in around the desks where six hours before the lady had taken our boarding passes. A hundred people or so all pushed and prodded their way closer. Closer to what, we weren't sure, but closer we were getting. I did my best not to be pushed into small children, while several others began shouting at those poor people in airline uniforms. They yelled back. It was all in Chinese so I had no idea what was going on at any point.

In time those in uniform opened the line and handed each of us a blank boarding pass. The masses moved to a corner of the terminal and stood looking bewildered. A nice-looking man came and walked us back to the customs counter. There we got an additional stamp and they tore half of the pass off for their own selves.

More arguing ensued, but no nice men directed us anywhere. I followed the crowd towards the ticket counters, and after asking around we made our way to the supervisor counter. Madness came next. The half of the passengers who had taken the bus with us were now standing at the supervisor counter, and they were mad. Screaming, red-faced, spittle-at-the-mouth mad. Others, in the back, were taking photographs of the whole mad scene. We were all crowding in trying to get answers. The front line was shouting at high volume. Several ladies climbed on the counter and were standing, shouting at the conveyor belt that usually takes the checked luggage to wherever the checked luggage usually goes.

My sister and her husband had joined us by the time we got to the front of the counter. We told the supervisor that we were in no hurry and could reschedule the flight to this Saturday. It was at this point that my day got even worse.

As we were arranging to push our flight to Tokyo back by several days, we wanted to delay our return flight too. This was fine, said the supervisor, except I could not find my return ticket. Anywhere. After much thinking I realized that when I first went through customs I had given the lady the entire envelope with both my ticket to Tokyo and my return ticket. She had not given me the return ticket back.

We told this to the supervisor, who indicated this was not a problem and we would simply need to talk to the lady behind another counter, just over there. He also noted that he had changed all of the dates and we were all set. Though I just wrote that in about a minute, the conversation with the supervisor actually took about twenty minutes. We would ask him a question, he would make a concerned face, and then several other people would shout and he would answer their questions first.

Finished with him, we moved to the counter where we had been told it would be no problem to fix our lost ticket problem. The lady there said it was very much a problem and in fact the only thing that could be done was for us to buy a brand new ticket. Much arguing ensued. We then went back to the supervisor and argued with him. He admitted that he knew full well we wouldn't be able to get a new ticket, and told us we could contact the agency that had sold us the tickets.

The following day, I did just that. It took several phone calls, and the conversations were difficult, as I speak very little Chinese and they, while speaking very decent English, were having difficulties understanding how I could no longer be in possession of my return ticket.

They also said that they could not retrieve my lost ticket, but were willing to sell me a new one. I reluctantly agreed and was told to pick it up the next day. It took nearly two hours to get to their office the next day, and there I was once again disappointed. They could not find the quoted price in their computer, though the lady the day before had assured me I had a reservation. After some searching and telephoning the Beijing office, they discovered that the price they had given me was not from Tokyo to Shanghai, but from some other city to Shanghai.

The price, they said, would now be higher. Much higher in fact. More than double. More arguing, this time sprinkled with pleading. Somewhere there was discussion of canceling everything, but refunds were not available since I didn't have the ticket. A number was produced for me to call about actually recovering a lost ticket. Of course I called. Of course they said nothing could be done.

I went home with no ticket and no idea what to do. We still don't know what we're doing. We are going to leave for Tokyo on Friday, and we hope we'll find some way home.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I Think I'm Turning Japanese

The misses and I are leaving for Tokyo tomorrow morning. We will be visiting Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka and a few other cities on the main island. We will be gone for about two weeks. As such, the Midnight Cafe will be closed. I'm sure there will be plenty of stories and pictures to share when we return. Until then, amuse yourselves elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An Odd Day

On your average day I set my alarm clock to about 7:45 and usually snooze until a little past 8 o'clock. When my door bell rang at ten till 8 this morning I knew it was not going to be an average day.

The door bell was actually somebody outside my apartment complex buzzing me to be let in the main door. I knew who it was, but it takes a story to get you there. And that begins last night.

As I've mentioned many times before, we have a big water bottle dispenser set up in the kitchen and we must call someone when it needs a refill. Normally I am the man to make the call, but last night I made the missus do it. This was because my mobile was out of minutes. This actually takes a slight side story to it and that begins with...well it just begins.

Phones in China aren't run off the same sort of plans you typically get in the US. Actually France didn't either and seemingly the US is the only place where you have to buy long term plans for your mobile phones, but I am already digressing a great deal. Mobiles in China take Sim Cards. That's a little card you can buy from a dealer which gives you your phone number. These cards need to be refilled every so often. Basically the Sim locks you into a deal - so many cents a minute and what-not - and then you buy a 100 RMB refill whenever you need it.

Mine, last night, was out of money. Thus the wife made the call to the water guy. This was maybe 9 in the PM. She said the things she was supposed to say, then repeated it and asked if this was OK. This is what you have to do because we don't speak Chinese and they don't speak English. Everything seemed normal and so we sat down and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

I think we made it through three episodes of the West Wing before giving up and going to bed. It was close to 11 at this point and we were sure nobody would come so late.

Did I mention this was water we were waiting on? We use that water to drink. As in it is the only water to drink as the tap is non potable. Thirsty is the word for what we were. Quite thirsty. We had long since drank the tea I had made earlier in the day. I have given up on Coke products. The only thing we did have to drink was apple juice. I had already had a couple of glasses of that, but you know how when you get really thirsty and only water will do?

Consider us there.

I had pains in my belly I wanted water so bad. My throat screamed for relief. The clock ticked by and still no water.

Did I mention we didn't have any money? Yep we had spent it all 'cepting the cash we needed for paying the water guy who wasn't coming. The local market only takes cash, and both ATMs near here were out of money.

Yes, the local ATMs often run out of cash. It isn't unusual, in fact it is expected at certain times of the month. It would likely be refilled the next day, but we were thirsty now.

We had some change that would have bought a bottle of water, but by the time we realized the water guy wasn't coming the market was closed. In the end I boiled a pot full of water. They say boiling for ten minutes or more will cleanse the tap and make it drinkable. This is what I did. Ever try drinking water that has been boiled for ten minutes straight? I don't recommend it. Since our apartment generally stays at a temperate -35 degrees anymore, the glass did cool more quickly than it might have in a normal home, but it still took a long while.

There we were dying of thirst with no water but some that was not fit for consumption, and some other that was too hot to taste. We managed to brush our teeth with the hot water and decided to go to bed thirsty.

Ah, but this story isn't about what happened last night, it is about this morning and being woken up early. At ten till 8 the guy buzzing my apartment was none other than the water guy. Being wakened by the buzz, I immediately knew who it was, threw on a shirt and dashed towards the door.

I said hello in Chinese as this is a word I know, and I got a reply in English. Still half asleep this confused me and I wondered if I wasn't about to be accosted by some official while I was still in my pajamas. No such luck and I finally had my water.


The company Amy works for had planned a blood drive for today and I had agreed to give. I agreed to this rather hastily actually and when I actually started to think about it I was nervous. I'm not opposed to needles you understand, and I am definitely pro-blood giving. I've done it in the States with no problem. But this is China and not everything is easy.

They like IVs here, it seems, and it isn't always a pleasant thing for a Westerner. My sister tells a story of having an IV for some thing or another and that while sitting there with the needle she spotted an air bubble. Air bubbles aren't good for IVs and she cried out for help. Help was given but it was a little bit too Hee-Hawish for my tastes.

I sucked it up and told myself that they would be taking stuff out of me, not putting it in and thus I should be fine.

Tons of e-mails were flung this morning as everybody on board was making preparations to go to the company for the drive. We needed IDs and passports and to be on time! The time came and I left for the front gate. I had no idea who was coming and worried if I'd know anybody. I saw a group of Chinese women and wondered if they were part of the crew. I stood by them and tried to act cool all the while wondering if this was the right gate. There are two you see and I was pretty casual when I read all those e-mails.

Eventually a friend showed up and then the leader and we were off. The company is not far from the school and we were quickly there. We had to use our IDs to get in and then put on little booties over our shoes. My shoes are big and I always rip the booties.

We enter into the room for the drive and are seated at a table. The forms are all in Chinese so the 8 or so of us have one translator. If you have ever given blood before you know the forms get really personal really fast.

There are questions concerning whether or not you have HIV, Hepatitis, have taken any Aspirin lately, are on your period, have ever done intravenous drugs or had homosexual sex. That's a lot to ask while being surrounded by your coworkers. Actually the translator skipped over all the sex questions and just told us to answer "no" without translating them.

There was some commotion when I answered that I had taken aspirin within the last five days. I had to explain that it was actually Ibuprofen and that it was only one pill and that was three days ago. Proving that it was for a headache and not for something else - I don't now what - seemed important. Eventually the doctors agreed I was good for giving.

I was then asked about my height. That's a simple enough question and I know the answer, but only in feet and inches. Know who doesn't measure height in feet and inches? Everyone that's who. Everyone but Americans. I'm a little rusty in my feet to meters conversion and I was at a lost as to what to tell them. I told them in feet and inches, but they were perplexed as to what I was talking about.

Somewhere my eighth grade teacher is laughing hysterically.

Luckily a Chinese friend heard the troubles and translated and I guess converted it to metric. Then there was a weight question and I am proud to say I know how fat I am in kilometers.

From there the process was pretty basic. At one table my finger was pricked and the blood tested. Then I was given my bag that would contain my blood and another bag. I was told to sit and to open the second bag. Or I guess that's what I was told as it was all in Chinese and pantomimed. The bag had lots of bread and a jug of milk.

It seemed I was supposed to eat. Usually blood folks give you a snack for after, but before seems to be the way here. I wasn't hungry though, as I had just eaten an egg and ham breakfast (protein is good for the giving, don't ya know?) I ate a bit of bread and though they weren't happy with my not gulping it all down they took me back anyways. No beds for the giving here, it was just a cold chair and a desk.

We had a choice in giving 200 ml and 400 ml and as a man I gave the big amount.

No bubbles, only life saving goo.

For our troubles we were given an umbrella and 20 RMB to spend at the cafeteria. Not bad but I was hoping for a t-shirt saying 'I gave blood in China.'


Back on the home front I spent the afternoon trying to transfer funds from our Hong Kong account to our American one. I've mentioned before that Amy's checks are split in two and half of it goes to Hong Kong in USD. We have a pretty good chunk of it and I have been wanting to transfer it to the US and pay off some bills. Unfortunately doing that is trouble. We signed up for an internet transfer deal but it was proving difficult.

After spending way too much time I realized that they had the wrong account number for my American bank and we were screwed. There's more to that story, but I'm tired of typing and I'm sure your tired of reading.

Tonight we went to refill my phone and instead accidentally bought a refill for Amy's phone. I have a different company than she does and we wern't paying attention.

And that was my day.

The Shanghai Diaries - Miscellaneous

The new diaries is up. This week it is a collection of small topics that don't fit anywhere else.

See I told you I would start writing again soon :)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Who Cares If I'm In China?

The other day while listening to a radio show a friend of mine hosts he made the following statement, "shut up Brewster, nobody gives a @!?# about what time it is in Shanghai." At the time it is true that I was heckling him and it is also true that our friendship is born from hassling each other, but the thing is, this time, it kind of hurt.

When Amy and I lived in Strasbourg I swore to myself that I when we returned I would not spend my days talking about living in France. When we finally did return to the States I found this promise was entirely difficult to not break.

Think about it a moment, how often do you talk about the events of the last year? Over the next couple of days when you are talking to friends or coworkers notice how often you mention something you did or experience over the last year, or any time in your past. We are nothing if we have no past. We are made up of nothing but our memories.

And we like to talk about them.

So it was with France. I constantly said stuff like "When we were in France," or "the French do this..." etc. I wasn't trying to be pompous or cool or anything. I had lived in an exotic (at least to me) place for nearly a year and it had a great effect on my life. In conversations these things naturally came out.

And so it is in China. I am sure that when I go back home I'll talk about Shanghai. I already do talk about it in this blog, in e-mails, on the phone and chatting with my friends elsewhere. Again it is not to say that I am better than anyone, but simply a part of my circumstance. I mean I cannot pretend I am not in China and in general conversation weird tidbits of my time here are going to come out.

Like the difference in time zones. Honestly I think it is really kind of cool that I am 13-14 hours ahead of most of my friends. It is completely fascinating to me. When my friend made his jibe it stung because I know that I have brought up the difference in time several times.

At first this was true because of my fascination with the science behind it, but now I am simply stating facts. The radio show my friend hosts is on blogtalkradio which is an internet radio dealie, and each show has its own chat room. When I listen to his show I hang out in the chat room.

The show runs from 11-noon my time and somewhere in the middle my wife calls me about lunch. We usually do lunch together and I always have to leave the show early. When I leave I generally send a message stating that I'm going to lunch. This isn't because I'm trying to be cool because I'm lunching while everyone else is preparing for bed. It is because I'm going to lunch, period. It seems rude to just disappear, and it is natural form me to let everyone know I'm leaving, and the reason behind my departure.

Wow! That's a pretty big whine in a pretty small box. Sorry if that's nothing but a self pat-on-the-back or something. The comment was harmless enough really, but it kind of got to me and I have only this to explain myself.


It has been entirely too long since I wrote anything on these pages. I don't know what to say except that I've been lazy and my life has been boring. I'm also afraid I'm not going to write too much right this moment either. I'm in the middle of watching the second season of Heroes (or at least what aired before th writer's strike) and I'm too distracted to be a good writer.

I am giving blood tomorrow and I'm sure that will make an interesting story. I also have something to say about being called out for talking about China too much. We're also going to Japan in a week and that will surely create all sorts of fun things to write about. So bear with me friends, the Shanghai Cafe is not dead yet, but sleeping a short while more.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

When The Evening Comes

During the daylight hours, things are pretty boring around here. I mean that both within my home, and out on the street. At home obviously I am here alone. I read, I watch movies, I play on the computer. On the street things are pretty quiet too. Most everybody is at work, and those that aren't either stay home, or pretty quickly move from one indoor to the other.

Around nine o'clock on most morning I take a walk on the outside of the LQ. It is a pretty big complex and it makes for a good walk. It is also pretty lonely. Now I don't mean to say that there isn't anybody out on the street, for there are. There is almost alway a few people walking in and out of the LQ. There are cars zooming down the street. There are folks walking about as well. But for a city of millions things are really rather quiet. People aren't really talking to each other, there is little commotion going on, just people moving to their destinations.

As the sun drops though, it gets exciting. Around 3:30 the kids get out of school and the buzz begins. There is the low moan of hundreds of kids finding freedom. Their parents encourage, question, and scold the children as they are shuffled into their cars or walked home. There is the roar of bus engines and taxis and cars as they ready to take their loads home. Security officers buzz their whistles every few seconds reminding the vehicles that children are near and crossing the street. The cars honk their horns in defiance of this.

About an hour later the teachers and administrators get out and more noise begins.

On the street, vendors begin appearing selling their wares. By the gate is the guy with flowers. Blues, reds and yellows all bright and fresh shine out to the masses asking to be taken home and put in vases. Next to the flowers is a lady selling scarves and hats - all intricately made with colors as bright as the flowers. They are laid out on a blanket in rows again begging for the attention of all who pass by.

Next to the tree is an old man whose great age shows on his sagging face under his Russian fur hat. He stands next to a cart which holds what can only be described as a portable wood stove. It has rounded edges and resembles something like one of those old aluminum campers I used to see zooming down the interstate when I was a child. The front of the oven are several drawers, the largest of which opens to a large fire. The old man periodically opens this door and throws in a few small branches to keep the fire going.

The smaller drawers surrounding the larger one contain several sweet potatoes in various roasted states. Through a small chimney on the top smoke billows out into the open air.

Others stir coals inside a steel drum. The coals warm chestnuts that emit a wonderfully aroma and beckon my nasal passage. I don't really like chestnuts, but every time I walk by those burning nuts, I want nothing more than to buy a bushel.

On some days you can find a young woman selling corn on the cob, and others with oranges and pomellos. Around the corner are guys with carts loaded with DVDs. Above the carts are small flood lights attached to poles and presumably some sort of power source.

Farther down the road are several vendors selling meat and vegetables on a stick. The raw products sit on a fold out table and once you've made your choice they are seasoned and placed over hot coals. Joking with the proprietor is a necessity, but with my limited language skills all I can do is smile and appear friendly.

Sometimes there is a big noodle cart. These guys have a table full of sauces and vegetables and eggs. To the side is a small gas burner which they place a wok upon and fry up your vegetables and noodles.

My favorite vendor is the bread couple. On their table the woman works out the dough, layers it with a variety of spices and herbs and then hands it to her husband. He stands in front of a barrel full of coals and smoke and fire. Like a witch before a cauldron he prepares his magical concoction. The dough gets smacked onto the insides of the barrel where it sticks and cooks for awhile. After awhile he takes it out and lines the bread up with the others cooked pieces.

It costs about ten cents, and tastes like heaven.

All of the carts are on wheels and are ready to scurry away at any sign of trouble, or the cops. Neither ever seems to come. I often wonder where these people come from, and what their lives are like. When they were young did they dream of selling small goods on the side of the road? Did their fathers and grandfathers sell these very things so many years ago?

If one chooses to look closely at the carts and fiery ovens one would probably not enjoy what is there to see. I don't suspect the sanitation is all that good or pleasant. I don't suppose that any of the street vendors go through an inspection process. I don't think I really care.

The food is cheap and it is good. I wouldn't recommend it for a daily meal, but sometimes on a cold night, there is nothing better than walking down the street, ordering up a little vegetable, a bit of meat, and a delicious piece of bread.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - Celebrating the Holidays

It has been awhile since I wrote a shanghai diary. One of my resolutions was to be a more dilligent writer and as such I wrote formally about my holiday break. Read about Christmas and my trip to Suzhou here.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Burning Down The House

I've mentioned before the hassles of washing and drying our clothes around here. Washing has turned easier, but drying is a pain all the time. Winters in Shanghai are very moisture intensive and clothes hang on the line wet if you don't help them along. When it is cold enough I try to run the air blowing heaters towards them, which helps a little, but not really that much.

Since we have purchased a small, electric heater I have been using it as a clothes dryer as well. It works amazingly well, drying individual items in about ten minutes a pop. It is actually a lot of fun to place the heater towards a rather wet piece of clothing and watched the steam pour off.

The other day I noticed that one of my towels had a couple of brown spots on it. Weird looking stains. I stood there a moment trying to remember if this towel was purchased new, or if it was second hand. I was pretty sure it was new which made me wonder how in the world it had a bit stain already. I pondered what we could have spilled on it and worried that our washing machine might be causing trouble.

Days later I fond another towel with similar spots, and with some investigation I also found a hole in it. A cigarette burn looking hole.

And then it dawned on me. The heater isn't only quickly drying my clothes, but it is burning them too! I've always been careful when drying the clothes in this manner that I am within eyeshot of the heater so that if anything were to catch on fire I could quickly either put it out or escape. I guess I haven't been too careful as to put the heater at a decent distance from the clothes.

Yesterday, while folding a sweater I too noticed it had heat stains and a burn mark.


Thursday, January 3, 2008

Substitute This

My sister's boss is in South Africa this week. Normally the middle high school teachers substitute for each other, but since this was going to be an extended leave I got the call. I'm actually only subbing for three classes and the rest of the history department is taking the rest.

The three classes I am subbing for are incredibly easy too. One of the is government and the kids are giving presentations on the Presidential candidates. The bulk of their grade is coming from their handouts and so I'm there to keep order, listen and take a few notes. I'm actually enjoying it a great deal because I'm actually learning about the candidates. I hate to say I haven't been paying much attention to the race, but I really haven't.

The 9th grade class is watching a movie so all that takes is me setting up the DVD and keeping the kids quiet. And they are already quiet as they are good kids.

The movie is good. It is Amazing Grace which is about the slave trade in England, or rather a few men's long struggle to abolish it.

The setting up the DVD is actually difficult. The TV in the classroom is hung from the ceiling just above the big heating unit. I have to stand on a wobbly chair, turn the bulky TV and try to get the wires in the right spot. There is no place to actually put the DVD player either and so I have to move a desk for that duty.

The last class is a Photoshop class and it is incredibly easy. The kids all have an asignment and are determined to do it. I sit in my corner and read a book.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Suzhou Pictures


New Years

Since New Years day fell on a Tuesday this year, Amy got off both Monday and the holiday which meant a four day break with the weekend. With that we decided to go to Suzhou along with my sister, her husband, and our friend Dan.

Suzhou is touted as being one of the most beautiful cities in China, and contains numerous gardens. It is only about a 45 minute train ride from Shanghai which made it ideal for a short trip. However, since we live on the outer edge of town it actually took us more than an hour to make it to the train station. We laughed at this as it took us longer to get to the train than the train took us to get to Suzhou.

Once we reached Suzhou it was still a good 30-45 minutes travel time by cab to get us to our hotel. Once there we realized we had not purchased our return train tickets, but were relieved to find that the hotel had a service that would purchase them for us. For whatever reason it seems to be impossible to buy round trip train tickets. They also do not allow you to purchase them online, which means that wherever you go you have to buy your return tickets once you have arrived.

We wanted to return on Monday afternoon so that we could celebrate New Years with more friends. Even though there is a train that runs from Suzhou to Shanghai about ever 45 minutes, every single one of them was booked.

It isn't officially the Chinese New Year, but I guess everybody gets off anyways and travels.

We then had to go to the bus station and buy bus tickets. All in all it took us about 2 ½ hours to find a way home. After a taxi to the subway, a subway to the train, the train to Suzhou, a taxi to our hotel and a taxi to the bus station we were exhausted, cold, and hungry. While waiting around to get bus tickets we saw an add for a Mexican restaurant and this became our first real destination on vacation.

The food was quite good. Mexican is relatively rare over here, and it is always a treat to find some. It is never quite the same as what you'd get in an American Mexican restaurant but it is often quite yummy. This place was no exception. In fact I think I can proudly say I had the best tacos ever in Suzhou.

It was cold there. Darn cold. Really stinking cold. Coldest day we've had all year. Much of Suzhou's beauty comes from its gardens. Chinese gardens never come with a lot of flowers and foliage, but in the dead of winter they are pretty much a bunch of rocks and some water.

We went to, what was supposed to be the prettiest garden, and it was lovely, but after seeing it we all agreed that we really didn't need to go to the other half dozen gardens spaced about town. That night we hit up the twin pagodas which are nestled in a nice shopping district.

Then we crashed at the hotel. It was a really nice hotel and quite cheap too.

The next day we checked out Tiger Hill. Obviously it is a hill and on top of that hill lies a leaning pagoda. From the bottom to the pagoda lie numerous ancient buildings all of which made for some interesting viewing.

After lunch we had to head to the bus station and head home. The bus ride was long but they did show First Blood on the TV and that was awesome, even if it was dubbed and subtitled in Chinese.

For the evening we were invited to two parties – one at our friends Buffy and Terry's house, the other at the Canfields. We hit Buffy's first and were embarrassed to find out it was a costume party. Everyone was decked out in their best bling, while me and Amy were bummed out in our travel clothes.

We partied hardy for awhile then headed over to the Canfield's to play a little Wii. I haven't been as excited about a game console since the super nintendo. That baby is fun!

The midnight roared in and we continued to battle each other at tennis and bowling until about one at which point we went home and crashed.