Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Busload of Clowns

Fun weekend. Other than Liz not feeling well, but that meant that I got her egg McMuffins myself instead of both of us going to get them. While trying to order food still makes me unhappy (although they generally manage to get the order right), I found that I was very happy to have gone out that morning this weekend.

Busses in Shanghai are scary. Very, very scary. I thought that it was because they can get away with it, 'cause what police officer is going to pull over a bus filled with that many people. This weekend I learned that I was wrong, for as I headed into McDonalds, I saw the policeman wave down a bus, and the driver get out for a chat.

By the time I'd left with my order, several passengers from the bus were standing around joining in on the conversation.

Sadly, I have yet to pick up any Chinese, much less enough to know what was going on. I figure that it probably was something like the driver running a light, and the passengers being unable to poke their noses in to find out what's going on.

But for my Chinese skills, it's possible that he was simply trying to hire some people as clowns for his kid's birthday party next weekend. If only I knew more Chinese, maybe then I could have been a clown.

Of course, next weekend wouldn't work anyway. It's about time we make it back to the states, even if it's just for the week, for Christmas.

Monday, December 1, 2008

HuangShan

HuangShan (the Yellow Mountains) was a great trip for us, even though it was more strenuous than Liz thought she could take. The photos we took don't do it justice, with the clouds covering the mountains and filling the valleys.

The ride to and from the mountains were adventures themselves. We took the overnight train, getting a couple of hard bunks to sleep on in a train car packed with Chinese people traveling. I think I'm getting used to all of the stares that I get, generally, at least. I didn't get used to the idea of squat toilets in moving vehicles, however.

After the train we had to ride a bus to the mountain itself. Another exciting journey, with the bus driver seeming to prefer the left side of the road, toward the oncoming traffic, to the right side of the road where the other cars heading our direction were traveling. We survived, though, and the threat of rain on the second day led us to buy a cheap poncho (so I could cover my camera) which we never had to use.

Legs were aching already by the time we reached the cable car, sadly. That was probably about a couple percent of the mountain walking we had to do that day. After trying to keep up with the group for a while, though, we decided to head toward our hotel on our own, and just meet up with the group later--we had cell phones that worked atop the mountain, so meeting up wasn't a problem.

Or wouldn't have been, had we been able to actually meet up. Prior to leaving the group of our own accord, we managed to lose the group as they took a path while Liz and I stopped to rest. Liz called, we tried to follow directions, and wasted half an hour looking for everyone else amid the mass of people on the mountain.

After much hiking, some Oreos, and passing by "Christmas Man" (since the Chinese guy that kept yelling it at some white-bearded man didn't know the name "Santa"), we arrived at the "four-star" hotel atop the hotel. The heat in the room almost worked, and at least we didn't have to share rooms with a dozen other people, as we would have in the three-star. And didn't sleep in the freezing cold as the people we saw in tents did.

The second day was much easier, more downhill walking, and some of the best views we saw on the trip. A little bit of touring in the afternoon, being told they didn't have shaved ice drinks at the place we stopped for refreshments, and then we had to find our own way back to the train station. Unable to find a cab, we did get approached by a rickshaw that charged much too little for the work he had to go through to get us to the train station.

It wasn't until several hours later as we were finally boarding our train that we realized we'd missed five calls from Liz's father and three from our tour guide.

It was a great trip, the food was surprisingly not bad, and the weather was nice. But it was good to get home and rest our aching legs.

Monday, October 27, 2008

October Update

Liz spent a week and a half in New York City without me, leaving me alone in Shanghai without her to depend on when I got hungry and decided that the box of instant noodles didn't really look appetizing for dinner and that McDonalds looked much moreso. So I spent pretty much the entire time hiding in the apartment, playing computer games and watching TV. I did brave the world to go to work, and the once that I gave in and ordered myself a couple of hamburgers. Only because I can at least roughly say 'hamburger'. I didn't even consider trying to order my McChicken.

I did, however, decide that I had way too many free vacation days, and that I was going to go over my limit soon, so I took a day off the Monday that she was gone and spent an extra-long weekend not thinking about work.

I managed to survive the entire time without any problems, other than the next-to-last morning, or so, when Liz's father began to get quite worried about her, since he hadn't heard from her in several days. He ended up calling early to make sure that I'd heard from her and that she was doing ok. I woke up earlier than I'd hoped, but being able to do something for Liz's father, even just as simply as letting him know that she's ok, was worth waking up for.

In other news, we recently discovered the T.G.I.Fridays we enjoyed going to (even if they had no green bean fries) has closed, so to get our American food we had to instead order online and have it delivered. It tasted good, but it missed a lot of the atmosphere, and we're fairly unhappy about our favorite restaurant closing.

We should have expected it, though, as us enjoying a place apparently is enough to drive away all their business. Half a dozen or so different places that we enjoyed going to have all closed. Or, with the place we visited last night, merged with somewhere else. "Merged" meaning that the place we liked supplies the location, and the other half of the merge supplies the food. Thankfully they still had a menu from the old place laying around and were able to cook something from it for us.

We also have booked a trip; a couple more weeks, and we'll be on our way to the yellow mountains. Cold and a difficult walk, but it should be really nice for pictures.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Car Saga

Although we may have settled into a pattern of working, watching TV, and sleep, there have been a few things that have gone on in the last few months. I still have more to talk about with the trip to Japan that I keep putting off writing about. Family visited for a week. We managed to avoid the Olympics. But most importantly, our year is almost up, but since we extended our stay in Shanghai, the blog is now badly mis-titled.

Due to our extension, we headed back to California for this past weekend. We'd been told a couple weeks ago that our car battery was dead, so I figured we'd fly into SFO, rent a car so I could fix ours, and then have the rest of the weekend free.

Things, of course, conspired to try to convince me that I shouldn't bother to make plans.

Getting to SFO worked. That's when things started to go badly. I did manage to sleep on the airplane this time, so I was awake enough to drive, but first we had to find a place to rent a car. We hadn't rented on ahead of time, as we wanted to return the car in south-bay instead of at the airport, and couldn't figure out how to get that planned out online.

By the time we got to the car rental places and began asking about renting a car, though, we started to learn why people book cars ahead of time. One place was completely out of cars and one only had the very expensive SUVs that could at best be returned at the San Jose airport before we finally managed to find a place that had a not-too-expensive car that could be returned in Cupertino.

Even with all the running around to find a rental, it didn't take too long. Or flight landed at 8, I figured I'd be able to replace the battery by 11.

So we got to our apartment, popped the hood of our car, and discovered that the battery was near impossible to remove. It didn't help that all of my tools were the wrong size. It also didn't help that the car was designed to be completely inaccessible for novice mechanics. 10am, I finally managed to get the old, dead battery removed and into the rental. Closed the hood and drove somewhere to buy a new battery.

Still had plenty of time to be done by 11. If things hadn't started going even worse.

Being impossible to get at the battery would have been bad enough. Putting the battery back in was even worse. It didn't help that I managed to drop a piece which lost itself somewhere deep within the recesses of our car. It helped less that, being a novice mechanic, I didn't know if the loose piece would break something or hurt something or be flung into someone's eye. So I wasted way too much time trying to fish the piece back out of the car before I was convinced to throw in the towel and tow the car to an actual mechanic.

It was past 11, but surely we'd be done by noon.

So we decided to head to the hotel; we closed the hood, right onto of one of the pieces I'd been fiddling with, getting it stuck mostly-but-not-completely closed, unable to be closed, unable to be opened, and just generally in bad shape. The battery was in the back seat and we had no choice anymore but to call the tow truck.

Checked into the hotel, searched for a towing company, it was noon before we managed to call one. Half an hour, they said, and they'd be there. We said that was fine, gave them directions, and were told to wait in our hotel room for them to call back. An hour later, we got the angry phone call wondering why we hadn't waved them down as they passed our car.

I sighed and gave directions again. "Head east on that road, after the cross-road, take the right immediately past the first building on the right into the parking area." "Which building? There are lots of buildings at that corner." "The first building on the right past the intersection." "There are lots of buildings there." And here I thought 'first' was pretty specific. Oh well, we'd just have to run outside and go wave them down.

Twenty minutes later, as we were heading back to the hotel to call and cancel the refusing-to-arrive tow truck, they finally showed up. With the extra-large truck, after they'd been told we were in a parking garage. No chance they could actually tow our car out, but it was decided that maybe we could push it out to the truck.

From a couple levels down in the garage.

I shrugged and figured we could show them there's no chance we're pushing it out instead of just telling them. Sometimes it's good to not argue. This was one of them; not arguing and finally things started to think about looking up.

Even though our hood was stuck, neither of us able to figure out how to open it, the tow guy was able to open it with just his pinkie. He took a look and said that there's nothing to worry about with a piece down there, that we can just throw the new battery in and drive it up to put on the truck to be towed. Or just drive it to the actual non-novice mechanic to fix things.

We put the battery in and things worked like a charm. No other problems. I was overjoyed and offered to pay them slightly more than what I was quoted as the hook-up fee on the truck. Instead, they demanded about twice as much, even though they didn't have to either hook it up, or tow it. I complained that that was insane. They apparently liked the idea of getting cash, and accepted all the cash I had on me at the time, which was just about the amount I initially offered them.

Things looked up more. It was already past 1, well past the 11am I'd been aiming for, but at least our car moved. The actual mechanic ended up letting us know that the car would work fine, and that the next day they'd be able to get the part I'd lost for us. By then, we'd been expecting to have to extend our rental for another day--instead, we were able to use our own car for the evening.

The next day, we took our car in to get the last bit added. The place was packed and we were told it would take a couple hours. But that he'd come take a look and see if they could squeeze it in more quickly. The mechanic grabbed a tool, and ten minutes later we were ready to drive away with everything all fixed up. With the only extra charge being the $6 part I'd lost. Nothing for labor.

And thus our adventure with the car ended. After all the pain and frustration on day 1, day 2 went very well. And we didn't have to worry about our car any more for the whole weekend. Until I realized that, err, you know, just maybe our registration expired.

Trips to the DMV are just what everyone wants to do on their vacation, right?

Friday, April 18, 2008

A While Away -- Mom Visits China, We Visit Japan

It's been a while since I managed to get an update written. It's been a busy couple of months, with mom visiting and our trip to Japan last week. I think that mom enjoyed her stay, although we made absolutely certain to keep her busy while she was here, giving her little-or-no downtime. Lunch with Liz's parents, a trip to the aquarium, seeing the Chinese acrobats, going to church, and a dinner with an unexpectedly long trip through Chinese history, it was a good visit. Even if mom and Liz enjoyed talking about me, perhaps a little too much, while I found my way around the buffet.

Japan was a great trip, although somewhat last-minute. We'd been wanting to go, but didn't really know how to plan it. Given that I speak even less Japanese than Chinese, and Liz just remembers the occasional word from her classes, we weren't really confident we could manage on our own. Luckily, a tour group was found for us. Being based out of Shanghai, it was a Chinese tour group, which left us with the tradeoff of "language I can't understand" for "cheap". With my own personal translator, it seemed like a decent tradeoff.

And when she realized that we could spend a day in Tokyo Disneyland, Liz was excited to be going too.

We managed to visit Japan at the end of the cherry blossom season, so got to see a lot of really pretty trees, and a lot more people that were enjoying the sight of all the really pretty trees. Places were incredibly crowded for the first couple of days, but once the weekend was over it wasn't too bad. With a couple of stops a day, we got to see a very large number of temples (and cherry blossoms). We also got the joy of staying in a Japanese hotel with grass mats on the floor, and no beds. I'm not that used to sleeping on the floor, even if the bed in Shanghai is pretty much just as hard. I may not have slept well that night, but I enjoyed it, at least. And I was happy that, even though I may have found much of the food odd and not really to my liking, the doughnuts with banana icing were really tasty.

The wind the day we arrived in Tokyo was not so much fun, though. It broke my umbrella, which cut up my finger and left me bleeding all over the place pretty badly. I enjoyed being pushed around by the wind, which helped make up for it. Even with my cut hand, I still enjoyed it more than some people on the trip.

Disneyland in Tokyo was fun. We were a bit worried about getting there and back, as the tour was only going to provide transportation if 10 people wanted to go, and only 7 ended up wanting to. (We're still not sure what everyone else found to do that was better.) It was apparently going to cost ~$50 (that's 50 US-dollars, not 50 yen. $0.50 wouldn't have been bad) to ride a cab. Each way. Plus tickets into the park, lunch, and souvineers. It was going to be an expensive trip. But we learned that the hotel had a shuttle to the park for $10/person each way. Better. But then the night before Disney, more people decided to go, and we ended up getting to ride the hotel shuttle both ways, no charge. Yay!

We got to Disney before the gates opened, and planned on hitting Space Mountain to use fast passes there, running to other places while we waited for the long line at Space Mountain. The <5-minute wait encouraged us to just get on the ride; Liz was disappointed that there was no music, and there were no working fast pass machines anyway, so we skipped using fast passes there. Instead, we spent most the day using them at Thunder Mountain Railroad. And still road Space Mountain (with it's 5-10 minute line) four or five times anyway. Wednesday early April is apparently a good day to Disneyland, in Tokyo at least.

I tried watching a movie on the flight to Japan, since we got personal video screens, but the 2-hour flight was too short. The 3-hour flight back was long enough to finish my show and watch another, though, so it worked out.

Other news from Shanghai--I got probably the cheapest drink I've ever ordered in my life. We ran to Papa Johns a couple weeks ago for lunch, where we were pleased to discover a new, cheap lunch menu. Sadly, all of the personal pizzas came with drinks. Sodas, which I still don't drink unless I have to. So we ordered me a pizza, and requested that they don't bother bringing a drink, even though the stated price was for pizza+drink. We weren't expecting the pizza to be cheaper without it.

We were surprised to find the pizza to be significantly more expensive without a drink being served than with, though. 28RMB menu price, 42RMB charged because I didn't get a drink. Liz complained that we ordered off the menu, but they refused to lower the price because we "didn't get the drink." Finally we gave in. We didn't pay, we asked them to deliver the drink.

I, of course, left the -14RMB coke sitting untouched on the table.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Short Update

I didn't realize how quickly fires can move until last week when I heard shouting from around the office. Being all in Chinese, I was fairly certain that it wasn't work-related, but I looked where everyone was pointing out the window anyway. A few blocks away, smoke was rising from a many-floored building, flames stretching six or seven stories.

Within ten minutes the fire had risen from near ground level the thirty or forty stories to the top of the building. It looked like it was just racing up the exterior of the building, and no smoke was pouring out of any other windows, but it was still a rather frightening experience, to know how quickly fire can move.

In other news, I finally went to the hospital to see about my sty that refused to go away. It still refused to go away, so the doctor told me they were going to have to surgically remove it for me. So Friday afternoon we spent by leaving work early, and running to the hospital again. Having a sty removed isn't a particularly pleasant process, when they clamp your eyes open and scrape around to try to make sure they got it all. It's even less pleasant when you have no chance of communicating with the doctor to make sure that feeling is really the feeling you're supposed to be feeling during the procedure.

Nor is it pleasant to be unable to communicate to find out if that feeling of eyelashes in my eye is a normal after-product of having eyelids clamped open. It wasn't until I got home and removed the bandage early that I discovered the feeling of eyelashes in my eye was really because a whole clump of eyelashes was stuck under my eyelid. I was much more comfortable and happy after that. Even if I did have an eyepatch for a day, and a huge bandage for another. Oh well, stitches come out on Friday!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Odd Schedules

It's been a good, but busy, month. We spent about a week and a half in the states last month, with our time split between California and Missouri. Didn't make it all the way back to Illinois this time. As it was, I spent way too much of the week and a half not getting enough sleep--with jet lag, I found myself unable to sleep during the night, and busy with other commitments during the day. At least we managed to buy some of the stuff we'd been wanting (yay, iPod touch) and got Liz a new driver's license. (Or will have it once they mail it to us, anyway.)

The trip back to the states was nice, but without heat in our place, we ended up staying in a hotel. It was somewhat odd to be in town, driving our own car, but staying in a bed that wasn't ours. It worked out fairly well, though.

Other than the lack of sleep. That was not good. Especially bad as it managed to wear down my immune system, so by the time we were heading back to China, I was ill. It made for a not-happy 13-hour flight, being unable to sleep, breathe, or pop my ears when the air pressure changed. And continued to make for an unhappy week the following 6 days as I stayed home sick for a day, and spent the rest dreading the air-pressure changes from elevator rides.

We were glad to fly back on Tuesday (arriving on Wednesday), though--the Chinese new year holiday began the week after we got back, so to make it a longer holiday, the weekend was preempted by work, leaving a 9-day work week followed by a 9-day holiday, 1 day of work, and then a 2-day weekend. Getting back on Wednesday meant we only had the 6 days of work before the 9-day holiday.

The 6-day work week was actually pretty fun, not due to work, but due to being able to look out my window and see the snow falling. I'd been told that I wasn't going to get to see any snow this year, being in Shanghai, but somehow we managed to be here for the tail end of the worst snowstorm in fifty years. Yay, snow! I even got to see a few snowmen scattered around the city!

The holiday was pretty nice, even though Liz got sick closer to the end of our work week, and still was ill for part of the holiday. Otherwise, it was nice to get to see her family and to get to see fireworks up close and all personal-like. As in they shot the fireworks from the courtyard of our building, and some of the embers were within an arms-length of our window.

They did make it somewhat difficult to sleep before midnight or 1am, though.

All in all, even though we did little over the holiday, we enjoyed it greatly. We needed some time to relax, and took full advantage of it. But it's time to get back into a more normal schedule.