Goodbye, North America – Hello, Asia!
Our time in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, Olympia, Seattle, and Vancouver) was spent in the company of great friends. After our bike journey, we had exhausted both our bodies and our finances so we were reduced to whiling away our days in the luxury of a sofa in Olympia. Kelly’s friend James put us up for weeks while we recovered our bodies and minds. Needless to say, we lost muscle and gained some weight but we considered our sloth to be well earned. James’ incredible generosity enabled us to relax and prepare ourselves for the journey ahead.
Once Kelly’s parents, Brian and Dale, arrived with our “China bags” we were eager to move on. Although it is wonderful to have the opportunity to recuperate, the inactivity was beginning to wear on us and our travel bugs were chirping loudly. Leaving Olympia, we crammed our bags (two suitcases and two backpacking backpacks) into the trunk of their rented car along with Kelly’s parents’ belongings, which appeared equal in quantity to what we were bringing for an entire year of being away. Then, we headed north. We took our time exploring, visiting with family and friends, and catching up.
In Seattle, we met up with Kelly’s best friend from Monroe Middle School, Chelsea, a lifelong family friend Bodhi, and her step dad, Craig. The visits felt too short and were tainted with the possibility that just as much time might pass before they would meet again. In Vancouver, we explored with Kelly’s parents and met up with some of Kelly’s family for a nice dinner where they prepared vegan food for us (which was greatly appreciated).
Vancouver is a beautiful and diverse city that seems to satisfy a number of our requirements for a future place to settle down, if such a thing is even possible for two people who feel compelled to be constantly on the move.
After a few days of spending some much needed time together, Kelly’s parents drove us to the airport. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 11AM so we headed out early in order to check our bags and pass through security. We said a heartfelt goodbye and went inside. The Vancouver airport is much better organized than other international airports, which helped dispel some of the stress of air travel.
Luckily, the airport process was a breeze, only taking about 20 minutes. We equated the swiftness to the fact that we were not in the United States anymore. In the past decade, the airport experience in the United States became emblematic of a national fear that has gotten out of control. Naturally, security measures increased as a result of threats but this kind of behavior is a signal that they have won. Flying from Canada was completely different. The staff smiled and was friendly at every turn. The security measures were of course vigorous but were not overshadowed by the overwhelming feeling of being guilty until proven innocent.
Once we were all checked in and had found our gate, we learned to our dismay that our flight had been delayed by nearly two hours. Luckily, though, we had brought our computers and could link to Netflix for entertainment. We had been voraciously devouring a program called “Breaking Bad” and were glad to have the opportunity to finish up the series before flying to a country with Internet restrictions that would most likely hinder our ability to stream such programs. If anyone is interested, the show is extremely well done and wrapped up in a way that impressed both of us.
Boarding began at 12:45. We got to our seats near the rear of the plane (supposedly the farther back you sit the safer you will be in the event of a crash) and settled in- with Kelly in her desired window seat and Mi on the aisle. The 767 jet has a two-three-two seating configuration which meant that we were spared from jockeying for elbow room or climbing over anyone else. Thankfully, the plane was equipped with television screens in the seat backs, which enabled us to distract ourselves with movie after movie. Strangely, the plane was also decked out in odd color-shifting running lights that illuminated the ceiling with hues of blue, purple, and red, giving it the alluring warmth of a dance club.
Kelly was able to sleep a little and Mi, who is terrified of flying, made for a comfortable, albeit constantly alert, pillow. Twelve hours and four or five movies later, we landed safely. However, the decent took its toll, as we were both overwhelmed with nausea for the first time in our flying experiences. We disembarked eagerly, anxious for a breath of fresh air (as fresh as it gets in Shanghai) and our first glimpse of China- Mi for the very first time and Kelly for the first time in 16 years. We collected our bags and exchanged our US dollars for Chinese Yuan with no trouble.
It was hot in the airport and crowded with people. We rushed to the curb to catch a cab to our hostel and were spotted by a woman in business attire asking (in English) where we needed to go. We showed her our book and pointed at the Chinese characters and she quoted us ¥350. Kelly was able to bargain down to ¥300, so we reluctantly accepted, unwilling to haggle anyone else down in our state of sleepy delirium.
In the taxi, we got our first glimpse of the ever-rapidly-changing Shanghai. Kelly noted almost instantly that this was not the China she so fondly remembered, and was excited to learn the new China. This is, essentially, something that we are experiencing for the first time, together.
The taxi ride was harrowing, to say the least. We realized straight away that traffic rules seem to be more like suggestions as cars, trucks, buses, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians tangled for ground. Unyielding, nonchalant, and with few helmets to be seen, thousands of travelers battled for the right of way. Where three lanes were drawn, five were created. It felt like we were in a disorganized mosh-pit or like salmon spawning without a discernible current directing their movements. The utter chaos of it all was not the most surprising part, however. Instead, we were more impressed by how unconcerned everyone looked. Bicyclists inches from being mowed down, mopeds driven by old ladies with tiny children standing between the seat and the handle bars, old men carrying bulging sacks as they darted between the traffic- they all shared the same stoic expression on their faces, as if they were totally unaware of the danger.
The first scents of China wafted in through the open taxi windows. We had long prepared ourselves for the assault on our senses, having heard stories from Kelly’s parents, so we knew to take short breaths in areas that smelled of cigarette smoke, urine, fermented rice vinegar, and who knows what else.
Finally, after two hours of driving up and down narrow roads, our taxi stopped in front of a welcoming sign that read “International Hostel.” We checked in to the Mingtown Etour Youth Hostel (560¥ for three nights), dropped our bags in our room which smelled of mildew (not as bad as some hostels Kelly has experienced in South America) but at least we didn’t have to share with strangers, and headed around the corner to find the ATM. A few wrong turns later, we found the bank and were able to withdraw some money. Cautious to protect our funds, we wove through the streets with pepper spray in hand, and made our way to the Wagas Restaurant for dinner.
Our Lonely Planet book suggested this chain restaurant for good vegetarian food where the staff speaks English. We unadventurously split a falafel-spinach wrap, our eyes growing droopier with every bite. The more tired that Kelly gets, the more creative her speech becomes- with words out of order and combining multiple languages- so by that point of being up for 22 hours she was nearly unintelligible. And Mi was just quiet, as per usual. Weaving through people and traffic we stumbled back to the hostel, took a shower, and went to bed. Despite the heat in our stuffy/smelly room and the noisy city outside, we slept soundly for 12 hours.
We have 3 days to explore Shanghai before our next flight to Mianyang, where we will spend the next year teaching English. Our next blog entry will have pictures documenting our explorations, and soon after will update everyone when we are settled into our apartment.
Once again, we would like to thank all of our readers, family, and friends for their support, love, and generosity. Stay tuned for more tales of our adventures!