August 10, 2008

Taking the Bus

Paul had told me that Olympic life, for journalists, revolves around the buses. It's not that I doubted him, but I'm starting to see it first-hand.

When we leave the hotel we go through what the journalists call mag-and-bag, a security screening where we press our credential to a computer to prove it isn't counterfeit, and then to go through airport-type security screening. This means that once we leave the hotel we are entering a secure area -- namely, the bus.

Thus, when we left the MPC today to take a bus to the Judo venue, we didn't need to be screened because it already had been done at the hotel. I'm under the impression that a. this isn't how it usually works and b. this is better than how it usually works. At events stateside, clearing security at the venue just mucks it up and everyone is in a hurry. Here, it's just part of the routine, and nobody seems to mind.

So we get to the Judo and my plan is to go out into a "real Chinese neighborhood." The venue is at a gymnasium on the campus of Beijing Science and Technology University. I couldn't get into the venue, because I have the wrong credential (it confines me to the MPC) but I was able to take the media bus.

The accredited journalists headed for the gym and I was too nervous to try to sneak in. Plus, the last thing I need to do is have my credential revoked. The working journalists have E on their credential, and down lower the number 4. I have Ec on mine and no numbers, so even if you don't look closely, it's kind of obvious.

Because the area was secure, I couldn't easily walk over to where the spectators were entering. So I left the secure area, walked around the block, and re-entered as a spectator. I looked around for some tickets, and there are zero. No scalpers, no ticket box office, nothing. I walked into the venue (nobody stopped me) through the spectator entrance and then thought huh, maybe I can just stand in the doorway. I got through a door but then one of the half-dozen volunteers standing there looked like they were going to scrutinize the credential. So I scrapped that idea.

Then I decided to take in the spectator experience. I had heard there was a public viewing area, with a big screen. I found that, but the screen was dark and nobody was around. I wandered around the University campus and it's mostly older block buildings. It looked like it was mostly housing/dorms and lecture halls, but without any students heading somewhere specific, it was pretty quiet.

The campus is nice, what I saw of it. I went past a few shops: a bookstore, a mobile phone store, a mini mart, two fruit-and-vegetable vendors, a key place. It wasn't interesting, and Chinese, and really had nothing to offer a tourist. I don't know what I was looking for, exactly.

It had gotten kind of warm by this time, and I'd walked around several blocks so I thought I'd head back to the nice air conditioning of the press center. I figured out how to get back to the media entrance and thus onto the bus. I had to go through mag-and-bag, and then I'd be home free.

Except I don't have the right credential. I put my badge on the machine (sort of like the hand print match machines you see in a James Bond movie) and it blinked red. Hmmm. So the guy sees it's a media credential, takes out a magnifying glass and checks the hologram sticker to make sure it isn't fake. It looks good to him, he sends me on my way and I'm about to put my bag on the security belt and another guy stops me. He wondered why the badge hadn't cleared and so he asked to see it again.

I knew I was in trouble, but sometimes I can talk my way out of these things. So he says, with incredible sincerity and deep regret, that he's afraid I can't go through. I just want to get on the bus, I say. He says, apologetically, that he realizes that, but my credential won't allow it. I tell him I came on the bus, and it seems to make sense that I could leave on the bus. And then he brings up the part about the bus being secure. See, when I left the MPC I had already cleared security, and by leaving the venue proper, I had been contaminated.

The volunteer couldn't have been nicer about it. He told me where to get the City bus that would take me back to the MPC. That was a whole other ballgame, taking a city bus. I followed his directions and found the Special Olympic Bus Line No. 8 but it didn't clearly show that it would take me where I wanted to go. At this point, I'm finally in the middle of "real Chinese" people and they find me a curiosity. What am I doing there? What does my badge mean? Half of them are staring at me and the other half seem willing to help. I show them my badge. No good. I take out my handy MPC flier -- the one that tells a taxi driver where I want to go in Chinese.

This causes several people to have a spirited discussion about where it is I really want to go. After about five minutes of this (and I am now secondary -- the more important thing appears to be who is right) they tell me I want the No. 630 bus. They show me in Chinese where I want to go. This is no help. But I don't have too many options. I'm not panicked, I'm just sort of curious.

Then, a Chinese student who also has a badge gets involved. He asks me where I want to go, in English. His English is better than my Chinese, but fairly limited. He says he is working at the Olympics too, and he can show me where to go. He says I want to take the No. 430 bus. When the No. 630 bus arrives, the bus wrangler frantically motions me to get on the bus. But the student had told me different, and frankly, I trusted the student more. So I gesture to the student, who gets involved in the discussion.

We settle on me getting on the No. 430 bus. I ask him how many stops and he says four. While on the bus, he sees two other students with badges and asks them where they are going. It turns out we are going to the same place, so he tells me when to get off the bus, and to follow the other two.

After a 5 minute walk, I see the MPC. Back in familiar environs! But really, I'm just amazed at the people here (separate post on volunteers to come) and how willing they were to help me. Even the ones who stared at me curiously.

At the end of the day, I'll go out to the bus stop and take the MA05 bus back to the hotel. I'm more aware than ever of the importance of the buses.


Nate Ryan said...

Another riveting report from Beijing! It's fun to live vicariously through your adventuresome spirit, though I likely would have been losing my s@#$ when my credential got denied to get back on the bus. Glad you got back to the MPC safely...and with a great story to tell!

MMR said...

It's a good thing you grew up in San Bernardino and not in Beverly Hills.
Your SCFTY friends would be aghast.