China – Two Final Lessons

Posted by Ted on Jul 27, 2009 in Travel

As we left Shanghai yesterday morning, we were taught two final lessons. The first was as we harriedly returned to the Yu Yuen Gardens in order to find the painting that we’d eyed a few days before. The shopkeeper had told us on Monday that we might have it for 300 Yuan, down from the listed 1200. At the time, earlier in our trip, we declined. When we returned the following busy Sunday morning, she denied ever having offered such a price and we must have misheard her. We finally negotiated her down, somewhat painfully for both of us, to 500 Yuan, paying 200 in poor negotiating tax. Always bargain better on weekdays, and never reference historical verbal offers.

Then, as we caught a cab to the maglev station, we paid merely 30 for the metered fare. This was 4x less than what we’d paid when we arrived a week earlier, our naive mistake at the time being that we asked “how much?” before we got in the cab. Never do that. They have meters for a reason, and have no qualms about ripping off unsuspecting and overtired tourists just getting off a long international flight.

All in all, we probably negotiated most of our deals reaonably well, and will know how to even better next time.

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China – Day 3

Posted by Ted on Jul 21, 2009 in Travel

The paths one takes on a pilgrimage are often difficult. Plans fail, expected roads are found to be blocked, and tricksters mislead you. This has always been, and must be so. A pilgrimage is supposed to be out of the ordinary. They are supposed to be hard. It is, in part, overcoming the obstacles to finally reach the spiritual destination which provides a sense of accomplishment. If it were easy, one might feel that they cheated, that they did not truly deserve the reward.

Today was such a journey. We left our hostel after breakfast, having checked the train times to Ningbo online. Of course, we discovered that our information had led us to the wrong train station only after there was no way we could get a cab to the Hangzhou East station in time. Two hours were lost waiting for the next train.

The ride through the countryside was lovely, past verdant rolling hills, farms, and small towns. Being the only white people in our car, we were a source of fascination for the old man and young teen sitting across from us. Hungry, we took advantage of a passing food cart and enjoyed the best ramen noodles that either of us have ever had.

We arrived in Ningbo worried about making the last ferry to the island, being stuck within reach of our destination. Somewhat lost and stressed, we were saved. As luck, divine intervention, or simple business opportunity would have it, we were approached by a kind gentleman who simply said “Putuoshan?”. Clearly enough non-asian pilgrims come through Ningbo for just such a need. For 300 yuan, he escorted us into a cab and to the ferry terminal, purchasing our tickets for us. He made a good 100 yuan off of us, and it was well worth it.

Finally on our guaranteed way, we settled into our bus ride to the fast ferry dock and onto a packed ferry to Putuoshan. We watched the sun set over the Zhoushan archipelago of lush green islands, the waterways filled with Chinese tankers. We passed by container cranes, similar to the familiar ones in Oakland, but red and perhaps even more of them. While ours at home mostly unload, these surely do more loading, spreading ‘Made in China’ goods throughout the world.

We finally arrived at Putuoshan under a clouded sky, and were assailed by hawkers of lodging. After giving in to one of them, we were taken to a nearby hotel where we were lead down decrepit, smoke filled halls to a musty room with 3 single beds and then to a better room at a higher price. My gut said to leave, so we took our money and went back to the dock to try our luck again. We found a similarly priced option, in a nicer location, with a more straightforward management. We enjoyed a dinner on the outside patio of crab that we’d picked out ourselves, fried rice, and the most amazing, yet simple, Chinese cabbage and mushrooms.

Already, we feel that we have achieved our goal. Even if the morning weather obscures the eclipse, we are on a beautiful island in the East China sea, and that is reward enough.

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Morocco, Day 10

Posted by Ted on Nov 5, 2007 in Travel

This was our last full day in Morocco. We could easily have spent a month or more here in this wonderful country. Not only would we have spent more time in the dessert, but we did not venture into the mountains or up to the Mediterranean coast. We will be going back.

The day didn’t start well; we both had bad dreams, and woke up before 7am. We had OJ and coffee on the terrace, but skipped out on breakfast in order to try our luck elsewhere. One of the only places open that early was Cafe L’Horloge, where we had a typical breakfast, but better than what we could get at our riad. While we were there, they got their daily mint delivery. We knew that the national drink was mint tea, but his blew us away. A man showed up pulling a 4x6x2 cart filled with mint.

Afterwards, we went back to the riad for the final time, to pack up and head out. We walked to the bus station to drop our bags until the evening, and then walked through the medina stopping to visit our music seller and have a pot of tea. We stopped at the fish market and had some grilled fish, and then walked along the beach, and found a nice place to lie down and take a nap. We relaxed on the beach, and watched the sun get lower and lower, finally setting behind a lighthouse.

Then we saw something completely unexpected; a camel in the ocean. From a distance we saw a lone rider, going for a sunset stroll through the surf. Finally, we packed up and made our way back slowly towards the bus station. We found our way back to the scarf shop and chatted with our friend Rachid, where we saw this absolutely beautiful purple blanket. Our funds were dwindling, and we were determined not to take out any more cash. We bargained hard, and got the blanket for a steal. We could tell that he was pained to let it go, but at the same time, there was a respect for how well we negotiated. More than that, we made yet another friend whom we are still in contact with. Our very final purchase was a beautiful ceramic bowl as a gift, and a spice cellar that has room for salt, pepper, and cumin. After 10 days, we had finally learned how to haggle the Moroccan way. To be willing to get up and walk out, being dragged back in for that “final” price. We would more frequently be called ‘Berbere’ for our shrewdness, and we took that as a compliment. It seems that feigning pain at seeing their wares go for a low price is all part of the game.

As we left, we also met our last street haggler; a boy, about 5 or 6, selling packets of kleenex. We bought one for 2 dirhams, and then relaxed in a deserted plaza having tea before heading off to the bus station. Our last bus took us up the coast back to Casablanca, where we then caught a cab to the airport, and back home.

Morocco was one of the most amazing places that we have been. It is a country as varied in landscape as it is in its people.

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Morocco, Day 4

Posted by Ted on Oct 30, 2007 in Travel

157 miles as a direct line, the 10 hour bus ride to Zagora was very long. Not only did the bus stop several times along the way, but it was slow moving through the Atlas Mountains. Imagine, if you will, a dilapidated Greyhound bus traveling through mountains on a one-and-a-half lane road, with hairpin switchbacks. Liz’s ability to sleep just about anywhere served her well. Me, on the other hand, I could not get comfortable. The stops I remember were at this little town about 2 hours in, just before the mountains, with various food shops on both sides of the street. Then there was a longer stop at Ouarzazate, and at Agdz. Right around that last stop was when sunrise happened, which revealed a beautiful landscape. We were past the main mountains, into rolling red hills, and along a very narrow, very lush, river valley, dotted with blocky settlements built out of clay,

We finally arrived in Zagora, and our new friend Ali invited us to his friend’s shop so that we could drop our bags, change into clean clothes, and relax with some tea. We also had a very simple and tasty breakfast of bread, omelette with cumin, and avocado shakes. While we waited, we bought a couple of head scarves for our trip into the desert, and I bought a huge mirror. This turned out to be the most egregious purchase of the trip. The initial offer was 9000 dirhams, or $1170. Had I actually thought about this at the time, I would have realized just how ridiculous this was. I talked him down to 1800, or about $230, but later found out just how ridiculous even that was. I was clearly taken advantage of. On the upside, however, the shopkeeper did let us keep the mirror and our purchases from Marrakech in his back room while we went to the desert, and he did an amazing wrapping job on the big mirror, such that I was able to carry it on 3 buses and a plane without breaking it.

After breakfast and before starting the final leg to M’Hamid, the real end of the road, Ali took us to a nearby campground to relax for a couple of hours. Prends Ton Temps is this wonderful gem that I expect most visitors to the area never find. It is run by one of the friendliest people that we met, a Tuareg musician named Belaide. His warm hospitality was characterized by his deep voice, a mix of Bobby McFerrin, James Earl Jones, and Louis Armstrong. We also met Ali’s girlfriend, Nezha, who was also an amazingly generous and caring person. We hung out with her under a tent and relaxed for awhile, talking about our mutual pasts, and our experiences thusfar in Morocco. We listened to music, and were introduced to Tinariwen, a group that blends traditional desert music with modern influences. After such a wonderful chill time, we had a lunch of chicken tajine, couscous, and more delicious pomegranate. Then Belaide brought out his oud, Ali picked up a drum, and they played live music for us.

Finally it was time to continue on our way, and so Ali called a cab, and we took a 2 hour taxi ride to M’Hamid. Ali put us up at the being-built Sahara Services hotel just outside of town, where we dropped our bags. We then went into town to talk about setting up our desert adventures, after which Ali invited us to dine with his family. While we waited for dinner time, we hung out next door at his cousin’s souvenir shop, where we got a low-key introduction to the world of Moroccan carpets. He and his helper laid out rug after rug on the ground, one on top of the other, showing us the differences between Tuareg, Berber, Bedouin, Haratine, Nomad, and Kasbah. We realized fairly quickly that we liked the first two styles, but we resisted the urge to buy any rugs during our trip.

Then we followed Nezha to the home she and her two children shared with Ali, his parents, and his three younger siblings. We walked down dark sandy streets, our first introduction to the Saharan sand. It was fine like playa, but not without that silky alkali texture. Their home was simple; a large central anteroom, with smaller rooms off of it. The livingroom floor was laid out with carpets, there was a tea chest and a small TV in a corner, and a decorative bellows hung on the wall. The five little kids were running around, interested in having visitors, and Ali’s mom made tea. Watching her perform the tea ceremony was mesmerizing. She fanned the coals with the bellows, and when the water was at the right temperature, performed an intricate ritual. First there were the tea leaves, then she would take a big block of sugar and would break off large chunks and drop them into the pot. She added these amber crystals that I would later find out is the resin of the Acacia tree, which grows in the Sahara. This tea was notable in that it did not contain mint, as it is what the desert nomads would make. When the tea had steeped, she would perform a complicated set of pourings into and out of the glasses and the pot, until all the glasses were filled. They are small glasses, generally about half filled, and there were about 3 or 4 iterations of this. Nezha said that they have tea 12 times a day for good luck, and I was unclear whether this counted as 4 or 1 of them.

After tea and the children went to bed, Ali came home and we talked for awhile until dinner; was a delicious beef tajine with potatoes and olives, which we ate in a traditional fashion, with our fingers using bread to scoop up the stew. And finally, we ended with the usual plate of fruit, including more pomegranate. It was such an unexpected honor to be welcomed into their home, to share tea and a meal, and to watch the inner workings of the family. While men typically are the business owners and the leaders outside, the women rule the roost. And kids are kids.

Stuffed and happy, we walked back to where we were staying on the edge of town, guided by the moon.

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