Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Air We Breathe

Sorry to sound like a broken record (what's that, ask the kiddos) but I woke up this morning to see that the air quality was 430 -- well into hazardous. My throat is sore, and I don't think it's because I was whooping it up at bowling last night and trivia the night before. It's depressing and discouraging and I tried to wear this mask the other day.

But it felt suffocating, so now I just carry the mask around in my purse. This is not its intended purpose, I know. But it's kind of like the brush I also carry (and which I clearly, judging from this pic, never use) and the lipstick that my more groomed friends apply after they've had lunch. I have a pocketbook full of good intentions. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hair-Raising Experiences

Hairdressers of the world unite!

Yesterday's debacle made me turn in desperation to a bigger solution. This was beyond sweet Justin's ability, I thought. So I went to a new, more expensive hairdresser recommended by two friends. Julie had the grace not to gasp when I straggled in, looking closer to a bag lady, with the strap on my bag hanging off (it had ripped on the way to Workers Stadium. I kind of love the fact that my hair mistake is being fixed inside China's monument to the worker. Workers Stadium today is dotted with restaurants, high end sports stores, hair salons, and other testaments to the power of capitalism and a good pizza. But I digress)
Me in black.
Step one. Blonde ambition.
It turned out that it was going to cost me to fix my impulsive mistake (Note to myself: Impulsive decisions cost you money. Can you please remember that next time?)

So the first step was to strip the hair of all the black. Because when you go this black, it's hard to go back (sorry, couldn't resist). Two workers started applying a bleaching agent to my hair. One guy was clearly moving fast, which I noticed as a plop of bleach landed on my iPad and another on my nose. I decided to close my eyes. Eyesight is never overrated.
Step two. Is this what being a strawberry blonde is like?

When I opened my eyes again, I was covered with white glop that was rapidly stripping the color from my hair. Before my unbleached eyes I saw my hair turning to a color that was a cross between strawberry blonde and Midwest hay. For a short moment I thought I'd surprise Bob with a blonde on his birthday: me. But then I saw that the color was just not flattering to me or probably to anyone who isn't two years old. Plus, the bleach was burning.

"Is it supposed to burn?" I asked Julie. She assured me it was perfectly normal. After all, I was stripping my hair of all pigment to fashion me into some kind of albino bag lady.

When it was rinsed out and the burning stopped, I looked like someone once again wearing a really bad wig, this one somewhere between the color of a legal pad and a broom. This was not a color that Mother Nature ever created on her own.

Next I received the light brown color that had been my goal all along. There was only one slight problem. My bill after all this was a whopping 1,240 RMB, or $200. It was more money than I had paid Justin in the year I had been visiting his salon. And it was worth every single Mao.
Ta da!

Monday, February 18, 2013

How Do You Say Disaster in Chinese?

There was nothing "light" about that color.
I guess I should look into joining the Communist Party.
And no, there will be no pictures of this. You'll be able to hear the sound of my children laughing at me when they see me. That's enough.
Off to Justin.

More Adventures in Hair Color

We're back in Beijing. And my hair looks like straw with gray roots, thanks to a less-than-competent coloring job by my favorite 20-RMB salon guy, Justin. I sat in the salon before the holiday pointing out that the color didn't seem to have colored the gray. Justin's comment was, "That's just the light."

But it turns out that he was wrong and a week in the Filipino sun did nothing to improve the look, bleaching out the blonde part even more and emphasizing the part that was decidedly gray. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. How bad could it be?

I paid a visit to the local Wu Mart, which I was sure had a hair color section. Yep, there it was. My choices were, I kid not, purple black, maroon black, brown black, and black. Finally, after staring at the small selection for about ten minutes, I found a box that said "light medium brown." But the picture on the box made me a little nervous:
Does that look light?
At this moment, that color is sitting on my hair. I think I mixed it right, although I didn't follow the pictures on the box, which seemed to show putting the two elements of the dye in a straight line on the little brush and then pulling it through the hair. Instead, I mixed the two tubes in an old plastic takeout container and then applied it with a brush.

What can I say? I'm a risk-taker. If I end up with Party Member Black hair like that other time I ventured something "brave," I'll just present myself sheepishly back at the salon and beg Justin's forgiveness.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

When Paradise Is Not Paved

So we just wrapped  up a week in El Nido on the northern tip of the Filipino island of Palawan. I've actually spent the last two days in an internal debate (no, not another Debbie against Debbie fight! Who will win?) about whether I think El Nido is worth a travel article.

Here's what I think. On the plus side, El Nido is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, up there with Positano or Guilin for its sheer beauty. Karsts -- jagged mountain of porous limestone that rise out of aquamarine waters and are surrounded by beaches with sand the consistency of talcum powder -- surround El Nido. Most tourists spend their days island hopping, choosing from one of four regular routes or scuba diving and snorkeling around these islands. We did both and it was very nice, if a tiny bit physically demanding. For me, the snorkeler, I had to deal with jellyfish, benign-looking creatures, most of them the size of my fist, but that inflicted tiny stings on my arms as I pushed past them in the water. 

And the water one day was choppy, which meant that swimming at the surface was a challenge, with waves breaking over my back and water getting in my tube, and so murky below that I couldn't see a whole lot.  But overall, it was still a treat to be swimming with the fish (in a nice way), taking the sun on a cute boat (and, bonus points, sharing that boat with a very cute French filmmaker with long hair and a tattoo on his ankle. We bonded over how much we both despised Gerard Depardieu).

The day of island hopping included visits to several gorgeous lagoons (and prompted me to order a very blue Blue Lagoon drink at dinner that night...friends will recognize my irrational love of themed drinks) and that was lovely. For a few moments, Bob and I even had one lagoon to ourselves until it was invaded by a group of life jacket-wearing Chinese tourists, but that's okay: they provided a certain amount of entertainment value too.  One young woman was lugging her tiny life jacket-wearing grandmother on her back, causing Joanna to theorize that the only way this family could convince grandma to spend her spring festival in the Philippines was to assure her they would take care of EVERYTHING.

And also in the plus column is the sheer warmth of Filipinos everywhere. We only met genuinely nice people who were willing to go out of their way to make us feel welcome. They rival the Thais for smiling all the time, as they walk down the street, when they see their friends.

And then there were the spectacular sunsets from our hotel, appropriately named Stunning Vistas. Each night, we'd sip a cocktail and watch the sun sink behind the karsts. One night the sky was magenta, another night peach, a third night the brilliance of the sky didn't reveal itself until after the sun had disappeared and it was as if the sun's spotlight was shining up from below into a sky decorated with wisps of fluffy clouds.

But there were, both literally and figuratively, rough edges to El Nido, starting with the bone-jarring five-hour ride from the airport in Puerto Princessa to El Nido, a ride that took us careening along curves and through unpaved roads. I may have said this already but I think that paving paradise just a little bit isn't such a bad idea. The ride to El Nido was in the dark, which I learned on the last day may have been slightly better than seeing by daylight that your driver has a habit of deciding to pass a vehicle on a blind curve or going up a hill. 

And the basic truth is that El Nido isn't ready for the hoards of tourists who descended. There just weren't enough restaurants, the local transportation constitutes bone-jarring (see a theme?) "tricycles," which are motorcycles outfitted with a carriage on the side that can hold three people in a very tight squeeze. The hotel we stayed at was basic. A hard bed, towels that were not changed for the duration, and, in the second room we got, no working ac. If you wanted coffee with breakfast, that was extra. If you wanted towels for the beach, you rented them.

And I have to admit that I'm spoiled by the food of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Filipino food is not that. We decided that ordering grilled fish was our best option, but many times, the restaurant had run out of the catch of the day.

And as for things like "easy" cliff hikes, see my previous post.

This sounds a little whiney. I guess the truth is that El Nido is geared more for backpackers than tourists who might want a soft chair, a good meal, or a Nutella crepe. If you go, expect beauty and perfect weather. But make sure you pick first, second, and third choices on the menu, and have a sense of humor. Of course, I always bring that.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me

I woke up this morning with sunburned skin, bug bites, bruises from our cliff climb, coral scrapes from snorkeling, jellyfish bites from snorkeling, hair that looks as though someone electrocuted it and then left it out in the sun to dry, a back with scary twinges from dozens of rides in what the Filipinos call tricycles, and sand inside my ears.

So I ask: am I getting too old for these kinds of "adventures"?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Define Easy

Yesterday we went on a hike to the cliffs overlooking El Nido. I'll describe some of the rest of the vacation, and post pictures as well, but I wanted to give a sense of what this one adventure was like.

The important thing here is that we didn't die. But the scary thing is that there were many many moments where that could have happened: a slip of concentration, a small misstep, a loose rock, a hand that slips, and any one of us could have plunged down the steep mountain to be impaled by rocks as jagged and sharp as daggers.

When we signed up for the hike with a guide the day before, the tour operator said it was an "easy" hike: "an hour up and an hour down." One family, he told us, was doing the hike at 6 in the morning so that they could have time to fit in a day of island hopping, which leaves around 9. And the pictures advertising the hike showed people wearing flip flops at the summit. Flip flops. 

How hard could it be?

I could answer this, but let me just describe the very beginning of the hike. A jagged karst-formed cliff looms over El Nido so we wove through some of the tiny homes and alleys until we got to the beginning of the wooded area. Almost immediately, we were hauling ourselves up over rocks that jutted up like malevolent obstacles intent only on impeding our progress. There was not one flat rock or anything resembling a path to be seen.

So I allowed myself a small internal freak out, a silent debate in which I thought, if I turn back NOW I won't hold the group up for long. But the other voice won, the one that asked me, now what would Anne do? Would Anne Rosen baby out and go back? WWAD? 

I knew the answer so I quieted the debate and declared WWAD the winner and soldiered on. 

Honestly, though, I'm not sure I shouldn't have let the baby win. The hike continued to be a combination of muscle-extending heists over rocks while balancing my sketchers on one jagged edge and gripping other jagged edges with my hands so hard my palms were scraped. We did this over and over again as the sweat dripped into my eyes and stung.

After what seemed like six hours but was probably only an hour and a half of agony, we reached the top. Which we should have enjoyed with its vistas of the sea and the town of El Nido, and the surrounding islands. But all I could think was, "There's no place to sit down." So we stood, leaning in exhaustion against the unwelcoming rocks, drank some water, and took a couple of blurry pics.

I had to ask our guide. Was the way down the same as the way up? I had visions of a paved path, or maybe even a helicopter rescue at an exorbitant price. I even wondered if parachuting was an option.

But this paradise is not paved. I'm beginning to have mixed feelings about whether its a good idea to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. I mean, a little pavement every once in a while could be a good thing.

In any event, the harsh truth was there was only one way down: the same way we came up. Flinging myself over the cliff: bad idea. 

So we descended. Slowly, and half praying, half trying not to look too closely at the gaping ravine that would swallow our bodies with the mistake of a millisecond, we descended.

At least there was comic relief. Bob, bless him, had the brilliant idea to wear a bathing suit on the hike, thinking how nice it would be to jump in the ocean after our vigorous and bracing hike.

What he didn't count on was the thinness of the nylon in a ten-year-old suit. So not only did the poor guy have bloody gashes all over his legs, he managed to give himself an enormous tear in the back of the pants as he sat and tried to scoot down the very unforgiving mountain on his tush. 
For the record, this was an approved photo.

By the end of the hike he was both bloody and indecent. We descended right in the middle of an active cock-fighting arena. Bob decided he needed to take photos of this bloody spectacle, even though he was clearly the greater novelty in the scene. And when we made it into the town, he had the courage to actually SHOP AROUND for a new suit, rather than throw down some pesos for the first board shorts or sarong he could find.

It was quite a day. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My Latest Form of Amusement

Lately I've been amusing myself around Beijing by trying out my basic Chinese on unsuspecting Chinese people: cab drivers, my ayi, friends' drivers, etc.

And I am making progress. I'll recount several recent conversations I had recently, using my understanding of what was being said, not the actual Chinese. Because I'll be laughed at by real Chinese speakers otherwise.

On Tuesday, I asked my ayi if she was going to be here on Friday. Yes, she said.
And are you going home for spring festival? I asked.
Yes, to Henan province.
Then she asked me where I was going.
To the Philippines, I said.
Then she asked me if my daughter had left the country (here, we are in the realm of my grasping at the gist, not in the realm of perfect understanding).
No, she's here in Beijing, but she'll be coming with us to the Philippines, I said (I think).

Yesterday, in a cab, I decided to make small talk.
It's cold today! I said.
Yes, but the air is clear because the wind is blowing, the driver said.
Are you going home for the holiday? I asked (I think).
Yes, to ??? (I didn't recognize the name)
Where are you from?
I'm American, but I live in Beijing, I said.
When I paid and wished him a happy new year, he grinned, looking both delighted and surprised. And then wished me the same.

In a second cab later, I tried to comment on a song on the radio.
That's pretty, I said.
Then I realized I had used "piao liang" instead of "hao ting" (sounds good) so I corrected myself. The cab driver grinned and jacked up the sound. He said the music was some word I couldn't understand, so we just smiled at each other. And again I wished him happy new year at the end and received a huge smile in return.

I feel like some kind of ambassador of small talk.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Not a great photo, but this gives the sense of the decorations around here.

Happy year of the snake, everyone! Wait, you were too busy watching the Ravens win (yay, for Baltimore, yay) that you didn't know we here in China are getting ready to celebrate the new year?

Well, it's kind of a big deal, like the anticipation in the run-up to Christmas.  The rush at my hairdresser was so big it took me four hours to get out of there. Granted, I need more attention these days, but it was mainly because everyone wanted a haircut, a facial, or a manicure before the holiday.

And today, my Chinese teacher started talking about all the special things you're supposed to do in the week before new year. One day is for cleaning and one day is for eating gigantic dumplings, and then I lost track of the other parts of the preparations because all I could focus on was the excitement in her voice. Going home to see family and overeating. Giving gifts. Decorations everywhere. Crazy stress over travel. Sound familiar?

Okay, so instead of a little babe in a manger we have cherubs wearing Chinese hats and depictions of snakes that are so chubby that it's virtually impossible to tell them from last year's baby dragons. I'll bet even the year of the rat gets cute-ified. And instead of red and green, angels we have heard on high, deck the halls, we have fat red lanterns everywhere.

And instead of Christmas carols we have fireworks, so loud and relentless that it's honestly like living in a war zone. A colorful, Communist war zone. Yay again.

Last year we were in town for a good three days of nonstop fireworks. This year, we fly out on the eve of the holiday, which may mean that we can see Beijing exploding in an orgy of lights as we soar off to the Philippines. Either that, or the fireworks get us.
This is a snake. Yes it is.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Do These Purple Leopard Spot Leggings Make Me Look Chinese?

So here is the evidence that I’ve gone native. As I walked to the “China Moment” party today, careful not to slip on the ice that seems to have coated Beijing, I didn’t even get a second look. In the United States, the fashion police would have run me down and signed me up for “What Not to Wear.”
First, the entire outfit. Notice the studded hat, the long-sleeved shirt under the tee shirt, the purple pants, and the awesome booties with major rhinestones.

It's important to get a closer look at my footwear. This was 100 RMB well-spent, even if the insides did make my socks black.

 I don't want to brag, but no one else at the party had quite my look.