August 23, 2008

Free Medical Care ... from Kids Playing Doctor

Having just had a birthday, I realize that I am of an age where I think everyone is awfully young. Like doctors. And it doesn't help here, because everyone actually is young. Even the doctors. Or those who play them at the Main Press Center.

There is a volunteer medical office in the press center. I went yesterday because I was so awfully sick. Children of 19 or 20, it seemed, asked me questions. You have coughing? Fever? Flame? (turns out he meant phlegm ...) That was the pre-screening. They had me put a thermometer in my armpit. After the day I had, I thought that was gross.

I told them yes, I was coughing (and then I started this horrendous coughing jag and they needed no further convincing). Did the "flame" have color? One girl wanted to know. Did my head hurt? They huddled together and decided I should have antibiotics.

Are you allergic? No, I said. OK. They gave me two days' worth of amoxycillin, and some sort of pill to help with the "flame." It had no name on it; I have no idea what it was. Three times a day, after meals, the girl said. You got it.

I slept until Paul came in around 8, feeling pitiful. The coughs are body-wracking and deep -- not the scary, dry hacking cough I usually have. This one is worse. It makes people move away from me. I try not to cough on anyone. I feel like Typhoid Mary.

I haven't been sick like this in about 18 months; coincidentally, the last time I traveled abroad. I think I have created a sort of familiar-germ cocoon in California. I am at my house, my parents' house, my mother-in-law's house -- that's it. No public transportation, no 14-hour airplane trips, no recycled air conditioning with 5,000 coughing, hacking, sneezing foreigners.

With luck, I'll be well before I fly. If not, my head may explode.

Getting There is Half the Fun

Friday I visited the Forbidden City. I had hoped to do it Thursday, but torrential rains delayed me. Yesterday I was slowed by some sort of bug. But no matter -- I was determined!!

The day started off badly: I got three quarters of the way to breakfast when I realized I didn't have my credential. So, back to get that. When I arrived at breakfast, I was a little more than warm (probably feverish, too). I had some fruit, some dumplings, then off to the bus.

Some euro woman decided on the bus that it's perfectly nice summer weather and we don't need the a/c on in the bus. She makes that decision for all of us. Rather than putting on a sweater, the rest of us should sweat. Doesn't get why we would want it. I know this is a euro thing; I lived among them. And I'm even betting it's part of why I'm sick. But it's hot and humid out, and I sure would like the a/c on. No luck.

At the press center, I stop for a bottle of cold water and some Tylenol Cold at the pharmacy. I'm all set.

I decide to take the subway and walk from the MPC over to the station. This would have been a better idea if I had checked the Athletics schedule -- then I would have known I was trying to cross the street in the middle of the men's 50km race walk. On the upside, I finally got to see an Olympic event as the world's greatest waddlers streamed past. On the downside, did I mention it was hot?

OK. I manage to get past all these roadblocks, check my map and my guidebook ... two transfers and smooth sailing to the Tiananmen Square metro stop.

I had big ambitions when I left the hotel: I was going to hit the Forbidden City, then stroll over to Wangfujing street for some lunch.

I was coughing severely on the metro, and was obviously self-conscious about it. Bad enough that I'm a foreigner, but I'm infecting the locals. But nobody seemed to mind. I tried not to touch anything, but I was still embarrassed. I got a few stares, but mostly because of the credential around my neck (which is beginning to feel like a leash) and not because of the cough or the fact I'm not Chinese. We had been warned in guidebooks that the Chinese tend to stare a lot; I think they must have already had their fill. We are no longer novelties.

When I got to the metro, I asked one of the volunteers which way to the Forbidden City? Up till that point, things had been pretty well-marked in English. The volunteer gave me directions -- literally. Go through the tunnel and then north. Since I neglected to bring my trusty compass, I just blundered out of the station. I don't know north on a good day, and the since the sun was directly overhead, I couldn't exactly use that as a guide. (And if you know how to do this -- well, don't tell me.)

Given a choice of two options -- despite statistical realities -- I will almost always pick the wrong option. Without fail. It's uncanny. And, I did. My map showed the Forbidden City behind Tiananmen Square. But it didn't suggest that Tiananmen Square isn't really a square. Or at least I didn't grasp that. There are several squares, with museums and monuments and displays etc. I asked at least six more policemen where to go. One of them sent me the wrong way. I wandered for over an hour before I realized behind Tiananmen Square meant behind the wall. Where the big old Mao portrait is hanging.

So I did get to see a few more things. See photos here. But it's also hot. Have I mentioned that? In the 90s hot, with high humidity. One of the worst days so far, even though the air is relatively clear. All the women on the street have light-colored umbrellas, for the shade. There is no shade in this part of the city. None. People stand in each other's shadows for shade. I'm sweating like crazy. But I am determined (!!) to see the Forbidden City.

I finally go with the crowd toward the Mao portrait. It's pretty cool. There are soldiers everywhere, but most are unarmed. I take their pictures, and they don't seem to mind. I start to go through a gate, and show a soldier the words Forbidden City, in Chinese. He tells me to go the middle gate. There are so many tourists here and they are almost all Chinese. They can't be local -- not on a Friday afternoon. The ones who aren't Chinese are wearing Olympic garb -- athletes and coaches and journalists.

I get into, I think, Tiananmen Square. It is not what I thought it would be like. Behind the square is another square and another and this goes on for about seven squares. At some point (probably the second or third square?) I have hit the Forbidden City. I know this because they are charging admission. Because of my credential I don't have to pay.

By this time, I am so hot and so sick that I don't much care. I want to see things, but not with a lot of effort. I don't rent the audio guide, and I probably should have. There are random signs and my guidebook has an entry, but it's sort of a pocket guidebook, and so it isn't very useful.

The buildings are wood, they date to the 1400s, they have burned down several times, this was the imperial palace. Forbidden City in a nutshell.

I take lots of pictures. I don't know how to identify them, because, frankly, they all look alike. Everything is lovely, but not amazing. I don't know if this is because I am jaded, after living in Europe, or because it's hot and crowded or because it just isn't that spectacular. I think probably all three.

I have seen old things before: the ruins in Egypt are magnificent, with the painted walls and the carved hieroglyphics, the palace at Versailles -- which is certainly as old as the actual buildings here, and much more elaborate. I feel bad that I am not more impressed. There is nothing that makes me ooh or aah. I feel like a failure. A sick failure. That I can see something that is lovely enough to be on Unesco's list of World Heritage Sights and just say, hmmm, that's nice.

I like to think if I weren't deathly ill (as it turns out I was) and ready to die from sunstroke perhaps I could have appreciated it more. At least that's what I tell myself.

I skipped the lunch and shopping. I had no more energy, much as I wanted to explore the hutongs (alley-ways) of Beijing. I ignored all the rickshaw hawkers and walked toward what I hoped was a taxi stand. The sign said 50 meters. In addition to being bad with directions, I have no idea how far 50 meters is. When I tired of walking, I crossed the street to Jingshan Park, thinking there might be something to eat there, or a taxi.

There were loads of stores selling memory chips, batteries, sim cards and film. Not much food. Then, I didn't even care. I just wanted to get to bed. A run-down sort of man tried to help me flag a taxi. I was leery of him; in most countries people don't help you for no reason. I thought he would ask me for money. But he was just helping me. He was very nice, and I probably wasn't gracious enough.

The taxi took me straight to the MPC, and it was quick. Surprisingly so, since it took 35 minutes on the subway and the cab ride was fast and cheap back. My clothes were soaked, I had no voice and I could barely stand.

This is how sick I was: I went to the doctor. They gave me some medicine, I went back to the hotel and slept for 15 hours.

August 21, 2008

Sick as a Dog

Oh my, am I sick. I should have stayed in bed today, but didn't want to miss out on seeing at least something in Beijing. But it's 2 in the afternoon and I'm headed back to bed ASAP.

Paul and I have both been sick, but I think he's starting to get a little better, which is good, because he's working harder.

I don't know what I have; I'm sure it doesn't matter. But since I'm in the MPC, and on my way to the pharmacy, I might actually stop and see the doctor.

So I went to see the Forbidden City -- full post on that tomorrow, when I can actually concentrate and post photos -- and it was pretty neat. But it's hot out. And there's no shade in the city -- which is a bit odd. The parks are nice, but the squares are just wide-open space. Here and there is a little tree, but it can't have been there very long judging by the size. And where you do find shade, you'll find a Chinese person or six crouching in it.

So I'm off to medicate and see if I can sleep this thing off ... whatever it is.

Hygiene, etc.

Please bear with me: I'm going to write randomly about toilets. I don't know that this is a hot topic outside of my own hotel room, but it certainly is inside.

Ultimately, building up a lifetime of personal habits is hard to toss away, so to speak. In the bathrooms at the press center there are signs on each stall, in three languages, that say "Please throw your toilet paper in the dustbin." These are bathrooms that serve more than 5,000 people per day. If you're thinking ewww .... gross! Well, you're on the right track.

I'm finding that even though there is a sign, and I'm staring right at it, I still on occasion forget. When does it occur to a Westerner to throw soiled toilet paper in the trash, instead of the bowl? In fact, I would like to make the case that we don't think about it, which is the problem. For 40-odd years I have thrown my paper in the toilet; suddenly I have to re-train myself.

For the women, it's not as bad as the men's room, or so I'm told. For the first time in my life, there is greater Potty Parity, as it is sometimes known, here in the media center than anywhere I've ever been. This is not by design, it's simply because male journalists outnumber females.

The women have six or eight stalls in the bathroom closest to us. (I should remember, or at least get up and look, but .... no *six) The men have three stalls and three urinals (according to Paul). In my immediate surroundings, I would estimate there are roughly 35 journalists four of whom are women. So even if we take longer, we still have more space.

On the other hand, I notice our bathroom is always filled with volunteers, of whom most are women. So it's busy enough. This is one of two bathrooms, perhaps three, that serve 960 work stations.

I was trying to think where else I had visited where tossing the paper in the "dustbin" was the custom and can come up only with Greece. But that was on an island and it was 18 years ago -- there also was only one long-distance line off the island, if that tells you anything. So I don't know if it holds true anymore. I understand that it's probably a septic tank issue, but it's still gross.

The hotel has no sign; neither does the fancy Intercontinental attached to the media center. I presume, then, it's ok to use the bowl.

At least we have toilets, and not the Turkish-style that evidently is so popular here in China.

And if you've read this far, I'm guessing you're as sorry as I am that my sightseeing trip to the Forbidden City was rained out today.

Maybe tomorrow?

August 19, 2008

Red China

I've put off writing this post for a while, because I was afraid of sounding parochial and ignorant. I've often criticized writers who parachute into a city and then make pronouncements, as if they're the first ones to discover or notice things.

But I've been thinking about Beijing as a concept, and what it seems to be rather than what I thought it would be. Ultimately, I guess I expected North Korea and came up just short of, well, I don't know. Beijing has put on a remarkable face for these Games. I had heard that they were careful to "hide" undesirable things .... slums, homeless people, beggars. And in the photo above, you might be able to see that that big Beijing 2008 sign is hiding a run-down building.

Things are neat and clean here, but there's the slightest hint that all is not as it seems. As if Beijing were expecting company in a hurry, so don't look under the rug or behind the sofa. (And don't look under the overpasses, either) There's a newness to the cleanness.

I expected a more obvious totalitarianism but it seems more like what Gorbachev was talking about when he was pushing for "socialism with a human face." Friendly faces, warm and inviting people. The soldiers are relatively plentiful, but most appear to be unarmed. I'm certain that some of the volunteers are, in fact, soldiers or other government workers. But I have seen more guns and more police presence on beaches and roadsides the world over, not to mention around the tourist spots in Paris, where the soldiers tote their machine guns and wear fatigues at the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse.

People here seem happy. Nobody looks around furtively. I don't get the sense I'm being spied on (as an unknown colleague described on a sports blog I frequent) or followed. Yet I don't doubt it has happened. When I was trying to take dumpling pictures at the hotel the other day, one of the "chefs" was quite agitated. When he realized I was only photographing food, he backed off.

My internet access is unfettered -- and yes, I realize this is quite new, and perhaps will end as soon as the Olympics do. I have state-run television, but so does most of Europe, not to mention Britain. The buildings are not built in that depressingly drab Eastern-bloc style, as so many of those in newer Prague are.

I suppose my point is that I had certain expectations, and what I'm seeing doesn't match up. I'd like to see more of Beijing. Might even like to come back some time, as a tourist. Visit Shanghai, which I understand is fabulous. But one thing is sure, because of its government or in spite of it, China is barreling fast toward the First World.

*And then there's this: Too Frail and Old to Re-educate? Not in China

Sneezing and Wheezing

Paul and I are both sick. I never like to admit I'm sick, so I always attribute it to allergies. Then, when it doesn't go away in a day or two, it occurs to me that maybe it's something more. We're both kind of pitiful.

It's probably a combination of so many things: A 15-hour plane trip, bad air, too much air conditioning, too many people in one place, not enough sleep .... the list goes on. So Paul will say to me: Is it warm in here or am I feverish? (Actually, it's warm in here -- the a/c is either too high or too low). And I will say, are you sneezing or is it just me? (Actually, it's both of us)

There is a pharmacy in the MPC and I went to get some Tylenol and Tylenol Cold the other day. The Chinese pharmacist carefully told me the dosage for the Tylenol Cold, because all the instructions are in Chinese. I don't know if it's the same stuff we take at home or not. I know in France, some medicine tended to be stronger (and thus better).

All you smug people (and you know who you are) are wondering why I didn't bring any with me. But -- aha! -- I did. The thing is, Paul and I are not together 24/7 and it's a dead certainty that the one with the medicine won't need it as much as the one without.

I brought so many precautionary things that we haven't, thankfully, had to use: Immodium, mosquito repellent, itch sticks, band-aids, sleeping pills. And some that we have: Tylenol, Claritin, Benadryl and tissues.

Last night I needed the Benadryl and Paul had it. Today he left me the Tylenol Cold and I hope he doesn't need it. And the cough drops I brought were in the MPC when I was coughing up a lung last night.

Clearly, the trick is to have a little some of everything with both of us at all times. Easier said, of course, than done.

And we weren't supposed to get sick until we got back.

Laying Down on the Job

When we arrived at the workroom, way back on Aug. 4, there was a constant buzz about. But I started to notice the other day that the energy level was getting low. I didn't realize how low until I walked past the little cafe area and saw that every couch was taken by a sleeping journalist (click the photo for a better view).

Usually, we're out the door by 9:30, latest, and often much earlier, so I'm used to glassy-eyed people on the bus. Today, I left at 11 a.m., pretty late, and I saw the same stares.

This past weekend was the hardest, I think, because swimming and track overlapped, and the key swim events have been in the morning (for American TV) and the track has been at night (for the rest of the world). So I guess it was guys who had been at the pool by 9 a.m. and then were napping because they had late-night events that started at 9 p.m.

Today is a slow day, with 13 medal events spread out from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. The day officially began at 9 a.m. with the women's javelin qualifying. It ends with the women's 100m hurdles final. The middle of the day is mostly sailing, with a water polo match and a synchronized swimming prelim thrown in before things begin in earnest, again, at 5 p.m.

Yesterday Paul covered three events, but none started before 4 p.m., so he didn't finish writing until 3 a.m. If he'd had a morning event (like wrestling) it would have been tough, so maybe those are the guys who are crashed out. It isn't really practical to go back to your hotel, most of the time.

We have a 15-20 minute bus ride each way, and ours is one of the shortest. Paul picked the hotel because it said in the brochure it was only 1 kilometer away. I assume as the crow flies; certainly not as the bus drives. But when we were on our way to the restaurant the other night we saw several hotels that we know are on the media list, and they're 35 minutes away without traffic, and that's a rare happening. Plus, the buses run every half hour, usually, so depending on when you get to the bus, you could have a two-hour travel time round trip.

I'm tired, and I'm not even working hard. I thought it would be more fun, but it's a grind, and in a different way than working the Olympics from the desk. If I had a more predictable schedule, it might not be so bad. I was thinking how long we'd been gone (15 days) and that when I vacation, I usually don't like to be gone more than 10 days. We're well past that, and one more week to go.

Add to this all the coughing and hacking around us, and it's no wonder people are trying to get some rest wherever they can.

August 17, 2008

The Meal

So we arrive at Xiao Wang Home Restaurant. (See post below)
The lemon chicken has been recommended, so we make our way through the strongly horizontal, accordian pleated hard-bound menu. We look past the shredded pork kidneys and the sauteed duck heart and find the chicken.

We contemplate the Peking duck, because it is supposed to be quite good, but that is too much food for the two of us -- the lemon chicken and the duck. Perhaps we will have the duck next time.

A waiter comes over with a Blackberry-sized phone. At first I think he's being rude; texting while "pretending" to take our order. But then it becomes clear he is taking our order using the phone/device, and it transmits to the kitchen.

We order the chicken, the black mushrooms with bamboo shoots and the shrimp stuffed sauteed dumplings. They give us wooden chopsticks with metal tops and very small plates. We're not sure about the plates, but I remembered seeing them at the other restaurant I went to.

The food comes out in stages; we're nervous that they've forgotten our dumplings. We also order rice, when we realize it doesn't come with the food. We had been told the lemon chicken was "the best ever." In fact, it was quite good, but too sweet for both my and Paul's taste. That didn't keep us from eating all of it, though.

The mushrooms were plump and wonderful, the brown sauce it came in was very nice. And the dumplings were piping hot.

The dumplings we get for breakfast are never hot. This is a disappointment. But these dumplings are amazing. They are chopped shrimp with some sort of vegetable and clearly a lot of garlic. They come with a vinegar dipping sauce -- my favorite. The dumplings are so beautiful it looks like they are each wrapped in a leaf, instead of dough made to look that way.

We are full when we finish, and we finish everything. The bill was 142 yuan, or $21.32 as my credit card receipt says. That included a beer and sparkling water.

We left the way we were supposed to come in, and passed children playing badminton and some sort of hackey sack-type game involving a weighted shuttlecock. There were children playing in the park and the parking lots and anywhere there was open space. It was nice. And real.

In Search of Chinese Food

We had an adventure last night.

Paul and I had slow days yesterday, because his medalists crapped out, essentially. So we thought we'd take advantage and go out to dinner, somewhere not in the basement of the MPC. I had a vague recommendation from a former colleague about a dumpling place near Beijing Normal University, but I had no specifics and I couldn't find him. And that was too bad, because he said eight people stuffed themselves for 145 yuan. The only thing better than dumplings is inexpensive dumplings!

So I went to another former colleague, and he sent us to Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant in Ritan Park. The directions were slightly vague ... "The taxi will drop you in the middle of the street. Go through a gate, and then an archway and you'll find the restaurant." He suggested the Lemon Chicken, and the online reviews suggested the Peking duck was very good. So we thought, sure, let's try it.

We checked with the transportation desk to see if the photocopy print we had with an address and a map would be sufficent. No problem, they said. We go to the taxi stand, four volunteers ask where we want to go, we show them. No problem, they said. They tell the taxi driver ... you get the picture.

We don't really know where we're going, but it's fun to look at the scenery. We do know the ride should cost about 35 yuan, so we aren't alarmed when it creeps up to 40. There's been a lot of traffic for a Sunday evening.

The driver pulls up to a restaurant. Through a gate, in fact, up to a doorway. We're a little surprised, but we get out. There's not much room for discussion if you don't speak Chinese. And we are welcomed by a lovely woman (and three valets) who asks if we have reservations. We don't and this gives me slight pause. She escorts us through a relatively fancy restaurant, with awards on the walls, out to a garden area. It's lovely. There are bridges and ponds and fountains. It's very soothing. She brings us a gorgeous menu with all the Chinese listings in calligraphy.

I had read that there is a menu-book and that there were also pictures of the food. We had all that. But still, something nagged at me. The prices seemed quite high, the food very exotic. This did not seem like the restaurant we meant to try. A waitress brings us two Tsing Tao beers and I show her the piece of paper. Is this the restaurant, I ask? She tells me no, and says another name, which I don't understand at first. I ask if she knows where my restaurant is. She says she's never heard of it.

At this point, I say we'll just have the beer, then, thank you. They are surprisingly gracious about this. Paul and I start to talk this over. It seems odd to me that this restaurant I want to go to a. has a website. b. is clearly in the same vicinity and c. is well known enough that there are three branches and this fancy woman in the fancy Beijing Ritan Inn House has never heard of it.

We drink our (very expensive) beers and we leave. We go out onto the street and look for someone who might help us. We ask two different people; no luck. The we see a gateway into the park. We know the restaurant we want is in the park, so there's that. So we go into the park. There's a map, but our restaurant doesn't appear to be on it. We show the paper to a couple on a walk. The guy starts to ask questions in Chinese, then goes over to the park ranger and asks him. They discuss it and walk us over to the big map. It's at the other end of the park, they seem to indicate. Go straight and then to the right.

It's getting kind of dark now, and I want to admire the park a little more, but Paul wants to find the restaurant. It's a lovely park, built in the 1950s, and well kept. There are many people strolling and children playing. It has a nice feel to it.

We follow the directions and we come upon the restaurant. We are quite pleased and we discover the taxi driver dropped us on the wrong side of the park. I don't think he paid any attention to where we wanted to go -- only heard the name Ritan Park and then took us to the fancy place. I'm not sure it was malicious, he just didn't pay attention.

And when we left we walked through the archway, then the gate and arrived at the middle of the street.