Sunday, May 29, 2005


Spring is here and pretty much gone, and we are still here. The weather changes very quickly here. After the longest coldest 4-5month winter the locals can remember in ten years or so ... all of a sudden one day it was spring. The trees all burst into frantic blossoms that lasted for about two weeks - the tired dusty city was a little more presentable for a while. Then a wind blew it all instantly away. We had about a week of what looked like snow, but was in fact some kind of wind-born grass seeds everywhere. They collected outside our building in flurries, and even floated through my classroom. Now everything is green. And the seed-snow is replaced by cabbage-white-butterfly-snow. Never seen so many!!

Typical of here. Everything small but in such huge quantities. We have had one wet day. We thought May was supposed to be wet - well, not this year. Mind you, the drains here are not built for wet, we are going to be paddling and swimming when it rains again.
The fruit is getting good. Mind you, the bananas and watermelon went all through winter - they must truck them in from southern China. They sell them by the roadside - but we found watermelon is not too special on a freezing day when the melon is frozen inside! Strawberries have been in for a while, huge ones remarkably, but the delicious tiny grape tomatoes seem to have come and gone. Cherries are everywhere - although for a while we were convinced they were red-currants (they are sooo tiny!) until we tasted them. Mangoes are in - no fun for Peter - and apricots, but they are like bouncy balls and very tart. Pineapples and melons are great now too - they sell you a quarter or half on a stick, all cut, peeled, ready to gnaw ...

Peter is away for a few days, helping the college out with "promotions". They go to towns and schools and try to drum up trade. Obviously it hasn't been working lately because the college numbers are less than 50, from a previous 300 and they have sacked most of their Chinese staff. Peter thinks it will be rather fun, something different! But it means being apart for about 5 days. They have taken him to PuYang to a school that has never seen foreign teachers ... we both figure "Poo" anything is a bit suss!

Anyway, today is Saturday of course - though here (at this school) it is Monday - or "Day 1" on the timetable. Regardless of that, Peter was listening to the footy - streaming radio - before he left. (I had hoped that was ONE thing I would leave behind when we came here!!) He hadn't heard the end, and I hadn't bothered... I had an excuse because our computer is sick and every couple of hours it suddenly makes a warning sound and shuts down. Which it did as soon as he left ... and then when it started it committed a "fatal error" and made all sorts of fuss. So when Peter messaged me from the car on the way to PuYang to ask whether the Dockers won ... I had to dig around on the net and find out!

And now I am enjoying a Chinese icy-pole - this one is like frozen Turkish delight. The ice-creams here are amazing! There is such a huge variety and they are so, so cheap. All sort of things which look like a "Peter's trumpet", cone-things with all sorts of other things inside, and various arrangements of layers of chocolate and caramel, and sometimes a cone layer somewhere, and fruit swirled through ... and then there is the one that looks like corn-on-the-cob but its cone on the outside and ice-cream inside which tastes like corn! And then there are things like frozen rice pudding, and occasionally a savoury one. And they vary from 20 - 25c! The only problem is always being presented with this huge variety and trying to remember which one you have already tried...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Trip to Nanjing and Wuxi

We got home from our trip to Nanjing and Wuxi (looking at two possible new jobs for next semester) fairly late last night. Getting train tickets in China is tricky for so many reasons ... and you can't just book in advance - no more than 3 days, we are told - and you can't book a return ticket, you do that when you get there. We have learnt recently that people buy up the whole train and re-sell for profit. Which might explain a few things - like its really difficult for a foreigner to buy tickets, you need a local who knows who to get them off. Anyway, we returned later than intended, and first class - expensive but pleasant. In Wuxi we had two separate parties looking for tickets for us, and after being told there was nothing ended up with two sets of tickets and had to pay a largish penalty (125yuan) to get some of the money back on one set.

We got a taxi in Zhengzhou remarkably easily, and had a good trip back here - having agreed to a price of 60yuan instead of the usual 30 or so (but better than the 100 often asked of foreigners) because of the hour - and climbed the front steps of the building feeling tired but pleased ... as Peter tried to insert his key into the lock (in the dark, never a light there) he found only a large hole, no lock. The next thing we found missing from inside the foyer was our bikes - we were a little surprised because we haven't seen much (any?) evidence of crime here. When we got upstairs we found the big metal door to our Canadian colleague’s side of the building wide open, but ours was locked, and our keys wouldn't work.

Well, we thought, maybe after the break-in, they changed the lock, and maybe our friend has a new key for us or can tell us what is going on. So we tromped up to the top floor on her side to get Happy (she was looking after) and to ask her.

Our friend went into panic mode! She hadn't been out of her apartment (i.e. one room) since Friday, didn't even know her downstairs door was open, (hadn't even had Happy out of her cage in case she lost her) and she "knew nothing".

We phoned our minder, and as usual got some Chinese message that her phone was off or something. Then we tried the principal who has reasonable English, and he promised to ring the fix-it man who can say "hello, hello?" and "tomorrow" and has recently learnt "Peetah!" He eventually came up, but couldn't explain what had happened and seemed quite perplexed about our lock - so obviously he hadn't changed the locks! Then he phoned his little off-sider handyman - but of course we couldn't understand what he was saying on the phone. Meanwhile, Peter was figuring out any other ways to get into our apartment (3rd floor, remember). He finally went upstairs (4th floor!) to the other side, climbed outside on the balcony ledge and across a buttress-thing onto George's old apartment, and came down through the top apartment stairs into the area outside our padlocked plywood door which is inside the big metal door ... and which he then opened from the inside, much to the startlement of Xiao Wong!

As it turns out the Sri Lankan computer guy who lives below us (and who has a wife in Zhengzhou who's just had a baby ... ) decided to hire a little Chinese cleaning lady - since the college has fallen on hard times they sacked the regular cleaning lady here. She (his new cleaner) broke off her key in the front door downstairs - about the fourth person to do that since we've been here, these magnificent-looking four-sided keys just snap. The fix-it chaps were fixing it when it got dark (no lights down there) and decided to leave it - so they put our bikes in the computer teacher’s apartment to be safe for now. ... Apparently/maybe our door had been fiddled with from the inside - easy enough to do, it’s a real dead-latch so you can't even get in with a key, and we are always very careful not to touch that bit! So how our door got dead-latched remains a real mystery - and it had nothing to do with the door downstairs - that was sheer coincidence! So no crime committed, and we panicked the lady upstairs for nothing.

So about the trip:

We hard-sleepered on an overnight train to Nanjing ... had to hang around in Zhengzhou from 6pm to 11pm waiting for the train time, but that was ok. And we had no trouble getting on the train etc, we are old hands at that now. We even slept quite well on the sardine-can train ... six bunks in each tiny open-ended compartment and people pushing up and down the carriage at the end of the beds. We could only get a top and bottom bunk (they vary in price) but at least we were in the same compartment. Peter had a top bunk, hard up against the ceiling - I've slept up there before but couldn't trust my poor legs on those skinny-runged stairs this time. I slept on the bottom - the best place to be but you have to put up with people using it as a step-up to theirs and also sometimes wanting to sit on it.

The Nanjing school was an hour by taxi from the station. We rang the school liaison person when we got there and then handed the phone to the driver who told him where to go and not to try anything - make it a reasonable price! He did a great job - he drove a good kilometre or more along the pavement through pedestrians and cyclists at one stage to avoid spending our money by sitting in a traffic jam! (this is typical China!)

The language school is on one floor in a huge, brand new government school complex. So new that the rest of the world hasn't caught up to it and found it yet! Just what we didn't want, out in the boondocks again! All the same we were feeling quite keen, and the apartments are nice, and we felt we could work through the other things. Then we were talking through the contract with the principal and his Australian off-sider and he said that, off course, even though we would be doing 20 teaching hours, we would be expected to do around 30 office hours altogether ... and we felt less keen. We had a lovely Western-style lunch in Nanjing: real bread, and real salad! Mmm mmm! How we miss those things, and they are there all the time in Nanjing!

Peter had been leaning toward the Nanjing job, but I had been feeling more hopeful about the Jiangyin one. So they got us a bus ticket, and we bussed the same day to visit our friends in Wuxi (near Jiangyin, and where we would meet the lady offering the Jiangyin job.) The bus trip was ok, nice big soft-seated bus (bit different from some of the ones we've been on!) and when we got to Wuxi we managed to follow our friends' instructions on a city bus to just outside their apartment.

They are a lovely young couple we met doing our TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course. They are the only two foreigners in their school in Wuxi, but they have a wonderful little apartment near the city centre - reminded us how strange and run-down ours at LongHu is! We couldn't see the lady about the job until Saturday (she was away in Shanghai, where she apparently lives...) so we had a good chance to look around Wuxi using our friends' apartment as a base while they were teaching on Friday.

We just fell in love with Wuxi. It’s a beautiful city, clean and modern and with big shops to buy all the stuff we are used to - as well as with the little Chinese people selling street-food and stuff. We even went to an Australian pub with our friends - and that was interesting because we met quite a few other foreigners, but there was a pleasant atmosphere, playing pool and stuff and it didn't seem boozy at all.

We went to look at the school in Wuxi - the one that the Jiangyin job is part of. Anyway, we still haven't seen Jiangyin, it just wasn't possible to get out there in the end. But we are being offered work in Wuxi itself, and later in Jiangyin if it turns out and we want to. The thing is, she is offering us corporate work - teaching groups of adults from business corporations. Hey, no naughty boys and girls - just a different set of problems that we'd like to try our hand at!

Our friends in Wuxi are willing to mind our few boxes of stuff while we return to Oz - including Happy! That makes it even more tempting. Drop off our stuff on the way to Shanghai, and then fly out and return there.

Monthly exams here this Sunday. Then final exams end of June. Then they want us to do "Summer Camp" - a couple of weeks of frenetic activity when Chinese parents get rid of annoying only child, private schools make lots of money, and foreign teachers really earn their keep!!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The pigeons keep on howling

The first day I heard the howling it was really foggy - a great many of the days here are like that. I remember one day looking out of our third floor window and seeing no ground, just the top few sticks of a tree next to the window. And nothing much to hear, just that eerie wailing, howling noise.

Of course we all had various discussions about what it could be. It seemed strange that we had been here for weeks and never really noticed the noise before.

I thought the most likely option was some kind of machinery noise - maybe an angle grinder trying to cut through something it shouldn't.

Then we asked the students, without expecting much of an answer because they are mostly at a generally unobservant age. One of them told us it was the pigeons.

Well, that seemed odd for so many reasons. Pigeons don't make a noise like that, even Chinese pigeons. And anyway, who could tell if there were any pigeons "at large" in this fog?

Well, we asked around some more, and the students stuck to their story. One of them explained that the owners put something on the pigeons leg(s) to make that noise. Maybe so they don't lose them, or so the birds themselves don't get lost - "homing" pigeons with a homing device?

OK. So when the sky cleared a little I stood and watched and listened. Sure enough, as the flock of pigeons swirled around overhead the noise did seem to be following them, or emanating from them.

At least its a whole lot less weird when you can actually see the birds...

Friday, May 6, 2005

Bea gets back to Oz

We are back into the swing of things after our little holiday. Its remarkable how busy a mere 14 lessons a week can keep me.

Beatrice is HOME ... what an effort that proved to be! We started sending her home on Tuesday, and she finally got there about midnight on Friday. It all should have been so simple! But when we showed up at the airport in Zhengzhou at the right time according to the ticket, they said the plane had left 90minutes early and she'd missed it! Now, have you ever heard of a plane leaving early?? So, we wondered, where were the other angry passengers, or had they all been rung and informed? Our minder was very upset - it made her look bad. And Beatrice had to get to Beijing to connect with her international flight at 8.55 the next morning. (We had not bought the $150 travel insurance on her ticket - I don't think it would have helped in this case anyway.)

So we drove into Zhengzhou - the airport is about an hour away - while our minder got onto her mobile and rang all sorts of people. We found that there was a bus leaving at 8.30pm that would travel all night and get her to Beijing about 6am - but the bus station was a good hour away from the airport in Beijing, it would be touch and go if the bus was delayed at all. So we decided to give it a try. We spent the next five hours sitting in the bus station in Zhengzhou, while our minder went off and argued with her travel agents and got Bea's flight money back. It turned out that the flight had been cancelled - in fact four flights were cancelled that day - so if we had been there 90mins earlier she could not have got on that flight either. The travel agents were a bit peeved that they were expected to come up with a full refund, after all there were 20 disgruntled passengers and that was a lot of money to pay back. Our minder assured them angrily that if Bea missed her Beijing flight because of them she would be back demanding more money for compensation ... she was not a happy girl!

So Bea went on a sleeper bus to Beijing - a much nicer one than the one we traveled on to Dalian last year, only 20 beds instead of 30 so the beds were really big and comfy. When she got there they had arranged a taxi driver to whizz her across the city to the airport (for $157!) and made it in time for her flight.

BUT then they reckoned her name was not on the computer! They said, however that they could get her onto a flight all the way the following day ... you realize, this doesn't make sense: if she had no reservation at all, then they wouldn't be willing to just hand her a ticket for the next day! Then they told us that her flight had in fact been cancelled - and all this during the busy holiday period ... remarkable. We love the way they keep changing their stories. Of course, all this was done between our phone, our minder’s phone (she was in Zhengzhou and we were here) and Bea's phone and the airline phone - calls whizzing back and forth in English and Chinese. We emailed our Perth travel agent who had set up the whole trip, and she told us the flight was in fact overbooked and they were covering up for their mistake.

Anyhow, poor little Bea, all by herself in Beijing, had to book herself into a hotel overnight. She had originally been booked in for the night before, but not made it when she missed the plane and spent the night on the bus. So she had a phone number and they had her details in their computer - that helped a bit. She managed to contact them and someone actually spoke English a bit and sent a car to pick her up from the airport.

Her Chinese mobile phone is a "prepaid", and round about this time the money ran out on it. Fortunately, before she left, I had been feeling very worried about her being in Bali alone and so I gave her my Australian SIM card which has "International Roaming" so she could call from anywhere in the world. I was so glad of this! She was able to pop my SIM into her phone and keep in touch.

So she sat around in a hotel room for 24 hours and the next morning the man from the hotel dumped her back at the airport. I got a tearful phone call from her early the next morning - she was lost in the airport. Well, there wasn't anything we could do at this end except advise her to find someone in a uniform and ask for help, and sit down and pray for her. A little later she rang and said she was finally sitting at the right gate waiting for her plane. She had talked to a family of foreigners - who turned out to be French -and they were headed the same way as her. She had got lost because she went in a lift and pressed the button for the right floor, but the lift went somewhere else and she got out not realizing she was in the wrong place. A man had taken her to pay her airport tax - supposed to be $50 - and charged her $300 ... sounds like he scammed her fearfully! It’s hard to know what's going on when they gabble at you in a foreign language. But at least she was safe!

Then when she got to Bali someone told her she had to tip the taxi driver and he happily accepted $15AUD - quite outrageous considering the cost of transfer from airport to hotel was supposed to be covered in the ticket. He said for $20 he would drive her all around Bali the next day and show her the sights. But at this stage she was very, very tired. She had to check out of her hotel at noon, but her next flight wasn't until 8pm.

Anyway, she finally got home. A big crowd of her friends met her - a lot of loud excitable teenagers! And we felt that we could finally relax a little. Her brother hardly recognized her - she's lost heaps of weight, has new glasses and a new hairdo.