A busy few weeks for our adventurous heroes, as we flew from one side of the world to the other and back again.
But first, a warning. Mainly for the men out there, but it may apply to women as well.
As some of you might know, I like to travel with a hat. A brimmed hat so I can pull it down over my eyes to sleep on planes and busses and things, and it also keeps the sun off my rapidly diminishing hair. Lucky bald guys are sexy. They are right? Yeah, super hot.
Anyway, I like to wear hats. My previous hat (which I took to china) I had bought in a hurry in some tiny shop in Mexico, to keep the sun off my sexy/semi-shiny head. I pretty much grabbed the first one I saw, but when I tried it it was small (I have a big head, in all senses!) and so I rushed back and grabbed another. I don’t pay much attention to fashion, I make my own fashion, so didn’t think much of it at the time.
Gisela wasn’t too impressed with my hat, not really at all, could even be said to dislike it strongly. But, I know best, so I wore my hat. It was pretty comfortable, and when you get to my age, comfort rules.
If you’ve travelled with Air NZ, you know they have a reasonable number of male flight attendants. Not my kind of job, but they seem to like it. They’re pretty friendly, and do a good job. They are also all gay, something gisela pointed out to me since Im not really very good at paying attention to other guys sexual inclinations. Whatever works I say!
These friendly gay attendants seemed to be particularly friendly to me. “He’s trying to pick you up!” Gisela would say laughingly. “Rubbish” I said, although in truth I probably wouldn’t notice if anyone male or female was trying to pick me up. We laughed it off, some of us a little more forced and uncomfortable than others.
So anyway, we’ve done quite a few trips, and this scenario kept repeating, only on Air NZ, who seem to have a policy of hiring gay guys to be flight attendants. Gisela found this more and more hilarious, and I found it more and more… um… shall we say, disconcerting? But finally, on our flight to China, which I’ll get to soon, we worked it out.
Background #1 +#2 =…
So from deep introspection and wondering if I give off random gay signals and what they were, and was I holding my wrist straight at all times, and is there a special way you hold a cup or was I sitting in a gay way, or was my choice of literature some kind of gay literature, we finally figured it out. It was the hat.
Now most of you know (and I guess its pretty obvious when anyone sees me) that I don’t pay too much attention to what I am wearing. But its pretty standard, and I am fairly confident its pretty non-gay too, particularly my travel clothes (I never had any encounters normally, only when traveling). Except the one thing I always have on overseas trips, because I want to try and sleep. My… hat.
I ripped the hat off my head, and examined it closely. On the front is a reclining frog badge that says Tulum, a small beach place in Mexico where I got the hat. Once I put my glasses on, I realized the frog was actually reclining in a kind of a gay way. And had quite a gay glint in its eye (if I knew what a gay glint was, which I don’t!), and it had its legs crossed in a very gay position (again, I don’t know what that means, but guys in general don’t cross their legs in gay ways). And it dawned on me that I had accidentally bought a “I am gay” hat.
So we arrived in Beijing, and my hat was very firmly placed in my bag and left there, which was probably just as well because it was freezing in China, and anyway a super-spy doesn’t need a “I am gay” hat cramping his style. Because if you’re going to the largest communist country around, you might as well be a super spy.
So Beijing, 17 million people all performing all manner of capitalist endeavors under a large red communist umbrella. Gisela and I were there for a week, after I accidentally won a $1 auction 2 weeks previously. And it was cold. Snowing cold. Snowing freezing grey cold.
We were staying in a local boarding house, in the middle of a hutong, a traditional neighborhood. Being immersed in the local Beijing scene was both good and not-so-good. The good, great local restaurants, an authentic experience, and very few tourists. The bad, the dodgy local plumbing and the variety of less than savory smells emanating from the bathroom. And the super-hard mattresses. But great people and a great place.
Beijing is super easy to get around, given the awesome subway, and we put it to good use in our quick tour. Generally we were woken in the mornings by the gentle sounds of the morning chorus, which in Beijing sounds remarkably like a whole bunch of men sucking quantities of phlegm into the backs of their throats and then spitting it vigorously. In fact, this is what it was, and the congealed contributions of the male (and sometimes female) population lay, semi-frozen and glittering in the early morning light. Yum. Spitting does seem to be pretty acceptable there, so we slalomed our way around the mini-puddles as we walked to get our early morning jasmine green tea.
“Moi se-un sen lu cha” I said, after writing down what it sounded like the day before and practicing on the walk.
“uh…” he replied…” coffee?”. The communication was a bit hit and miss, but it was funny going into some local restaurants and trying to communicate. We generally ended up with a flock of waitresses around us, each with a little bit of english, hoping that combined, their powers could bring sense to what we wanted. Most times this worked, and we ate Peking Duck, mongolian hotpot, ma po tofu and steamed buns, breakfast savory pancakes with bean paste, sweet and sour chicken, and some outrageously spicy concoction that was sezchuan in origin. The food was really good, and generally really cheap, except for the mongolian hotpot, where the poor guy who probably had never seen a tourist in his restaurant gave us a menu without a word of english. Obviously, this was pretty funny, but after about 1/2 an hour, we somehow managed to order a literal mountain of food, all to be cooked in the hotpot, a bubbling witches cauldron of broth. It was great and we stuffed ourselves.
The weather was as varied as the food. In short order we got cold, snow, sand storms, sun and blue sky and rain. That was within our week, which was pretty impressive even for Wellingtonians. Sand storms blow in from the gobi desert, which seems to be chewing up more and more of china every year, and turn everything a lovely shade of orange, which makes for some interesting photographs. The only downside being the choking dust. On the bright side, the dust covers the big globules of spit.
so second day, we saw the great wall, and walked for 10km along its dodgy, ice covered, slippery as hell and partially dilapidated surface. It was misty and evocative, not much of a view but really good. And it was pretty hard walk, up and down for 10kms, sometimes assisted by local farmers obviously trying to sell things. “Mongolia” one of the farmers said, pointing to the north, “china”, pointing to the south. That was pretty much the point of the great wall. We got to the end (via flying fox over a semi frozen lake), ate lunch, and then I discovered the outdoor marble ping pong table. I immediately challenged gisela to a game, and was in the process of wasting her when some locals turned up and wanted to play. So, Gisela and I put aside our competition and proceeded to trounce the locals. We’re awesome(!) at ping-pong, so we soon cleaned up the locals, before jumping back on the bus. But great fun.
the rest of the time was liberally scattered between sight seeing, visiting temples and shopping. Clothes are… cheap. Genuine (except theyre not genuine) dress shirts, jeans etc are about 10 each, and indistinguishable from anything in a jean shop in NZ. Shopping is pretty hectic, and bit of a show, lots of “no, thats too low”, sighing, anger, happiness. Gisela jumped right into the bargaining and negotiating side of things, so I mostly left her to it as she turned smiles of affection into grimaces of pain with her offers. Most of which were accepted with a rapid “ok, ok, your price” when we left, vowing never to return. General rule of thumb seems about 1/5 – 1/10 of asking price works.
In quick succession, we saw the forbidden city where the emperor lived (very big, with alleyways and rooms everywhere), tianamin square (no blood stains or tank tracks, full of tourists and guards), the summer palace (full of chinese, really nice), and a lot of temples (buddhist, confucian, and tao). Sometimes the language was easy to understand, without understanding a word of the language. Like the time at the summer palace, where a sweet old chinese couple were about to take a photo. The conversation went something like this (translated from original mandarin)
Her – this would be a nice photo I think
Him – yes dear.
Her – you should get in the photo, my mother would like that.
Him – no I don’t think so, your mother doesn’t like me, just take the photo dear.
Her – GET IN THE BLOODY PHOTO RIGHT NOW OR I’LL COME OVER THERE AND…
Him – mm, grrrr, mmm (gets in the photo)
Communication differences are so often overstated. Somethings, you just kinda pick up on whats the right thing to do. Like when I wandered into a public toilet to use the urinal, and about 2 feet away staring at me was a guy squatting doing some business. Its hard to know what to say in those types of situations, nearly all small talk seems inappropriate, even if I did speak mandarin (e.g.: hows it going? whats happening? how are you doing?). Even hello seems a little bit out of place when you’re in touching distance of someone taking care of some pretty personal and not very appealing stuff. So we tried to ignore each other in a manly way which seemed to work pretty well.
Nearly got into a fight with a drunk, who I think got pissed because I said “Nihao” with a really bad accent. He kept running away, pretending to punch trees and then pretended to punch me. I sent Gisela up ahead, but didn’t feel particularly threatened, so just wandered up with him trying to explain something by shouting at me in loud manderin, and then running off, pretending to punch trees, running back… it was a bit tiring after a while, but we wandered back into the temple of heaven and safety before I started an international incident.
Not too many problems other than that, beijing felt like a pretty safe sort of a city. A few people running around asking if you wanted a guide, or to buy some local junk, but pretty much everyone took “no” for an answer. Although some of those grandmotherly figures could be pretty persistent.
And we drank a bucket load of tea. There are chains of tea shops around, and wandering into one will sit you down for 1/2 an hour while they brew every kind of tea in case you might like one. Obviously, this works pretty well, since we ended up coming back with a bag full of tea. So that was pretty much our week in Beijing. Really good, first time in Asia and it was all pretty interesting.
and then we flew back, 14hours of gay flight attendants, and not even a hint of out-of-the-ordinary friendliness. Time for a new hat!