Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shanghai: city of contrasts

I landed at Shanghai Pudong airport pretty late. I went through immigration and customs very quickly. Especially in the summer, I try to travel always with only carry on luggage.
As soon as I appeared at the arrival hall, the driver waved at me. He has picked me there several times in the last weeks. It was hot and humid. We walked to the carpark and started our drive from Pudong to the city. The strong air conditioning was relaxing and refreshing.
I was staying at the JW Marriott. I arrived in my room and laid down on my bed for a while. I was tired, the flights, the heat, the jet lag, meetings during the day, e-mail and teleconferences in the evening.
I took a shower. Most of the rooms at JW are fantastic. The hotel is pricey (about $400 a night), but it is worth the while. My shower was directly onto the window panel. If you dim the lights, you can see the Pudong skyline while you shower. The steam gave the city a mysterious look. I felt much better.
I put on my jeans and a T-shirt. I looked down from the 47th floor and I saw the contrast of this city of 16 million souls. Ultramodern high rise buildings in the middle of old and run down housing complexes. Many of them will not be there anymore when I come back next time. I saw several white, red and blue spinning signs in one of those complexes. I needed a hair cut and a head massage (gen xi tou).
In a few minutes I was in one of those little shops. It was midnight. The hairdresser, a young guy, looked tired. I explained to him what I wanted. He washed my hair, gave me a head massage and cut my hair. He did a great job. He looked so tired. Maybe he had been working since 9 in the morning. It was past midnight now.
I asked him how much I owed him. He told me RMB 10 (US$ 1.25). I never give tips, because I do not like to alter the market price. This time I broke my rule (I would do that later again) and I gave him RMB 20.
I felt I still needed a body massage. I wandered around. It was a bit risky, because I did not know the area well. I saw another shop with the spinning sign.. In the outside there was a sign with the price list. A one hour massage for RMB 30 (less than US$ 4). I ventured in. It was almost 1am.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Japan: watersports and no money at midnight

My flight from Shanghai to Tokyo was delayed due to weather. I landed in Narita at 11pm. Since I was going to stay in Japan for a day (I actually extended my stay one more day), I decided upon arrival to visit the restroom in order to give you a follow up on my previous posting “Pissing Dutch”.
The first thing you notice is that the restroom experience at Narita airport is a matter of trust. There is no lock in the door. The system detects that there is someone inside and blocks the access to another person. The toilet has all kind of controls and there are water jets in all directions. But attention guys, if you manipulate the controls while standing, make sure that you use eye protection gear. Otherwise you may find a powerful jet of water going directly into your eye and I do not think that this is what the designer was thinking when he developed these gadgets.
I also found something that you single people may find irrelevant, but it is vital if you have little kids. It is a kind of wall mount to hold naughty children. You simple place them there and forget about them for a while. However I was not able to figure out the use of the foldable stretcher inside the restroom and I leave it for your speculation.

When I got to the arrival hall, an airline employee told me that due to the late arrival of the plane, the only possibility to go to the city was to take a free bus to Shinjuku railway station. The ATM machine did not operate after hours, the bank was closed and I did not have a single Japanese yen.
During my one hour ride, I defined my game plan. I saw three possible alternatives:
Take a taxi that would take Amex credit card
Try to find an ATM machine that would accept my cash card and then take a cab
Take a cab to the hotel and change some money at the hotel service desk upon arrival.
Many options, nothing to worry.

However I realized that I had forgotten a basic requirement, a piece of advice that I always give to people traveling to countries that do not use the Roman alphabet. I did not have the name of the hotel written in Japanese characters (neither katagana, nor hiragana, nor kanji). I was supposed to stay at the Meridian Pacific.

When I arrived to the Shinjuku station I saw a long cue of cabs. I went to the first one, I opened the door and I showed my Amex to the driver. He said “hai, hai”. My first problem, payment, was solved.
Then I showed him the hotel name on my itinerary and he shook his head. Then I tried the basic trick to translate foreign words to Japanese. Use the 5 Spanish vowels AEIOU and end the word with a U (pronounced “oo”). So I told him Meridianu Pasifiku. He said Pasiku, Pasiku. I looked close enough to me and I said “hai”. He was not convinced, so he asked me the phone number. I wrote it on a piece of paper, after adapting it to what I thought would be the local form of it. He punched the numbers on the keyboard of his GPS navigator and a 3D building appeared with superimposed characters. Pasiku, Pasiku! He exclaimed. He drove through Ropongi district and shortly after, we arrived at the Meridian Pacific, a.k.a. Pasiku, opposite to Shinagawa station. It was 1 am.Posted by Picasa