So, the blog isn't dead. It's just been recreated for a new assignment. Let's get started:
The Afghan Plan.
Let's get started.
Posted by Dakota on 12:57 PM link |
I got a flat tire about seven miles outside of Portland, with a three-inch rust-covered nail crucifying the back tire at two separate points. I had already gone 63 miles and was all but done: legs killing me, knees inflamed, and ready for a hot shower and a cold beer. I had put on my iPod, because the stretch from the Washington border to Portland is pretty boring -- 40 miles without much scenery, and little to be excited about except the "welcome to Portland" sign I had already passed. Using an iPod while cycling on the highway is something of a no-no -- it's dangerous and distracting -- and the flat tire felt like punishment for having turned mine on.
I stopped the bike, unclipped my saddle bags and unbungeed the other stuff. For all my tools, I had never actually fixed a flat before.
I flipped over the bike, turned to the "wheel repair" chapter of the Simple Bike Repair book I had bought and read the chapter on removing the back wheel; I had never actually taken the back wheel off, and it seemed complicated with all the gears there. It isn't hard, it turns out; it just requires getting a bit messier than with the front wheel.
I was near Sauvie Island, an organic farming island outside Portland, the site of my first (miserable) marathon in 2007 and a popular cycling spot for people from Portland. The first cyclist heading back to Portland zoomed past me less than 10 minutes after I flipped my back.
"Hey man, you ok?" I signaled that I was, in fact, ok. By that point, I had the wheel off and had my tire levers ready and was about to tackle tire and tube removal, which seemed blindingly complicated by the book's description. I figured that I would try it myself and if I couldn't do it, try to flag down help. If worse came to absolute worst, I could walk the 7 miles into Portland.
Three minutes later, an older couple on bikes (white hair, amazingly sculpted calf muscles) coasted to a stop next to me. "Have all the tools you need?" they asked. "I think I'm ok," I told them. "Ok," they said, "good luck!"
I found the leak, scuffed the tire with sandpaper as instructed by the book, and put on a patch. Two separate people cycling the other direction, on the opposite side of the road, called out to me -- "you good?" I gave the thumbs up.
I pumped up the tire -- itself a process, as I'd never used the pump and it took a while to figure out. The patch held, and I put the tire back together, squeezed it on to the wheel, and reattached it to the bike. Three more people passed; all of them asked if I was ok.
I put the wheel back on the back, and started pumping up the tire, but I couldn't get it to hold adequate air to ride on, particularly since the back tire has to support some 25 pounds of gear and clothing. I assumed the fault lay in the pump, and I took it off and put it back on the valve a dozen times before someone passed me going the opposite direction and asked if I was ok. "Have a pump?" I called out to her.
She was decked out in urban bike courier cycling gear, riding an amazingly sweet looking black and white road bike with low-spoke count tires, and had a lip piercing and was wearing a messenger bag. She was the best I could've hoped for, and clearly knew what she was doing. "Let's do this," she said.
She flipped over the bike ("it's easiest to pump when they're upright"), tried her own pump but couldn't get it on the valve, and then borrowed a nut I didn't know existed off the front tire to make it easier. She gave it a shot, and then tried again, and finally came through with this diagnosis: "Dude, either your patch didn't hold or you've got another puncture."
She offered to take wheel off and fix it for me, but I said I didn't want to take up any more of her time and needed to learn how to do it myself for the future. She pressed -- "aw, dude, I've got nowhere to be. Sure you don't want a hand?" I knew it would take her all of two minutes to fix for me; I thanked her but said I'd take care of it. I wasn't kidding about needing to learn to do these things myself.
Getting the wheel off, finding the problem (the first patch didn't hold after all), fixing it and reattaching the wheel took me less than five minutes; I've got it down now. Someone else passed as I was putting the wheel on.
"Need anything?" he asked.
To a man, every single person who passed me asked if I was ok. Every single one -- probably 15 people over the course of about 45 minutes. Even the people on the other side of the road called out and waited for my thumbs up before going on. I'm not sure if it's a cycling community thing or if it's because I'm on the west coast and people here are nicer than at home, but it's frankly awesome: it makes me much less nervous about doing this route alone, because someone will always be there to give you a hand. I have no doubt that if I run into something that neither I nor other cyclists can fix on the fly, they'll at least ride to the next town and send someone out to get you: it's just how people are.
Next stop: the Oregon Coast.
Posted by Dakota on 11:47 PM link |
Out of Beijing as of July 11. Home leave schedule is as follows:
July 11 -- 24: Caribbean. Antigua, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad. Will traveling in obscure caribbean nations revitalize this blog? Hopefully.
July 24-26: Atlanta. Packing up the ancestral home: mom and dad are threatening to throw out all of my high school note books. They have so little respect for the incredible note taking I did in Chem I and AP US History back in the day).
July 26-30: Charleston, SC. Let the she-crab soup flow.
July 31-August 1: Rochester, NY. Walnut's getting married; who'da thunk?
August 2-4: Seattle, WA. Gotta buy a bike; gotta paint it red.
August 4-September 4: As of now, the plan is for distance cycling. Seattle to San Diego, overland. Major obstacles: rampant obesity, incredible laziness, general malaise. Huge upsides: photos, stories, and of course, an incredibly well sculpted tail in advance of my grand return to internet dating.
September 4 ish: DC, baby. Home sweet home.
September 8: Dari language training begins.
This blog has been on life support for a while, but I'm out of China and maybe things will spring back: being back in America is already wonderful, and not even surly United stewardesses can change that.
Posted by Dakota on 7:37 PM link |
1:00 on a Tuesday, and I standing outside of an embassy killing time before the meeting I arrived half an hour too early for. Two guys, early twenties, passed by wearing shorts and t-shirts. "My first year of Chinese," the one guy said, "really focused on -- I mean, the primary thing that we focused on, I guess, was..."
"I can't tell you," his friend interrupted, "how little I care."
Posted by Dakota on 11:10 AM link |
Normally the smog in Beijing is a thick grey haze that makes the city look out of focus, like the problem is perhaps caused by your eyes and not by the thousands of coal-fired power plants that ring the city. This morning, though, the sunrise light is catching the pollution in just the right way, and it's making the entire view out my bedroom window glow red, like an orange filter has been placed over the sun. It can't be healthy. It's kind of oddly nice, though.
Posted by Dakota on 5:39 PM link |
I'm packing to leave China. That is, I'm doing the pre-pack sweep to begin finally ridding myself of some of the years of crap accumulated through an unrelenting packratism. The fact that the US Government will happily cart around some 7,000 pounds of stuff on my behalf provides no incentive to throw things out, and I'm ankle deep in crap that I barely recognize.
I just found a cache of notebooks, an item I'm particularly horrified at throwing away. One of them was scrawled with grammatical notes on Swedish; a few pages in it switches to Hungarian. I had to read a different notebook almost in its entirety before I figured out what language the 20-some pages were referring to. Animate feminine nouns are derived from animate masculine nouns through an internal vowel shift, routinely a or u to i, with the final vowel (either a or i) unpredictable. Are you kidding me? No chance. Ignore this rule. Turns out it was Sinhala, one of the Sri Lankan languages.
I've got notebooks -- multiple -- full of a nearly verbatim transcript from A-100, our Intro To Bureaucracy training class. I can't bear to re-read them (yawn), but can't throw them away.
There are a fistful of other notebooks with scrawlings from college, not of class notes, but of fragments of conversations I wanted to remember. Some of them are from traveling and seem priceless, even though I've long since written about the trips themselves. Once contained only the sentence, Brussels is eerily quiet.. Others have just a few sentences out of context. For example:
-- 15 March 2003: Anti-War Protests on the Mall. "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? NOW!" "Hey idiots: we're AT peace. You want peace LATER."
-- He just thinks he's Kermitt the Frog. He's not weird.
-- Not since the third grade have I had a teacher refer to the numerator as "upstairs."
-- He had a heart attack? I didn't know he had a heart.
-- Do you ever get the feeling that the person giving the eulogy would rather be in the box?
-- The world bank protests have been CANCELLED?! But, what are we going to do about all this asymmetrical discretionary fiscal spending? It hurts us ALL!
Posted by Dakota on 1:20 AM link |
I prefer the term "punch it out," but Obama uses "fist bump," so that's what I went with. "Madame Secretary, can we fist bump?" "Oh YEAH!" she responded, with great enthusiasm.
And the rest was history.
Posted by Dakota on 6:19 AM link |
Last night I met up with some people from the Polish Embassy for drinks. There was a Cypriot and a fistful of Greeks there as well. About halfway through our time together, one of the Poles excitedly asked -- do you know who you remind me of?
"Matt Damon?" I responded hopefully.
"No, no no no," she said. "You are JUST like that squirrel from Ice Age -- the one who is crazy about getting acorn!"
The Greeks and Cypriot didn't hesitate before vocalizing their agreement: just like the squirrel.
"It's not bad thing," she said. "He is cute squirrel."
Edited to add this side-by-side comparison, brought to you by Quixote:
Posted by Dakota on 2:57 AM link |
In preparation for my grand return to the United States in a scant six months, I've begun updating my internet dating portfolio. Doing so naturally involves a lot of "research," which itself involves obsessively reading other people's portfolios and then whining to my friends that I'm not attractive enough. But with six months to hammer away on the portfolio, I'm hoping I can make it brilliant enough to snare at least a few people before they realize that my body type isn't actually "athletic and toned" as I've selected, but rather is "lumpy," which wasn't a choice on the match.com menu.
In researching other people's portfolios, I stumbled across one that included the following lines, which are brilliant but which I probably can't steal outright, since we'll be on the same internet dating website.
I'm particularly fond of parenthetical statements and stage directions.
When given the choice between cheese or chocolate, I tend to have an aneurysm.
I think Venn diagrams are astounding graphical representations and should be used whenever possible.
That's the sort of brilliance I'm looking for. Six months: we can do this, people.
Posted by Dakota on 8:29 AM link |
A quick post, on the off chance there's any concern, to say that the massive, enormous fire (described to me as "seriously like 9/11") currently taking place at the Mandarin Oriental is a full 4 kilometers south of me, and I am thus not affected by it.
Posted by Dakota on 9:47 AM link |
A skippable linguistics sidenote piggybacking off that last post: on the off chance you're wondering where all the extra R's come from -- it stems from British English and their ridiculous spelling habits. Educated British English ("received pronunciation," if you will) is technically non-rhotic; that is, r's aren't pronounced unless they come before a vowel. Think of the British pronunciation of "four" or "New York" or "park" or any other word with a non-initial R -- the r's are dropped. Where the R used to be, the vowel is lengthened, and the same thing is true in their romanization systems that scatter r's willy nilly where there aren't any -- it's Myanmaa, not Myanmar or even Myanma: the last vowel is held, and the Brits back in the day flagged that with an R.
The same ridiculousness appears to have been applied to the semi-standard Thai romanization system in decently widespread use -- Khao Sarn road, for example, should be Khao Saan. But the Brits didn't have a hand in Thailand back when she was still coasting as Siam, so I don't know where they got it.
Excitingly, Koreans appear to have inflicted the system on themselves for no apparent reason. Thus, while a huge number of Koreans have the surname "Pak," they romanize it as "Park." The nuts and bolts of Korean romanization baffle me, though, and it's still unclear why millions of people with the surname "Yi" in Korean go by "Lee" when they're in the States.
Posted by Dakota on 11:28 PM link |
Here's something unexpected: the Burmese language lacks the letter R. Odd, since it seems to crop up all the time in place names like Burma and Myanmar and the Irriwady delta and Rangoon. But no, no R to speak of. Burma is actually Bamaa (so named for the Bamaa majority -- the name fails to take into account the other ethnic minorities who live there) while Myanmar is really Myanmaa -- the dodgy national airline is Myanma air. The Irriwady river, which cuts straight through the country, all the way to the coast that was devastated by Cyclone Nargis, is actually called the Ayeyawady, which locals pronounce just as Iyyewady.
Rangoon was re-romanized to Yangon (the Y is actually closer to a soft zh -- something like a light Zh'angon) in the same brush stroke that turned Burma into Myanmar back in 1989. The ruling body that made the changes was the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or the SLORC -- which, in my book, holds the all time record for Most Awesomely Evil Sounding Dictatorship Name ever. They're still in power, but on the advice of an American PR firm changed their name to something disappointingly less evil sounding: the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC.
So Rangoon (she'll always be Rangoon to me -- call me old fashioned): a pleasant little town on the banks of the Irrawady. It's a bit dusty, but leafy green and full of broad avenues and narrow side streets.
First impression: Burma smells incredible. The whole of Rangoon smells like frying onions and street snacks. It's like everyone decided simultaneously to make pakoras. Everywhere you turn, there's an old woman selling something delicious -- cumin-studded fried dough, samosas stuffed with a citrusy onion-potato mixture, fried coconut-filled sandwichy-type things.
And there's curry everywhere. The Burmese are big on roadside eating, sitting on those tiny ridiculous Vietnam-style stools anywhere they can fit a table. They prefer Indian-style curry, thick and oily and served with rice, and if you still have rice left when your curry bowl is empty, they'll give you more gravy for free. My boss declared that Burma, sandwiched between the culinary wonderlands of both India and Thailand, had somehow managed to come up with the worst food in all of Asia. I think he's crazy: Burmese food is mostly Indian with just a hint of a Thai accent, a tinge of citrus to lighten things up. I can't get enough. (Also, so long as Mongolia continues to exist, there can be no competition for "worst food in Asia." The title's been won, hands down).
The only food I've hated thus far was Burmese hot sauce. It's blazingly spicy, which I love, but the base ingredient is river shrimp pounded into a smooth paste and then left to ferment. It tastes like spicy, rotting seafood. It's revolting.
My hotel was just off a two thousand year old pagoda, and just off said pagoda is a line of freelance astrologers and palm readers, all of them with signs and hand-lettered charts of palms and constellations and what have you. Having already established the awesome power of the Burmese astrologists -- recall that they arranged to have the capital city moved to a more auspicious location -- there was no way I was turning down a Burmese palm reading. There was a woman with a lazy eye who looked downright mystical and could almost undoubtedly see the future, but she had a line of people waiting for her and it wasn't clear from her sign that she spoke English.
I picked a a short largely-bald and semi-mustachioed gentleman named Gainonigyiton (or some such incomprehensible thing). According to Gainigyiton, my palm reads as follows:
1. Apparently, my palm shows an affinity with Venus, which by extension means that I have a tendency to easily weather problems, am generally outgoing in social situations and am comfortable at public speaking. So far so good, Mr Palm Reader.
2. I have a tendency to spend and not save, and I have a predilection for visiting other countries. (Half right: I save like a beast, and I feel like the whole "you like going to other countries" thing was kind of a gimme, all things considered).
3. I will be unlucky in love. Many women love me, but I have a tendency not to love them back. (Nailed it out of the park, Gainonigyiton!)
4. Having established that I will be unlucky in love, I can expect to be married twice -- once to a woman younger than me, and once to a woman my age. (Don't hold your breath there, Palmy).
5. Despite being unlucky in love, I can expect to have a lover by the end of this year. He didn't specifically mention Match.com, but I'm pretty sure it was implied.
6. My life line is optimistically long but poops out short of spectacular. I should plan on dying at age 87. I should expect good health until I'm 42, but then high blood pressure will kick in, but as long as I can hold on until I'm 55, I'll come into some money. Until then, I need to work on saving more. Thanks, life coach.
7. My fortune line is -- and I quote -- "short and weak." This means that I have bad luck and can generally expect to be poor. Fortunately, for a scant 2000 kyats, he was willing to sell me an amulet candle that I could burn at a pagoda to increase my fortune. I didn't realize I had to decline this option before he started carving things into it specifically for me, which then resulted in a sort had-to-purchase type situation. He carved a cross into it, because he assumed I'm Christian (all white people are Christian, was the thought). I told him that I'm not Christian, that I don't have a religion, and he told me: "no, you are Christian." Maybe it was in my palm somewhere.
So I took the candle to the biggest pagoda in all of Rangoon, the Shwedagon pagoda, and duly lit it in the same place that other people were lighting amulet-looking candles. It was put out twice by the wind and once by the flapping wings of a pigeon that had just burned off several of it's feathers by attempting to eat the wick out of a still-flaming oil lamp. I'm not sure what that means for my fortune line and future prosperity, but I have a feeling that it can't be good.
Posted by Dakota on 11:14 PM link |
The Burmese Embassy in Beijing rejected my visa application because I had no Chinese visa in my tourist passport, and as such they couldn't be sure I'd come back. They offered me a tourist visa in my diplomatic passport, but required a diplomatic note (which is a pain in the tail) and four days processing time, which I didn't have to spare.
On my Burmese visa application in Bangkok, I listed my profession as "diplomat," because I figured that if I wrote something else and they found out, I'd be tossed into a Burmese prison -- which might be fun for a little while, if I spoke Burmese (I've never been to prison anywhere, and I have no doubt that my fellow prisoners would have good stories). But aside from a mangled 'thank you', I don't speak Burmese, so diplomat on the application form it was.
They put my application on indefinite hold while they cabled back to Rangoon for approval. I wrote Burma off as dead figuring I'd try again in May, and began debating whether to take a bus to northern Laos or a flight to Bangladesh. I had my sights on Dhaka when the Burmese Embassy called and said my visa was approved. 24 hours later I had my visa in hand. 36 hours later, I was on a flight to Rangoon.
The flight into Rangoon is directly over rice paddies. The airport itself is only about five kilometers from downtown, but Burma is an impossible rural country -- some 80 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. There was a brief kerfuffle at customs about my profession (quoth my seatmate on the plane, a 60 ish year old British woman of Finnish decent: "why, in god's name, were you honest? ANYTHING is better than that. Make something up -- cleaner, bus driver, McDonalds manager, anything but that"), and despite having a visa, I was braced for a quick deportation. They waved me through without issue.
Some initial thoughts on Burma:
This above all: I had no idea Burma would feel like a South Asian nation. It's deeply Buddhist, shares its longest border with Thailand and is firmly a member of ASEAN. It never occured to me that the colonial British past might give it a flavor more like India than like Thailand.
It does feel an awful lot like India, though, albeit in a Buddhist pagoda-flavored sort of way. The way everyone wants to be helpful, the way they approach you on the street and just start talking, the food and the street-snacks, and just the general air of the place: it's got British colony written all over it. It's totally subcontinent.
I love it here.
Here's the other thing, though: in 2003, the Burmese banking sector collapsed. That same year, Western nations imposed sanctions on Burma that caused all the international banks to pack up shop and head elsewhere. This means that there is no functioning banking sector whatsoever in the entire nation of Burma. That fact particularly sucks for Burmese people and businesses, all of whom are crippled by a lack of easy capital. But it also sucks for travellers on the ground: aside from the cash you're carrying, there is absolutely no recourse to additional funds. There are no ATMs, no credit card advances, no places to cash a check or wire yourself money. If you run out of cash, you're completely screwed, period.
I tend to spend very little money when I travel. I like the five-dollar fleabag hotels, have no problems on long-haul buses without air conditioning and love street food more than anything in the universe. But I also tend not to think about money at all -- at the end of the day, I don't care how much money I spend. Travelling is what I save for.
The guidebook recommended 400 bucks for a two week trip on the cheap. I came into Burma with 300 bucks in US dollars and about forty bucks in Thai Baht. The baht are snake oil: no one wants them. That left 300 bucks for 8 days, or $37.50 a day. On my first day, I spent nearly 60 bucks. On the second day, I spent 45 dollars.
I started hastily setting aside money in various places -- 10 bucks sequestered in my passport for the mandatory airport tax, 20 bucks in a side pocket of my bag for the bus ticket back to Rangoon at the end of the trip. I sketched out back of the envelope calculations, over and over, debating if I could afford a samosa, a second bottle of water, a taxi ride.
I'm now back on budgetary track, having passed most major expenses in the trip and still in possession of enough cash to keep me in hotels and chapati for the next few days. But money has been an unexpectedly major preoccupation of this trip. It's particularly hard since in a place as poor as Burma, I'm incapable of turning down beggars: I've given at least something to every single one that's approached me, but every time I do, I panic a little bit that I'll get stuck on the outskirts of Mandalay with absolutely no means of getting back to Rangoon -- much less on to Bangkok.
And here's the other thing about money: I am wracked with guilt that part of the money I'm spending here is getting back to the Burmese Government. I'm keeping an obsessive running tally of hotel costs (there's a 10 percent tax on hotels), entrance fees to major sites and pagodas, and anything else that may accrue money to the Junta. (I just typed a long paragraph spelling out point blank my feelings on the junta, but disclaimer at the top of the blog or otherwise, I think it best to keep it to myself).
I am only staying in small, family-run hotels, eating at roadside stands and tiny restaurants at which grandma is clearly doing the cooking, mom and dad are taking orders and the kids are serving and clearing plates. I'm handing money over wholesale to the Burmese people whenever possible, and avoiding anything that the Government has a hand in -- I'm not drinking beer (Myanma Beer Company is a joint venture government enterprise), for example, or taking trains or other forms of public transportation, all of which, down to the local city buses, benefit the junta, 5 measly kyats at a time.
I am still wracked with guilt. The fact that the Burmese clearly want tourists to come doesn't matter to me: I had to fork over 810 Thai baht -- 23 bucks -- to the Burmese Government for a visa, and that money is haunting me. The fact that [an unnamed foreign government] hands over well over 600 million dollars per year to the Burmese for natural gas doesn't lessen my guilt at handing them 23 bucks and change for a visa: it's more than they would've gotten if I hadn't come.
When all is said and done, I plan to give double what I give to the Burmese Government to a reputable charity that works inside Burma. Does that make it ok? I don't know: still wracked with guilt.
Posted by Dakota on 3:20 AM link |
Unexpectedly, the Burmese Embassy called and gave me the all clear: my visa was approved by MOFA HQ back in Burma, and I could come in and pick it up any time: off tomorrow for a week-long furlough in the Union of Myanmar, a country so overwhelmingly interesting that I don't even know where to begin.
This is a nation run by a consortium of military leaders who decided in late 2005 -- on the advice of an astrologer -- to move their capital city from Rangoon (which they renamed Yangon, in keeping with the Burmese language) to an undisclosed location some 300 kilometers north, beginning at the lucky hour of 6:37 in the morning on a particularly auspicious day in early November, and then reinforcing the luckiness of the move by capitalizing on the power of the number 11, moving 11 government ministries and 11 battalions of soldiers in 11 hundred vehicles beginning at 11 o'clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year.
It took almost five more months before the Burmese Government unveiled the capital city to the world, hosting a massive military parade in March of 2006 to mark Burmese Armed Forces Day, an appropriate holiday given that the nation is run by a military junta. They call the new capital Naypyidaw, meaning the Abode of Kings and while it's an auspicious place, it sadly lacks enough schools and infrastructure to adequately host the entire Burmese Government: such logistics are not the purview of astrologers.
I'm panting in excitement that they're going to let me go: you can't make stuff like this up.
Posted by Dakota on 8:19 AM link |
My visa to Burma is now on indefinite hold, with a potential answer maybe coming -- maybe -- sometime next week. My hell/high water plan was to attempt to make my way to East Timor in the event that everything with Burma went pear shaped. That said, having now done the research on plane tickets (Bangkok -- Bali -- Dili, in Timor, and then back), I can say that East Timor would be an additional 600 bucks on top of an already expensive trip. Worth it?
I'm leaning no. Pear shaped, indeed.
Posted by Dakota on 12:31 AM link |
Sometimes I think I can still swing it as part of the grungy backpacker scene, that despite my luxury 3-bedroom in the swank part of Beijing, I can still hack it in 4 dollar hotels and on long and miserable bus rides with livestock as seatmates. I still think of grungy backpacker types as my people, even though the Embassy is largely tasked with taking care of that subset of the population when they lose a passport, or get busted for possession, or run across the law in some other disastrous and unpleasant way: still my people.
But now I'm standing in the visa line at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. The guy in front of me has a half-inch thick chunket of ivory -- it's fang-shaped -- through his pierced left ear, and I overheard him debate with his fellow traveller if, on the visa application under 'purpose of travel,' they should just be honest and write 'hashish.'
I feel so old.
Posted by Dakota on 12:23 AM link |
This much I know is true: I am a wretched photographer. I have a nice enough camera, the digital SLR that I bought used a few months ago, and I make up for my lack of skill by the sheer volume of photographs that I take. This makes my photographs almost impossibly boring to look through, with hundreds of photos of wide open spaces, and I (packrat to the stars) for the most part unwilling to delete any of them. I'm also unwilling to put them on to a publicly accessible website (flickr or picasa), because then the world will know that I'm an overwhelmingly boring photographer.
I went on the three big trips since the blog went silent. Three big trips without a lick of blogging to me indicated that the blog was dead and I should kill it once and for all, but I get too much of a kick out of my old travelogues to do that. I think the camera is what hurt me most: I normally take notes while I travel, writing down random chunkets of what I'm seeing, as I see it. Nothing makes the blog except what I note. But with a camera, my first impulse is to snap pictures rather than to write things down. And since I'm a wretched photographer, the last three trips were largely unrecorded.
I don't want to turn this blog into a photoblog. I'll keep the pen handy on the next trip.
So, to recap in brief, and in chronological order with just a few photographs to indulge my wretched photography habits:
Mongolia was beautiful beyond any speaking of it. It was also cold beyond any speaking of it, with the temperatures in late September already firmly in the low 20s at night. Mongolians sleep in open-topped yurts, and once the fire in the middle burns out, it's ridiculously cold.
I remain committed to traveling solo, but in Mongolia it's largely impractical: the things that one goes to do to Monglia are either prohibitively expensive or outright lame if done alone: horse trekking, hiking, camel tours, what have you. But Mongolia is studded with Tibetan Buddhist temples, and since getting there is half the challenge in Mongolia (guidebooks give GPS coordinates -- useless to me, as I lacked both transportation and a GPS device), set off for a few of the more remote monasteries with just the goal of getting there.
I started in Ulaan Bataar, a pleasant enough but largely unremarkable town where everything is named Genghis Khan.
This isn't Genghis himself, but he's pretty much everywhere else.
I snagged a bus to Darkhan, the second largest town in Mongolia, but the country so lacks infrastructure that even the road linking the capital with the second largest city is half unpaved. I stood in a parking lot where cows were grazing in calf-high trash, and hired a car and driver via pantomime who took me to Amarbayasgalant Khiid, a monastery 150 kilometers from nowhere and 30 kilometers off anything resembling a road. I invariably have ridiculous luck with temples, and they were having a temple fair for no apparent reason that I could figure out.
Nice horns. Nice mask. Nice hat. Nice... head.
The gentleman above wandered around and passed out candy to all the Mongolian kids who were wandering around the temple grounds. I still have no idea what the fair was about, what holiday (if any) they were celebrating or what point in Buddhist theology they were trying to drive home. I speak no Mongolian, and what limited Russian I speak is certainly nowhere near good enough to grasp religion. But god knows it was pleasant to look at.
Darkhan. Ulaan Bataar. On to Kharkhorin, to see the Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first monastery founded in Mongolia at the time of Tibetan expansion in 1586.
Does it look cold? My god it was cold.
I stood on the outskirts of Kharkhorin for about three hours with my thumb out, hoping to catch a ride to somewhere near Tovkhon Suum, a monastery and pilgrimage point tucked in the mountains somewhere near the town of Khujirt. I got picked up by an amiable Russian-speaking used car salesman from Ulaan Bataar who was out to find a spot in the forest to bury his parents' ashes. He let me tag along.
We started with vodka at 10:00, moved to fermented, lightly-alcoholic horse milk at noon, and found a suitable spot at around 1:00. His wife made instant noodles while he tied prayer flags around nearby trees and I, on his instructions, dug a hole. He chanted, burned incense over the hole, and built a pile of cookies for the birds. We toasted his parents and his wife and life in general, and lay in the late autumn sunlight in the Mongolian forest. The mood was upbeat, almost exuberant. My lack of talent for photography does the event no justice.
Amiable, that's for sure.
We spent the afternoon driving from yurt to yurt on the open Mongolian steppe, stopping at nearly every yurt we passed. He knew everyone. At least it appeared that way: I have no idea what they were talking about. I love the sound of Mongolian -- vowels come in not just long and short, as you'd expect, but also in 'whispered' or 'breathy,' so Mongolians appear to stop speaking halfway through a word and start whispering. It's hypnotic; I'm convinced it sounds like hoofbeats. But hypnotic or otherwise, I understand not a single word of it, and it was unclear to me if he was stopping at strangers homes to chat or if he actually knew the inhabitants.
At every home, there was fermented horse milk -- airag, in Mongolian -- and it's the only Mongolian food product I developed a taste for. Well-fermented airag tastes lightly carbonated, and it has a sweet, almost candy-like undertone. The fresher stuff isn't so good, with a distinctly horsey undertone that follows you around once you're done drinking. Mongolians drink from communal bowls, and you have to blow away grit and crust from the top of the airag before you can drink it, but it's the primary source of nutrients in the Mongolian diet and I actualy enjoyed it.
The rest of Mongolian food is so ungodly bad that I lost 14 pounds in 10 days. At every stop, there's horse cheese. It comes in a small variety of textures -- there's soft, creamy horse cheese that feels like cream cheese and has a layer of horse cream on the bottom, and there are dried chunkets of cheese that are so hard they have to be gnawed on. At every stop, I choked down one bite to be polite and then stuffed the rest into my pockets. Dogs started follow the smell of my pants. I only got caught once, but they thought I liked the cheese so much I was saving it for later, and thrust more into my hand as a parting gesture. Mongolians were infinitely giving and hospitable; the unfortunate part is how truly awful what they had on offer was. I'm still convinced that I'm carrying a vaguely mare's milky smell with me.
I had largely forgotten about the monastery by mid afternoon and, slightly buzzed and vaguely nauseated by all the airag, I didn't really care. I wasn't sure where we were headed when we passed by a couple of hitch hiking teenage monks, picked them up, and drove 10 kilometers straight uphill through the forest to the monastery, perched on a peak in the middle of nowhere. "We'll sleep here tonight," they said.
Could be a lot worse.
The monks put us up for the night, made us a meal of mutton soup, and chanted for a safe onward trip. The ranking monk was a scant 21 years old, and the other three were really just kids. They clowned around for the camera and then looked through my photographs from the other monasteries and pointed out their friends: apparently the community of monks in Mongolia is ridiculously small. The next morning we hiked the nearby forest, and took the pilgrim's walk through the temple. Sunrise was glorious, both because of the view and because it meant that heat and feeling would be returning to my limbs.
Prayer flags under the deep blue sky. Monks. The monastery is the green-roofed building tucked in the mountain behind them.
So that was Mongolia: wide open spaces that take forever to cross, bone-numbing cold, and miles and miles of steppe, livestock, yurts and forests. The people are ridiculously friendly, and I wouldn't hesitate to go back, but I'd want at least a month, and I'd only go again in summer, that's for damn sure.
The Mongolia blog went a lot longer than expected, but if I don't keep going, I'm finished forever.
Kyoto is lovely beyond any speaking of it. It's probably the nicest city in Asia, and certainly the most romantic place I've been in a long time. It largely escaped World War II, and is so packed with temples that you can't help but wonder if they really need that many.
I went for Thanksgiving. I skipped turkey and had katsudon, which I love, and I topped it off with sushi from the sushi-go-round, which I hit twice in four days. I deserved it, frankly.
I again failed to take adequate notes. The city was blanketed with red leaves (I briefly understood the New England fascination with autumn), and went to dozens of temples and took hundreds of mediocre photographs.
I've got thousands that look like this.
The temple above is Fushimi-Inari, the temple of the temple-gate, dedicated to the Fox God. They sell onigiri -- rice and seaweed packets -- which are the favorite snack of the fox gods, and you can munch on them while you hike around the temple. You're supposed to pray to the fox gods (ring the bell, make a wish, clap twice) to have your wish will come true.
"Don't pray to the fox gods," my buddy told me. "I prayed before my Chinese test, and I failed. In fact, take one of those rice packets and shove it in that fucking fox's mouth," she said. (I prayed. No luck on the wish just yet: foxes are damn close to worthless).
Cambodia: the Angkor Wat half marathon. I've lost my will to keep blogging for the evening, so I'll just say that the Angkor half marathon, on a tree-lined street that leads through the temples at Angkor -- you actually pass through victory gate, and it's glorious beyond any speaking of it -- is possibly the best run I've ever done. Hundreds of Cambodian kids line the streets to cheer you on, as do monks (monks!), and the whole thing raises money for charity to buy artificial limbs for landmine victims. Greatest. Run. Ever.
Posted by Dakota on 7:50 AM link |
After toying with the idea of killing this blog once and for all, I realized that I like the sound of my own voice far too much to actually do that. Where else can I wax poetic about grammar? Where would people go except my page when using the search query "typical Romanian woman" or "female escorts in bandar sari begawan" or "hooker bars in muscat"?
Other nonsexual queries which won't be answered by this blog but I'm still pleased brought people here include "How to say I feel your pain in Chuukese" and "light from the sun how long ago did it leave the sun" and "songs in switzerdeutch."
So we're still a go here at Face The Sun, and as such I think it's high time for a quick recap of the last few months of 2008. The blog of course fell silent and I have little patience for detailed review after the fact, so I'll see if I can make this as brief as possible in an easy to read power point-esque bullet format. Actually, since I lack follow-through and generally like fragmentedness, I'll probably break this into multiple posts. And while we're being completely honest, I'll also go ahead and predict that I'll stop one shy of actually finishing and then let the blog languish until March or so.
In the mean time:
1. The Rest of the Olympics, Gallopingly/Chronologically:
Athletics: Racewalking finals, mens. A ridiculous sport, and one that makes my hips bleed just thinking about it. This much I know is true: Racewalkers are some of the very few Olympic athletes I wouldn't want to see naked. Or maybe would want to see naked just once.
Trampoline Gymnastics: Throwing yourself 40 feet in the air while flipping crazily makes for an unsurprisingly good spectator sport. As a bonus, Australian Trampoline Gymnast Ben Wilden was hanging out in the stands after his disappointing 6th-place-ish routine, and he was mobbed by Chinese girls and Dakota. I didn't dress like him on purpose, but retrospectively I'm kind of glad I did.
Two trampoline athletes: one real, one fictitious.
Ben Wilden became a recurring theme in my Olympics experience -- we're now Facebook Friends, making our association valid and blessed by the internet -- and it almost because awkward how often I ran into him in bars. It kept happening: "hey, you're trampoline gymnast Ben Wilden!" I think it's safe to say that I was the only one celebrity-spotting him, if we can call it that.
Rowing: Beautiful venue, gorgeous athletes, hideously boring sport. I was pretty excited to see the other twins on the US Olympic team; Paul and Morgan Hamm having ditched out on gymnastics, I was left with second-choice twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, on the men's rowing team. But they were so thoroughly destroyed in their race, coming in so far in dead last that the other boats were practically out of the water by the time they crossed the finish line, that they didn't stick around so I (general stalker posing as a rowing fan) could talk to them afterwards.
Beijing is a gigantic city with a glorious small town feel where everyone seems to know everyone. So my colleague's significant other, a former Yale rower and current Beijing University visiting fellow, was able to say with confidence that the Winklevoss twins are assholes, and not particularly good rowers to boot, and I didn't miss much by not talking to them. Phew.
Beach Volleyball: mens, and basically everything I'd hoped for, but I attended with a Marine from the Embassy who was game for neither ogling nor gambling; what, I ask, is the point? I perhaps should've been more upfront about the gender of the players.
Triathlon: Stroke of dumb luck: a guy at work's wife has a brother who happens to be an agent for a small fistful of Olympics athletes. Amongst his stable is not only Troy Dumais (a diver -- he referred to him casually just as Troy, and when it dawned on me who was talking about, I got all awkward and stuttery and asked if he could introduce me; he said he would but never did), but also Hunter Kemper, the favored US athlete in the triathlon. So I and another friend (the inimitable Bernie, who left Beijing to become a professional triathlete himself) hitched a ride with them to get our triathlon on.
The course wrapped around the Ming Tombs (I made sure to show off my flashy knowledge of the dates of the Ming Dynasty -- 1366 to 1644 -- at least once an hour), and was designed for spectators more than athletes; the swim was entirely visible, and the run and bike were both on a short course that lapped by the spectator stands multiple times. I had assumed that the race itself would be pretty boring, but it was ridiculously exciting to watch. It finished with a glorious four-way tie coming down the final run stretch -- four guys running, three medals to be distributed -- and was edge-of-seat exciting, certainly one of the best events I saw at the Olympics.
Kemper was the highest-ranked US athlete, placing 7th over, and as we walked away from the venue (I, hooting encouragement at the triathletes I recognized -- I had studied the participant list in advance) Kemper's agent asked -- hey, do you want to have lunch with Hunter?
Yes, I did want to have lunch with Hunter.
So we waited for him to show up (he was tagged for a random drug test immediately after the event, and it delayed him a bit), and the hotel where he was staying suddenly filled up with triathletes: all three of the US team members were staying there. So I gushingly met Matty "Boom-Boom" Reed (a US immigrant -- his brother is a professional triathlete on the New Zealand team), and admired his bike and asked for a photo while he was still wearing his gear.
The reason they call him "Boom-Boom remains unclear to me."
And then Jarrod Shoemaker strolled in and similar things happened. I had chatted with his parents about consular services and passed them my card; he emailed not to ask about passports or visas, but to see if I wanted to get a drink. He never followed through, even though I of course leaped at the opportunity. "He's worthless in a non-draft-legal triathlon," the agent had informed me, but I still would've been happy to get a beer with him.
Yes, I'd still like to get a drink if you're available.
And then came Hunter Kemper, who plunked himself down at the table with a grin on his face and said he wanted McDonalds immediately: he'd earned it. We had Chinese food instead, and he ran through the race and gave Bernie, the triathlete-to-be, advice on the best way to draft, and to position oneself when entering or exiting the various portions of the race, and it was, in general, glorious beyond any speaking of it. He and his wife (also a former Olympic athlete, on the US women's volleyball team) were ridiculously nice people, and strikingly normal to boot: they were just people.
I kept my athlete worship relatively in check for most of the meal. Relatively.
Really fast moving people, both in the water and on land. Cool.
Table Tennis: You'd think that table tennis would be the crown jewel of Olympics tickets in China.
With form like this, I can't believe I didn't make the US team.
You're be wrong.
Here's the deal: there are a billion tables playing at once, so it's hard to focus. Obviously, you're betting like a madman with the guy next to you, but that can only carry you so far.
No, really: a lot of tables.
The real problem, of course, is that the Chinese are just too damn good at table tennis and they've got a lock on the entire sport, throughout the world, period. So the placards indicate that Hungary is playing Australia, but the athletes are named Hu Weizhong and Sun Xiaoli and what have you. They've got different passports, but for the most part, the entire sport is dedicated to figuring out which Chinese person is the best in the world. Ultimately, it was decided that Chinese Chinese people are the best in the world -- and the second best, and the third best as well, having edged out Sweden in the Bronze medal match and played against each other for silver and gold.
Baseball: Man, baseball sucks. Major League Baseball sucks, but Olympic baseball really sucks. I suppose it was vaguely cool in a sort of theoretical way that I got to see the USA win over Japan for the bronze medal in the second-to-last Olympic baseball game ever, but once you get past the theory of it, it's really just a dumb game in the hot sun.
Mountain Biking: Almost as bad as baseball. You hike out to the middle of nowhere, stand in the woods with a few other stalwart biking fans, and then wait. Every few minutes there's a flash of color as a couple bikers go by, and that's it. There's no means of knowing who's winning or how many laps they've done or when they're going to finish. Occasionally people would try to sneak across the course and several of them almost got mauled by incoming bikes, but aside from that the whole thing was pretty lame.
Men's Beach Volleyball, Redux: by some miracle and stroke of good luck, I was chosen as a "site officer" for Men's Beach Volleyball for the closing ceremony delegation. Site officer means you're the fall guy -- you're there in case anything goes tragically wrong and they need someone to blame. You're also there to speak Chinese if need be (there's never a need) and generally to make sure that the principals involved are ok.
The principals: your Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao (Zhao Xiaolan in Mandarin, which means "Little Orchid Zhao" and which I considered addressing her as before deciding that "madam secretary" was probably more appropriate), and your Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael O. Leavitt (who does not, to my knowledge, have a Chinese name, and would likely not respond to the name "Big Orchid.")
Also present was your Ambassador at Large for Public Diplomacy, the inimitable Michelle Kwan. Let me repeat that so the importance of it can sink in: your US Ambassador at Large for Public Diplomacy, Michelle Kwan.
It goes without saying that I can't tell a triple axle from a triple lutz (not even wikipedia is helpful on figure skating -- but it did teach me that the correct spelling of "sowcow" is in fact salchow), but that doesn't mean that I won't forever think of our time at gold medal men's volleyball as our first date.
First this: the sky was gloriously blue, and it was 10 in the morning on a work day and I was sitting in the VIP section of an outdoor venue and watching the US kick Brazil's tail to win the gold medal in an awesome game of beach volleyball, and I couldn't help but think that this -- THIS -- is why I'm so lucky to have the job I do. My god the Olympics were glorious.
Anyhow, so the game finished up (triumph!) and the Olympics coordinator who was there asked the Secretaries and Michelle Kwan if they wanted to meet the athletes, and they did, so I got to tag along and shake hands with two enormous volleyball-playing beasts (one of our guys, Phil Dalhausser, is 6'9; the other is a scant 6'2; I felt tiny).
I don't have the patience to photoshop myself in here; pretend that I'm there.
Post game, Secretaries Chao and Leavitt had some official function of some sort or another and had to bolt. I was never able to ask the Secretary of Health and Human Services exactly what in god's name a "human service" is, which makes me think that the world will never know. In the mean time, Michelle Kwan asked if I wanted to go to lunch. I can't turn down dumplings.
I also can't turn down ambassadors at large for public diplomacy or professional figure skaters, so it was basically a confluence of all of my favorite things. I'd like to pretend that the atmosphere was romantic and datelike and it was just the two of us rocking the xiaolongbao and shaomai at the Din Tai Feng, but in reality we were chaperoned by some 10 other people there as well. In fact, Michelle Kwan might not have asked me if I wanted to go to lunch so much as I in fact just stayed on the bus with her until it took us to a restaurant, at which point I followed her inside. Whatever.
The Ambassador's wife was one of the ten hangers-on sitting at the table with us, and she pulled me aside later to whisper urgently that Michelle Kwan is a LEGEND, and as such everyone is terrified of her, terrified! and so no one's willing to ask her out, because they're all too intimidated, so you, Dakota, you have to ask her out. Offer to buy her dinner!
I chickened out, of course. She's an Ambassador at Large! She outranks me by like 600 rungs on the totem pole! And she's a LEGEND! She's so intimidating!
Also, she's really into the sweet red bean-filled dessert dumplings, and as far as I'm concerned that makes her undateable.
So that was the rest of my Olympics experience. I'm guessing that if you've made it this far, you're probably wishing that I had in fact killed the blog as I was originally considering.
Posted by Dakota on 10:13 PM link |
Lest I lose it, never to be found again within the interwebs, I'm posting here a link to my new favorite website, ever: Forvo.
Native speakers pronouncing words. No definitions, no dead weight -- just pure, awesome phonology. Holy cow.
Posted by Dakota on 1:29 AM link |
I was coming in to the embassy from a lunchtime reception, and my pal who was next to me was wearing a gigantic and somewhat ridiculous red-white-blue felt top hat that caught one of the guards eyes. She asked -- "who won?"
A person three steps ahead of us whirled around and without missing a beat responded: "America did." He's right, I think.
Posted by Dakota on 1:59 AM link |
I have additional Olympics posts that I was racing to get onto the blog before next Friday, when I leave for Mongolia -- but after the bombing in Islamabad, posting Olympics nonsense feels shallow and worthless. I read the news reports, and then I started looking at pictures and had to stop: I'd spent too much time there. I have yet to see any lists of people killed, and I'm dreading looking through them: it's just too likely I'll know someone. One couple whom I know still in Islamabad confirmed they're ok, but still: too likely.
There really aren't any words for this.
Posted by Dakota on 11:34 PM link |
After badminton, I dropped by a friend's place. Her parents were in town, and she'd promised the dazzling combination of Thai food and dessert if I could keep myself out past sunset to meet her mom and dad. I was in her living room making small talk while shoveling curry down my gullet when a mutual friend of ours, a journalist who seems to know everyone in the universe, mentioned in passing that she'd run into Nadia Comeneci earlier in the day. After ascertaining that she wasn't pulling my leg, I freaked out a bit: "Nadia Comeneci, of perfect ten fame?" I asked. Indeed: of perfect ten fame. And then she dropped the bomb:
"Oh hey, I'm meeting up with John Roethlisberger tonight. Do you wanna go?"
This offer made me hyperventilate for half an hour or so while loose ends were wrapped up and we made our way to the door. John Roethlisberger. Three time Olympian, world champion competitor like 86 times, Roethlisberger. Current coach, former hero, Roethlisberger.
An hour later we still hadn't left and I was visibly agitated: what if we missed him? Someone gave me a pen in case it occurred to me to have him write his name on something, and I mourned my lack of camera. Finally, after midnight and well past my bedtime we made our way to the cab stand and proceeded to the crappy bar area around houhai lake.
We went to the bar where they were supposed to be; no sign. Panic. Calls were made, a club was named and we proceeded that way. And then, directly in front of a speaker blaring wretched techno, I met him: Roethlisberger. Shook his hand, introduced myself, stuttered. The intimidation factor was high, and I was quite disappointed to find that I, at 6'1, didn't tower over his 5'7 like I was hoping to: so much for the height advantage. We all went outside to get away from the thumping bass.
It wasn't just Roethlisberger. It was former Stanford gymnast and current gymnastics journalist (who knew that was an occupation? Certainly not me. Apparantly "Inside Gymnastics" hires them) Dan Gill. And it was Team USA Alternate David Durante. And it was all of their girlfriends too, but that was unimportant. What was important was insider gossip from the world of Gymnastics. I loved every second of it.
"The Hamm twins," I asked. "Still in Beijing?" The answer, spoken with disgust and shaking heads, was that the first Hamm, Paul, hadn't come in the first place, and the second Hamm, Morgan, had taken great pains and gone to great lengths to get out of Beijing in advance of the team competition. They made it clear: you'd have to be a true asshole to abandon your team before the biggest event of their lives, particularly when you were already in country.
"Second Alternate Sasha Artemev: he's explosively powerful and it looks incredible to watch. Is he as much of a pommel horse genius as he appears to my untrained eye?" The short answer: genius to a greater degree than you'll ever understand.
And then came the more pressing question, which I posed to Roethlisberger: "Let's be hypothetical and say I were rocketing towards 30, and had no gymnastics background
whatsoever. Let's also say that I'm neither strong nor flexible. (Dan Gill, charming and poised: "now I KNOW we're not talking about YOU, man!"). What's it going to take for me to be able to build up to Thomas flares?"
Quoth Roethlisberger: "One, just call them flares." "Ok, what's it going to take for me to flare?" I asked. "No," he said, "you need a verb -- to do flares." This wasn't going well. "Roethlisberger, you're killing me. To do flares. Is there any hope?"
The answer: "it's possible. It's going to take a long time and it's going to be extremely painful, but if that's ok, you can do it." Perfect. "To start with, you'll need to wake up tomorrow morning and start your day with about 500 pushups." (I: "That's only 492 more than I currently do!"). "Then, if possible, you're going to need to stretch yourself out on the rack for a while." (I assume that's some sort of gymnastics equipment). "Once you're strong enough an flexible enough, things will pretty much fall into place." (I'm not sure that I believe that, but it doesn't matter: I've started doing pushups in my cubicle, in between paragraphs I write, to build up to 500 eventually).
And that was pretty much it. Durante said he didn't think there was a big chance that he, the third alternate (after Raj Bhavsar and Alexander Artemev) would be pulled for the team. He asked about 24 hour restaurants, and I applauded that even gymnasts get the late night munchies. It was approaching two in the morning.
We went our separate ways. I didn't get a number nor give any of them mine, but I kept hoping they'd call back and want to hang out: we've all got our dreams, I guess.
Posted by Dakota on 9:38 AM link |
Next event, chronologically: badminton.
Here's the brief synopsis: I have decided to become an Olympic badminton player.
I recognize that there are a lot of obstacles to this task. For example, I do not own a badminton racquet. I still chuckle at the word shuttlecock. I have, technically speaking, never played badminton, and most people don't break into Olympic sports they've never played when they're rocketing towards 30 years of age.
To quote Obama: we know the road ahead will be long and full of obstacles. But no matter how many things stand in our way, nothing can get in the way of a million voices screaming for [Dakota to become an Olympic badminton player].
Badminton, like handball, was unexpectedly awesome. It's a blitzkrieg sport, lightningly faced paced and truly awesome for spectators. And it's all about reflexes, split second reactions to the incoming birdie and whether or not you can get your racket under it in time. Asians dominate the sport, but I've got decent reflexes, honed by a childhood well spent playing nintendo and not exercising, and I think I'm next in line for the badminton crown. All three of the Americans who made the Olympics in badminton were Asian-American. I think it's time we caucasians were represented.
The take home message: the next time you're in a place with international tournament level badminton on display, get yourself a ticket immediately. It's captivating enough that I'm planning to attempt to join in. Also: there's enough beauty on the badminton court that I think I could enjoy myself on the circuit, which is a nice bonus. Shuttlecock, ho!
Posted by Dakota on 8:34 AM link |
The vast majority of countries participating in the games had a hospitality house for their athletes and visiting VIPs. The majority restricted entrance to citizens of the home nation; some, like the USA house, restricted access to athletes and their immediate family members, whom the athletes had to escort. (The USA house gift shop was accessible to the Embassy community, and the stuff on sale was very cool, but tragically expensive -- I, powerless in the face of athletic apparel, never allowed myself to go).
The Dutch hospitality house -- the Holland House -- was sponsored by Heineken, and was open to everyone. And it was awesome beyond any speaking of it.
One, they had Heineken on sale, which despite being not free is still approximately 45 times better than Budweiser.
Two, they had croquettes. Croquettes are basically the gravy part of biscuits and gravy, rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried. I don't fully understand the logistics of how one deep fries gravy, but the Dutch have figured it out on our behalf. The result is the most delicious nuclear-hot lava-like gravy on the planet, and it's the single greatest thing you'll ever eat -- particularly if you've already thrown back a few Heinekins.
If croquettes weren't enough to win Holland House the honorary title of most wonderfully cholesterol-soaked hospitality house, they also served fries with mayo. This pushed my happiness meter to somewhere near 'bliss.'
Three, the place was packed out with Dutch people. It's no secret that I love the Dutch (I always have!) and the Holland House featured hundreds of patriotic Dutch people decked out in Orange, the color of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange. The Dutch have a lot going for them: hyperfluency in English (nearly 80 percent of Dutch people speak English. 80!), the tenth highest GDP per capita in the world, and one of the highest rates of overall satisfaction with life -- put simply, the Dutch are happier than most people on the planet
Also, the shortest amongst them stand 6'3. I, a paltry 6'1, have never felt so consistently short.
A few short months ago, I was tasked with writing a briefing paper on the Netherlands, and as such was able to start conversations with such exciting factoids as "did you know that the Netherlands produces 33 percent of the EU's tomatoes, and 25 percent of its green peppers?" And of course, since well over ten percent of the Netherlands was reclaimed from the sea by Dutch engineers, I made sure to liberally throw around the line "God created the Earth -- but the DUTCH created the Netherlands."
The atmosphere a club bud was stuffy exclusivity. At the Holland House, it was open and friendly, albeit in a distinctly pro-Netherlands kind of way. Even the athletes, with their impressive physiques and intimidating ID badges, seemed accessible. So I started talking to them.
"Hey man, what's your sport?" It's remarkable how far that line will get you when you're surrounded by Olympic athletes. These people have done nothing but eat, sleep and breath their events for years. It's not just that they want to talk about their sport, although that is clearly the case. It's that they don't actually have much else to talk about. Their sport: it's all they've done.
"Hey man, what's your sport?" "I'm a rower." Oh, that explains your physique.
"Hey man, what's your sport?" "Air pistol." Oh, that explains YOUR physique as well. More fries with mayo?
"Hey man, what's your sport?" "Kayaking." Really! How'd it go? "Not so great, but my teammate won silver, so we're celebrating." Really! Is your teammate around? I've never met a silver medal winner. "She'll be here soon."
And then, ten minutes later, he tapped me on the shoulder, addressed me as mate and introduced me to his teammate. I shook her hand, congratulated her, and said -- rumor runs you won a silver medal today. She smiled, thanked me, and held up the medal -- she had been wearing it around her neck the whole time, and I hadn't even noticed.
I, slightly buzzed and very excited on her behalf, immediately got gushy. "Holy s---! That's an olympic medal! That's a f---ing silver medal! You're the second best kayaker in the whole WORLD! Can I touch it?" She let me, and I remarked on how heavy it was. "Does it hurt your neck?" I asked. "I can handle the weight," she grinned.
I didn't think it could get much better than that, but then I was hanging out outside near the fry stand, when sudenly the crowd started buzzing about someone who was in line to get a croquette. I craned my neck. "Is that... Holy cow, is that -- " A dutch person next to me confirmed it:
"Yeah, it's him. Willem-Alexander, the Crown Prince of the Netherlands."
I moved in to attempt to shake his hand, but his security people were very effective at keeping me and dozens of Dutch people at bay. Nonetheless, I will forever think of the Olympics as that time when the Crown Prince and I were hanging out at the Holland House, eating croquettes. You know: like you do.
Posted by Dakota on 9:46 AM link |
Judo: my god what an awful spectator sport. Honestly.
Judo -- the "gentle way" -- is incomprehensible. Seriously. I slogged my way through 18 pages of wikipedia, only to arrive and not have a clue what was going on. There are apparently 4 different types of moves, ranging from instant victory to one-point minor thumps. There's no telling what those moves actually are, particularly once a match is underway.
If you pin someone for 25 seconds, you theoretically win. But it seemed like the majority of the time someone would pin, the ref would come break it up well before 25 seconds. Matches last for five minutes, and 3 minutes would go by with no score and then suddenly one of the fighters would be up 141 to nil, inexplicably.
Our seats sucked (high above the two judo mats on which bouts ran simultaneously). We sat next to a woman from the Netherlands who expressed surprise that we had bothered to come to an event we didn't understand. There was a gold medal match (won by Georgia who, semi-excitingly, had previously taken down Russia), which passed just as inexplicably as the previous matches.
A second gold medal, for one of the women's weight classes, was won by Japan. There's a shocker: Japan's good at judo.
Posted by Dakota on 3:51 AM link |
After more or less years of wanting one, I finally broke down and made the purchase I've been drooling after:
A digital SLR camera. Some people would say that I'm an idiot for waiting until AFTER the Olympics to purchase this. They're probably right. That said, I had no idea how affordable SLR cameras are until a friend of mine purchased one, opening the floodgates for me. And here we are.
In addition to the camera, I finally bought an SD card reader, allowing me to take pictures off of my other camera (which also technically belongs to the same friend), which thus allows me to upload the following picture from Chinese New Year, when I shaved my head in the bathroom of a cheap hotel room in central Guam. Razor burn and all:
And now, back to our regularly scheduled Olympics hullaballoo.
Posted by Dakota on 3:07 AM link |
I bought Olympics tickets shotgun-style. I tried to get something for more or less every night of the competition (aiming for evenings so as to avoid time off during the work day). I had high hopes for some events (gymnastics, beach volleyball, table tennis), and low expectations for others. Handball assuredly fell into the latter category.
I was thus pleasantly surprised when it blew my mind.
Here's what I didn't know about handball: it's unexpectedly violent. I had heard it was like soccer, only with hands instead of feet; wikipedia didn't mention that it's closer to hockey, played by enormous dudes on a field the size of a basketball court, with full body checks, violent takedowns, and a level of aggression on par with the NHL. Like in rugby, the players don't wear pads, and the level of physicality makes it intense. The games are high scoring, to boot: 30 points per side is the norm rather than the excpetion, which gives an air of berserkness lacking in lower scoring sports.
Our seats were four rows off the court and we were surrounded by dozens -- if not hundreds -- of raving Danes, all whom had painted faces, flag capes and viking hats. I had decided in advance to root for Denmark in the first game, and being surrounded by Danes sealed the deal.
Denmark vs Korea: handball is awesomely faced paced, and the speed of the game hyped up the crowd. The general level of excitement in the stadium was being further fueled by massive quantities of beer, the price of which the Chinese Government inflated only slightly for the Olympics -- cans for 5 kuai, bottles for 8, or 70 cents and a buck ten respectively. Handball turned out to be the only Olympic event at which I drank: the atmosphere just screamed out for a beer.
The Danes were enormous, lanky men, almost universally blond and averaging somewhere around 6'5. Their playing style seemed to revolve around brute force, driving hard towards the circle that rings the goal that players aside from the goalie can't enter. The Koreans were nearly equally as large as the Danes, but played a more wiley game, placing shots carefully and depending less on driving in to the goal. The star player on the Korean team was short, comparatively -- perhaps not even six feet tall -- but he nailed it every time he went for a goal.
The Danes, bolstered by crowd support and a slight size advantage, held a slight lead over the Koreans the majority of the game. I found myself screaming bolsa! (clap clap clap) bolsa! along with everyone else, only to later be filled in on the meaning: defense, apparently. Danish enthusiasm is infectious.
When the Koreans snuck the ball into the corner of the goal in the final minute of play, bringing them to an insurmountable 31 to 30 advntage over the Danes to ultimately win the game, I was devastated. I kept gasping out no! in disbelief, and looking at the people around me, like they could make it better. I dejectedly munched on the chicken nuggets I had smuggled into the stadium.
Iceland played Germany and the second game. I had planned to continue supporting Scandinavia (go Ísland!) but the Germans were out in force and my one-man cheering effort seemed overpowered. I found myself cheering for both sides, secretly hoping that the final winner would be Denmark rather than one of the two teams playing. I can't remember who took the second game.
So handball: in short, awesome beyond any speaking of it, despite a devastating and unexpected loss to Korea at the last minute. Becoming a professional handball player is probably outside of the realm of possibility, but the game definitely further cemented my resolve to become Danish.
Posted by Dakota on 4:49 AM link |
This is supposed to be a chronicle, but I feel I've already talked to much about gymnastics (and there's plenty more where that came from), so I'll just mention in passing that Sunday night we hit up women's gymnastics quals, and our seats were 5 rows off the field of competition, and indeed, it completely rocked. Overall awesomeness factor: high to very high.
Posted by Dakota on 7:58 AM link |
In related news, I got called out of town just after the Olympics ended, to the Land of No Internet Access. I kept faithfully blogging, emailing things to myself from my blackberry, and I'll now go back and add them in one at a time over the next week or two. The first is below; apologies for the absence. Responses to emails: likewise coming.
Posted by Dakota on 7:55 AM link |
Shortly before gymnastics, a buddy of mine called and asked if I had plans for the evening. "I'm going to men's gymnastics," I told him. "Will it last all night?" he asked. "Hopefully," I responded.
"Ok," he said. "So -- you don't want to go to the MTv red carpet event at Club Bud, then?"
Wild horses couldn't have made me pass up the opportunity. The degree to which I'm not into clubs cannot be understated: we Dakotas do not dance, and because I am 10,000 years old I find loud bars to be counterproductive to social interaction and generally not in any way fun. I'm also so not Red Carpet -- I can't recognize celebrities to save my life (pop culture, who?), and even if I were to recognize someone, what would I say to them? Hey man -- great work in that film you were in, which I didn't see but heard was great, I think.
But it's the Olympics and there are athletes afoot, and when else am I going to get to hit up a red carpet event? It was a right-place-right-time invitation, and so: wild horses.
Panic set in immediately: what do I wear to a red carpet event? I put on jeans and took them off, did the same for khakis and pondered going pants-free before finally settling on black pants, pinstripe, slightly formal but fashionable.: Beijing is packed with Europeans and I was hoping to convey the concept of, if not necessarily Mediterranean, perhaps Mediterranean-friendly.
Once my pants crisis was averted, I headed to gymnastics. When I was en route, my buddy called to say that I should just google pictures from other MTv red carpet events and see what people wear. He'd be in jeans, he said. Back to panic, although by that point it was too late to do anything about it.
I took the sweet new Subway line from gymnastics to Nongzhan'guan, the sight of Club Bud. Nongzhan'guan is the Agricultural Exhibition Center, which I've passed a million times but have never been inside. I was pretty stoked at the idea of agricultural exhibition: in a country known for it's (say) eggplants, I'd be pretty excited to see some exhibition-quality eggplants on display. Couple it with a few beers and it's almost too much for a single evening.
I got off the metro with five dozen Dutch people, all dressed in identical orange polos and chattering to one another in a casual mixture of Dutch and English indicating complete bilingual fluency in both. I love the Dutch, always have, and was pretty excited about going to a swank party with hordes of northern Europeans. "So, are you guys Dutch athletes?" I asked excitedly. They looked at me strangely. "We're just Dutch, man. But we're FANS," they told me. I followed them.
They went to a different bar. Blast.
Club Bud: the door was guarded by cocky bouncer types, and they were turning people away left and right – lot's of HE's on the list but you're not so you'll have to get someone from inside to bring you in. People were walking away disappointed. I was dazzled by the lights, and assumed I'd be turned away too. I was welcomed as a VIP; I think they thought I was Secret Service, rather than a professional Xerox unjammer.
Here's the thing I wasn't expecting about the Red Carpet event: it was awkward. Not awkward in a "you people are beautiful and I'm struggling to make conversation" kind of way. It was awkwardly empty. All those people they were turning away would've added more atmosphere than the three-quarters empty dance floor was providing. The DJ even sounded awkwardly unsure of himself. "We're uhh, kicking it old school? Yeah. Kicking it."
I had a beer (budweiser was free, and the only thing available). I danced, briefly and against my will to Bust a Move (we were kicking it old school). I went back to the sidelines and had another beer.
A lean, muscular guy walked up to me and asked if I live in Beijing. I replied in the affirmative and asked him the same question. He responded: "I'm here for... the Olympics?" His tone implied I might perhaps not have heard of the Olympics before.
He turned out to be an Olympic road cyclist, representing New Zealand. Once pleasantries were over, he cut right to the heart of the matter: "so since you live here" he asked, "do you know where I can buy some extacy?" This caught me off guard. "Don't they test you guys?" I asked. "Mate," he reponded, "road cycling was this morning. We lost."
After informing him that I know of no conduits to any illegal substances, I tried to make small talk. I make small talk for a living. It's a huge part of my life -- cocktail parties, meetings, receptions, lunches, casual chitchat. It's what I do.
I was completely incapable of making small talk with the cyclists. Examples fragments of abortive would-be conversation topics:
-- So, what do you do back in New Zealand aside from cycling? ("I'm a professional cyclist; it's what I do for a living.")
-- How's the Olympic experience been? Is it the red carpet party it seems like it would be? ("I just got here two days ago, and all I've done is my event. Which we lost.")
-- Right, but I mean the whole package, living in the village, surrounded by other athletes, racing -- has it been a good time? ("Mate, I told you -- we lost. The racing wasn't good.")
-- So, does team New Zealand hang out? ("Some, yeah -- we're a team.")
-- Was this your first Olympics? ("Yeah.")
-- Aside from cycling, what do you do for fun? ("You mean aside from drugs?")
-- So, just the one event and now you can hang out for the rest of the Olympics? That's gotta be cool? ("Not quite as cool as a medal.")
I finally went with the following last-ditch question: so, are there any other athletes around here? ("Yeah. Come with me and I'll introduce you.").
He introduced me to another New Zealander, who wandered off shortly thereafter, and an American, who turned out to be an Olympic sailor. His father in law, in his mid-fifties, is also on the Olympic sailing team, making him possibly the oldest athlete in the 2008 Olympics. Cool.
The sailor was friendly and (mercifully) easy to talk to. He was optimistic on Team USA's chances for a medal. Shortly thereafter he apologized, said he'd been on his feet all day and had to sit down. He sank into a plush chair far too low to continue having a normal conversation, and I had to walk away.
Thus far, I was feeling that Red Carpet Events are poorly attended festivals of awkwardness, and that everything you've ever seen on MTv is a crock. But there was a gigantic check in the box labelled "meet Olympic Athletes," so at least that was taken care of. And at that moment, in strolled one of the Secret Service agents with whom I'd been in the back room, hanging out with Bush.
He turned out not to be a Secret Service agent, but rather the personal assistant to Bush 41, the former president Bush. And he was so normal! This was unexpected: he was just a normal human being, who happened to work for the landscaping company that did Bush 41's house in New England, which put him into close enough contact with the guy that he eventually hired him as a personal assistant. (I: "so, you mowed Bush's lawn, and THAT landed you a job as his personal assistant?" He: "no, man -- I never mowed his lawn. I did everything else -- I weeded and planted and spread pinestraw and the whole deal, but I never once cut his lawn.")
I was promised minor celebrities -- B list, if you will -- and was feeling somewhat disappointed that the only celebrities present were Chinese (and thus unrecognizeable to me). The day was saved when, just before I went home, a buddy of mine grabbed my arm and pointed out the B-est of B List celebrities, so ubiquitous that even I, Captain I Hate Pop Culture, could recognize him: David Schwimmer, better known as Ross from Friends.
So then: athletes met: two. Minor celebrities spotted: one. Free beers consumed: a fistful. Overall satisfaction level: mid-range. I remain baffled by all the fuss around these fancy pants red carpet events: sure, the beer was free but for all it's exclusivity, it wasn't really anything to write home about.
Posted by Dakota on 7:22 AM link |
Saturday, August 9, 8 pm: men's gymnastics. My first event of the Olympics.
Some people would perhaps say that my first event was the first tranche of men's gymnastics, which was shown at noon and included team USA, and which I watched with great enthusiasm by myself on my couch. But the first event I saw live was the third tranche, which included teams from Belarus, Germany, Romania and South Korea. But men's quals was the first event I saw live and was also the event to which I was most looking forward to.
It didn't disappoint: men's gymnastics is awesome. I'm not a sports writer and I can't do it justice and I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to gymnastics -- but come on. They defy gravity.
Men's quals is a blur, and it's hard to follow -- all six apparati get going at once, and it's sensory overload. Floor and vault, high bar and rings, parallel bars and pommel horse. They're constantly announcing new athletes, people applaud dismounts seemingly every eight seconds, and there are awws at falls and audible expressions of nervousness every time someone looks shaky or does something risky, and it constantly feels like your missing something. It's also too awesome for words.
My obsession with men's gymnastics in general and the US National Team in particular have led several of my coworkers to question if I, in a past life, might maybe have been a gymnast. I wasn't -- in addition to being six foot one (the tallest member of the US team, Justin Spring, stands a full half foot shorter than me at 5'7), I'm neither strong nor graceful. But this time -- like every other time I've watched men's gymnastics -- I've decided it's time I get serious enough about strength training and flexibility to build to where I can pull of Thomas Flares at will. (Take another look at this video from a few posts ago; Thomas flares show up from 0:35 to 0:50).
The gymnast in that video is a Bulgarian named Jordan Jovtchev, and he's a legend: 34 years old and still going strong, silver medalist on the rings in Athens and competing now in this, his record-breaking 5th Olympics. I didn't think he was coming to Beijing, so I when they announced his name as he was mounting the rings, I basically freaked out. The Bulgarian Embassy is next door to ours, and I'm not sure what it's going to take for me to meet Jovtchev, but surely our proximity to them will, if nothing else, aid my stalking.
Sitting a few rows in front of us was a guy with a Team Britain backpack still wearing the spandex outfit of an Olympian. (His physique was also something of a tell). We struck up a conversation with him after the meet and found out that he's Louis Smith, a competitor on the pommel horse from the UK. He had no intel on where gymnasts go to hang out in their spare time, or where I could go to better search for the Hamm twins on the off chance they came to Beijing despite injury.
Subsequent googling done by my coworker with whom I watched the event turned up a BBC article about the guy. I feel like I've had a brush with greatness.
Posted by Dakota on 10:42 AM link |