Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Culture Shock

The bus heads along the motorway past nondescript industrial scenes until we enter the outskirts of Guangzhou. It reminds me of Sao Paolo with its endless vistas of overpasses and appartment blocks, concrete everywhere. It's not noticeably polluted although the sunshine is hazy. At the bus station a friendly woman at the information counter tells us about onward buses. And food?, we ask, instinctively miming with our hands the act of pushing something into our mouths. Over the road, 3rd floor. We take a footbridge that leads us to a KFC and the Kung Fu fast food restaurant. Bruce Lee and Colonel Sanders look at us impassively over the heads of hundreds of hungry punters. Nonplussed, we decide to try our luck by the railway station where, sure enough, there's some cheap and cheerful little hovels serving noodles or rice and steam tray food. We plump for rice, veg and pork rind. Should've gone for the chicken. Now, how to eat rice with chopsticks? Despite Kenny's attempt to improve my technique in Singapore, I'm still learning. It's easier when I don't think about it. Unfortunately when I'm hungry I think about it a lot. Luckily, the bloke at the table next to us is demonstrating perfectly. Basically get your gob as close to the rice as possible and shovel. It works. Later that day we practice eating noodle soup with chopsticks. This is best done whilst wearing a multi-coloured patterned shirt.

We're Couch Surfing in Guangzhou. Couch Surfing puts you in touch with people who can give you a bed (or couch) for the night and perhaps provide some local knowledge. It's a great opportunity for some 'cultural exchange'. Our host is Eli, a 60 year-old New York businessman and self-proclaimed "wise ass" with a voice like gravel. He's straight out of 'Rhoda', and between cracks about living and working in China, he gives us shopping tips and places to find bargains. ("Haggle for everything!") It's a different kind of cultural exchange.

We take the metro, modern clean and crowded, into the centre for a look around. There are the ever-present 7-Elevens (which Gayle keeps calling 9-Elevens) and McDonalds. We even come across a Tesco's and check out the fruit and fresh produce. The apples look good, but we pass on the frogs, crabs, toads, turtles, eels and various fish - particularly the one that leaps out of its tank into the aisle in front of us and is quickly swept up by a cleaner and dumped straight back in. Not quite like home - at least here you know it really is fresh. In the old downtown area the streets are leafier and smaller and lots of cyclists whizz by. Instead of the shopping plazas and chainstores there are hundres of tiny shops, looking as untidy and disorganised as those we have seen in Bangkok's Chinatown. Everyone seems to be out shopping, just like every other Asian city we have visited, and come to think of it, just like London or Manchester. Shop shop shop. China seems on first impressions to be no different to anywhere else. This thought comes as a disappointment.

Guangzhou is China's third largest city and was it's biggest trading port before the Communist People's Republic opted to try Capitalism. The province is heavily industrialised and down on the river front you can see cargo boats and freight barges ambling past, whilst in the murky waters are groups of adventurous swimmers crossing the wide Pearl River. On Shamian Island, a piece of land conceded to the British and French, there's a clutch of old colonial buildings and churches. Some are still being restored. Young wedding couples pose in the gardens for photographs. Groups of old folk play cards or checkers or just sit motionless in the stifling afternoon heat. We succumb to the air-conditioned comfort of Starbucks. Inside there's a group of Americans with newly-adopted Chinese babies - apparently it's the place to do it - and various young and wealthy-looking locals, all busily tapping away at their laptops. We stay for two hours until our sweat-dripping clothes have dried out. Down Smooth Minaret Street is a smooth minaret. It belongs to a mosque that is believed to be China's first, established by one of Mo's uncles around 627 AD. Muslims only, unfortunately, but we can confirm that the minaret is smooth. Not far away is the city's oldest Buddhist temple, the "Temple of Filial Piety', about 300 years younger. The temple complex is in very good nick which means it either survived the worst of the Cultural Revolution or has been well-restored. We wonder how popular religion is these days in China.

Not as popular as shopping, based on a simple visual assessment. Down on Bargain Street things are hotting up. Discount shops have clapping sales assistants to entice us in. Or drive us away. Down a back street there's rows of food stalls. One advertises "Fresh New Zealand Mutton". Another sells kebabed grubs, beetles and scorpions. After shopping in Tesco's and drinking in Starbucks here is a great opportunity for us to submerse ourselves in China Proper. Go on, have a scorpion on a stick!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Putting it all on red

Being back in Bangkok is rather enjoyable - like a blast of fresh air, although after three days I am convinced that the normal environment is one of cold dry refrigerated air and the unnatural environment is that sultry damp sweaty feeling you get when you go outside. The city would be more enjoyable if it had a little less concrete and more greenery, less traffic and more space for people to enjoy. Mind, there's plenty of space in the air-conditioned malls. So we do a bit of shopping - kit ourselves up for China with guidebook, phrasebook, chopsticks and matching Mao suits knocked up by an Indian tailor down the Khao San Road - whilst we wait for our visa application to be processed. We also happily catch up with Fiona and Gordon and staying with them for a few nights feels like a real indulgence. They don't look at us as if we're mad when we explain that we've been looking for bicycles for cycling across China. Our plan is to visit for a couple of months, then return to Bangkok in order to visit Burma. We'd then return to Bangkok and with bicycles head up through Laos and into Yunnan. At the moment it's just an idea, but we get very excited when we pass an old shop in Chinatown with a display of Brookes' leather saddles. They look a little like some Victorian torture implement - which is in fact what they are. Anyway, we will be returning to Bangkok.........Our onward flight is to Macau - another cheap deal from Air Asia, Malaysia's answer to Easyjet. Like Hong Kong, Macau is part island, part peninsular. Since the Portuguese returned it to China in 1999 it has become China's Vegas - as a 'special administrative region' (n.b. no connection with SARs) with some autonomy, the authorities have invested heavily in developing the city as a gambler's paradise. There's a whole one-arm bandit's worth of glitzy, showy hotel-casinos littering the water front and filling in the marshy swampland is the showiest of them all - the Venetian. This complex is beautifully modelled on the canals, palaces and piazzas of Venice. Very tasteful it is too. Anyway, the plan seems to be working - Macau's casinos apparently take more money than those of Vegas. There's quite a lot of folk who like to gamble in these parts. We check out the roulette, the crap shooters and another table with furry dice inside a plastic dome in the centre where it looks like people are playing my favourite game when we were kids at Aunty May's, called 'Frustration'.The city itself has an odd European feel thanks to the Portuguese, not just in the array of well-preserved old colonial buildings and churches, but also in the layout and upkeep of the modern parts. It probably helps that there's only a population of half a million here. It's not really China, but we knew it wouldn't be. Our first evening we are passed by a van blaring out an election campaign message. At the weekend there are municipal elections. There are posters showing teams of candidates all glowing and shiny and probably air-brushed for the voters. Most shop and street signs are in Cantonese and Portuguese, the two official languages, so we can get around without a problem. Apart from good cheap food joints there's also some great bakeries. We don't need our phrasebook here, they are used to seeing tourists. On Sunday morning we head to the border gate with China. Strange really, that only now are we entering China proper. The border controls are uneventful. However there are thousands going back and forth - the busiest border we've been at. Out on the other side it doesn't look so much different - a bit more litter and a bit scruffier. We find the bus station and are quickly on a bus and on our way to Guangzhou, China's third largest city. China, at last.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

All at sea - Blocked!

Thanks to the lovely internet security folks of the People's Republic of China, one post from Sulawesi remains incomplete and will have to be finished some other day, when we are back in the Land of the Free.......
Thank you to Fiona for putting the subsequent posts up on our behalf whilst we travel through China.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Under and Over

The driver of the car turns around and asks something. The student next to me translates for us. "He wants to know if you'd like to stop for lunch", she explains. "Yes, if we can?" we look at her doubtfully. It's still Ramadan and she is wearing a headscarf. The passenger in front has also been observing the fast. So too has the man in the back, but then he's been vomiting for the last two hours, so we don't expect he'd feel like eating much. The driver looks pleased by our response. He obviously could do with a bite to eat and a break from the long drive to Manado. But the student seems a little worried. "I'm afraid there won't be any fast food for you, just chicken or fish and rice". Sounds great, but blimey, do most Indonesians think all we eat is KFC and McDonalds?
Manado is our final destination in Indonesia, so it seems fitting that it's such a dreary and ugly place - we really haven't found a single nice town here. Fortunately, just off the coast, there are the Bunaken islands, offering respite form the urban sprawl and traffic chaos. Here Gayle can do a spot of scuba-diving and I can tackle our mobile library. The boat trip from the docks is only 40 minutes but it seems to drag for me - probably worrying too much about the awful sound the wooden hull makes when it scrapes over the rocks on the way out at low-tide. I catch the crew giving each other looks when we crunch our way over the hidden obstacle.
At our very comfy guesthouse we meet another lovely Italian couple, Sylvana and Fabio. It's quiet - already it feels like the high season is over here. We only have a few days left before our flight to Bangkok. We are thinking about China and the next leg of our trip but we also have time to reflect on our time in Indonesia. Travelling across Sulawesi has been one of the highlights, which is a good thing really - it's much better to leave on a high. But now China beckons. Have we got enough energy for it? Will it be as good as we hope it to be? Will we be able to tell our Ni Hao's from our Mei You's?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

All At Sea

Heading northwards through Sulawesi we cross the high central mountains and descend to Lake Pozo. These parts have had their fair share of conflict in recent years with fighting between Christians and Muslims, attacks on mosques and priests, buildings burnt and destroyed. It seems to have settled down and the locals are keen to show that their are no problems. Well, in Pendolo, nothing but the usual power outtages and water cut-offs. We have a nice bungalow on the shore of this huge lake and want to stay a couple of nights, but when we ask about the lack of water the friendly old fella who runs the place just smiles and points at the lake. Does he mean we should shit there or just wash? We move on to Tentena instead.
This dusty village is on the northern side of the lake. Ramadan has just begun but because there's a large Christian community it's possible to find restaurants open. It's a mixed blessing. The food's not great but it is food. There is rain, which makes a change, and we spend our extra day here despite there being absolutely no good reason to. The advantage of being in a large Christian community becomes a disadvantage when we try to leave on Sunday morning. There are no buses. After a very long while we manage to wave down a car and agree a fare to Pozo. Pozo bus terminal is derelict, isolated and virtually deserted. Like the shop owner in Mr. Benn, a man appears from nowhere at our elbow, eager to help us on our way. He speaks good English so we suspect he is used to seeing tourists coming through and getting stuck here. He is our only source of information about the local buses but we just don't know if we can trust him or not. So we don't. Instead we walk back to a road junction where there's a police post and ask them for help. They are game and soon start whistling down any public transport heading towards Ampana. But nothing's going that far. Eventually a guy in a car pulls up. He asks for a huge sum of money to take us. We laugh in his face and walk away. He follows us and we haggle seriously. It's obvious the cops want us to go with him, despite his rather manic appearance. Finally we agree a price and hurtle off. The driver has a young lad with him and tells us he is crazy, but they both look bonkers to us. He drives like a mad fool and gets us to Ampana in super-quick time. No food 'til sundown though. We're starving.

Ampana is the port for boats to the Togean islands which sit in the huge 'C' of Sulawesi. We take a loaded wooden boat full of people across flat waters to the nearest big island - a three hour ride - and get dropped at Poya Lisa, a tiny island just across from the village of Bomba. There's only four bungalows here and we are the only guests. The food is prepared in the village and brought over on the boat - it's all a bit rustic and simple, but perfect for us. The waters around the island are calm and clear and even I'm tempted to snorkel a few times. Fishermen paddle past on the look out for anything edible. The week passes peacefully and uneventfully, if you don't include the rat in the rucksack. Just before we leave we are joined by Emilio and Fabrizia. Emilio serenades us in the evenings with his violin whilst Fabrizia keeps us laughing with laments about Berlusconi. When it's time to move on, Ris, one of the staff, takes us by motor boat up the coast to Wakkai port where the weekly ferry calls in. The ferry is a small rusting bathtub, belching black smoke, and overrun with people either boarding or alighting, loading or unloading. The locals quickly grab the spare bunks, whilst some tourists go for cabins. We opt for the small open deck on the prow. After a delay at sunset as everybody breaks the fast with some fast and frenetic chowing, we chug off. We have three more stops before the boat finally pulls out into the open sea heading northwards to the town of Gorantalo. The moon is up, the sky is clear and the stars are out. This is the way to travel, we congratulate ourselves. We stretch out on the deck with a few others and fall asleep. I awake sometime later conscious of my head bouncing on the deck. I feel distinctly nauseous. The bow of the boat is rising and falling sharply, slamming into the water relentlessly. I stagger to the railing and cling on. The boat is rolling from side to side. A small girl has emerged from the lower deck and is fast asleep oblivious. Gayle and a French couple have now risen and decide to seek refuge inside at the back of the boat. Before they can get inside they join me for a collective heave over the port side. My legs are like jelly and I struggle to follow them, but eventually find a seat by an open window out of which I stare alternately at the horizon or the moon, depending on the tilt of the boat. Here I pass a sleepless night. After the longest night imaginable we spot land and reach calmer waters. As the sun rises so do the passengers. There are many green and weary faces, with tales from travellers who were stuck on the roof. Even the crew look relieved to reach port. A terrible terrible journey. Gorantalo, a sleepy town with a clutch of old Dutch buildings, becomes our favourite Indonesian town. We are so happy to be ashore.