Heading East …

April 7, 10:40pm 2012, Somewhere over China – I am now 13 and half hours into my 14 hour flight from Detroit to Beijing. This is my first trip to China. I have filled out my immigration card and put my shoes back on. Ready to get off this plane and begin to see this new world. I uncharacteristically slept for about 8 hours on the flight. Feeling good.

Exploring China

Exploring China


I am heading to China to give a Keynote address at the Asian Pacific Web conference, a professional meeting on Internet and web technologies, not surprisingly, largely focused on issues and research in Asia. It is an honor to be invited and I am committed to fully embracing the opportunity to see the country and its peoples. China has emerged as a legitimate player in academic research in computer science within the last ten years, but few of my colleagues have had direct experience with its institutions. There is very much an effort by China to dispel the negative images of the past. I suspect my invitation here is in some way a part of the effort.

A bit of important history; China was essentially a feudal society until about 1912, when a long string of civil wars broke out between different imperial and communist factions. The wars ended in 1949 with the formation of the modern People’s Republic of China. Between 1949 and 1977 (when Mao died and the gang of four were arrested), the government held absolute control over the population. Everyone made the same wages and lived a very basic life. Part of the Mao’s plan or “great leap forward” was to increase the population. The size of the population doubled over that time. Some estimates state that over 45 million people died of starvation. Life during that time was bleak and there was little social or technical progress. In 1977, the government loosened controls over the people and allow increased capitalism. It took a long time, but modern China is the result of the near 40-year loosening of controls. I am very interested to see how things have changed.

China is the most populous country on the planet with 1.3 billion people. This is about 4 times the population of the U.S. in about the same amount of space. I understand it is a big, crowded, place with many contradictions, political and otherwise.

To be truthful, I have many preconceived notions of China. The are strange, conflicting and sometimes-offensive popular culture images projected onto China in the US. I have always had a kind of fascination with China and its people. I suppose it started when I read “The Good Earth” in middle school. The book is a rags-to-riches story of pre-communist life in China. It painted a diverse, gritty, but yet somehow harmonious life. I am expecting something of the same.

They just told me to shut off my laptop. Here we go.

April 8, 6:27am 2012, Beijing – Dawn is breaking of Beijing. I got to the hotel around midnight last night, checked into my room, read, and went to sleep. It was a twitchy, up and down kind of night, but I feel great this morning.

Beijing Dawn

Beijing Dawn

I have to say I was surprised by the trip from the airport to hotel last night. Beijing is nothing like I pictured. I was suspecting something like Delhi, but in truth it was closer to Dallas. It is an absolutely massive city with an overwhelming number of highways going every which way. The cars were clean with no visible rust or damage. At the high end, there were top end Mercedes, Alpha Romeos, and the like. Most cars were Volkswagens and Hondas (there was a huge advertisement at Airport for Honda CRVs). The number of American cars like Buicks and Fords also surprised me.

I was prepared and forewarned about the dirtiness of Beijing. Truth be told, it was as clean as Seattle. From what I saw the roads where absolutely immaculate and the green spaces well cared for. There was no sign of poverty or blight to be seen. Not that I don’t think they exist, it is that Beijing (or the parts I have seen of it) is like any affluent city in the world.

There is one caveat to this, however. The smog is unbelievable. There is a brownish yellow haze over the whole city that one can smell and almost feel. I went to bed last night thinking it was foggy and woke up looking at across a sea of yellow clouds that envelops the entire city. Looking at it, I think I will stick to the treadmill in the hotel gym at the hotel rather than suck that muck into my lungs.

The hotel I have been put up in is called the Foreign Experts Hotel. It is a nice, clean establishment that is clearly a state run operation. There are plenty of top drawer, 5-star hotels in Beijing, and this one is a little less fancy, but highly livable. My hosts have been kind enough to put me up in one of the best rooms. I have a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and plenty of space to move around. It is as big as the apartment my wife and I had when we got married. It will do nicely for my short stay.

There was a funny scene when I checked in last night. I think it is a little indicative of China. They were polishing the marble floors in the lobby when I arrived. There was one buffer machine, one squeegy on a pole, and four workers. Apparently they decided to dump what amounts to all of the wax for the job in one side of the room and slowly worked it the approximate 75 feet to the other while buffering and squeegeeing. Of course, this really was like pushing 10 gallons of oatmeal down a football field. It was getting everywhere, and the participants seemed to be getting angrier and angrier at each other. To make things worse, everyone who stepped into the hotel would step in the mess and track it back to an already clean spot, at which time the workers would have to backtrack and to it again. It was midnight and they had perhaps made it 20 feet. I don’t know what time they started, but I suspect they will complete the job in late August.

The other thing to note was the sheer number of people working in the lobby. I counted at least 4 or 5 people behind the desk, the 4 workers battling the floor, two policemen sleepily chatting in chairs at the other of the room, and about 3 bellhops. So, at midnight in a basically empty lobby, there were twelve employees working. Gotta be a state run operation.

It is approaching 7am as I write this. I need two things to make it through the morning, coffee and Internet. Going to work on that.

April 8, 8:07am 2012, Beijing – Just back from breakfast. It is complimentary buffet fare. It is all Chinese cuisine except for a few Western dishes. All of it is quite good and tasty, but very rich. I tried some dumplings, leaks, cantaloupe, what they call Bacon (thinly sliced ham), scrambled eggs with some vegetables I could not readily identify, and a really good piece of toast with salted butter. Oh yes, and coffee. I was very different from what I have at home, but it will do. There were perhaps a dozen people working in the restaurant, which made about a four to one ratio of employees to customers. Quite nice, really.

I got back to my room and took a shower. Again, really no difference here than in any western city. Nice facilities, but a little cramped. I did however misplace my watch in my room. Irritating.

I am to be picked up in the lobby in 15 minutes. We are going to the great wall to tour. I am very excited. This should be great fun. Found the watch.

April 9, 8:07am 2012, Beijing – Long day yesterday. A tour guide picked me up at the hotel around 8:30am, where we proceeded to another hotel to pick up six other guests. After some green tea and nice conversation with some of the other invitees at the other hotel, we set off across Beijing. It was a glorious, clear sunny Sunday morning (the smog had apparently blown off the city, and it seemed clear). Sprits were high and the assembled crew chatted away as we drove.

We headed out of the city in a seemingly northern direction. We were to see two sites that day, a mausoleum of one of the early leaders of China, and the great wall. A day for the bucket list, to be sure.

Heading out of the city deserves some qualification. There about as many people in Beijing as there are in all of Australia. The city about 175 kilometers across and has more thirty-plus floor housing complexes than any city I have ever seen. These are all new, clean and fairly attractive. We drove through Los Angeles-level traffic for about an hour and a half with no end in sight. The highways were new concrete and all of us commented that we could be in any city in the US. Well, maybe not Newark.

Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs


We arrived at the shrine around 10:15 and got out. Even after that long drive, we are still not close to being out of Beijing. One of our party was on crutches, so we moved a little slowly into the park. The shrine is setup so you walk about a kilometer from one end to the other in a nicely manicured garden. The walkway was lined with beautiful willow trees and gigantic stone animal statues. Being early spring, the trees are budding with bright green leaves. It is a cool morning and the effect is quite nice. We amble through the park marking time with idle discussion ranging from work, art, and the state of crime in Oakland, California.

Beijing is similar to Los Angeles in other ways too. The climate is very hot and dry, and the open ground that is not actively managed (what little there is of it) is covered with those scrubby green-brownish bushes that cover most of southern California. The city is also surrounded by rocky brown mountains that look as though they could barely sustain life.

As we walk I begin to notice the quality of the sun. It is that penetrating hot sun that feels like it is burning your scalp. As I have very little hair, the effect is pretty strong. I commit myself to wearing my hat the rest of the day. My fair skin and this climate are a bad mix.

The walkway is lined with animal statues. First lions, then camels, then elephants. The come it pairs. First two lions resting and two standing guard, a similar quartet of camels, and finally elephants. Apparently these are the guardians of the shrine. On the ride from the hotel our guide has provided an intensely detailed description of the shrine and order of dynasties, what all the symbolism is, and many other aspects of China. I was too tired from the trip and preoccupied with looking at the city to follow much of it. It does make me determined to pick up a book on Chinese history when I get home.

Speaking of our guide, she was a nice, pretty woman in here thirties. She made us call her Dana because there was no chance of us actually correctly pronouncing her name. She went to a University that specializes in tourism and works hard at this job pretty much non-stop (this was a theme with people in China). All being related on one way or another to University life, we talk quite about the educational system in China and how it works. I could sense sadness in her that she did not find another career more challenging (she was obviously quite bright), but she did her best to hide it.

The Chinese educational system is very different that I expected. Everyone gets to go to school up to high school. After that, you have to pay—sometimes a lot. Once you finish high school you can take a test to see what Universities you get into. If you score really high, you get to go to the best schools. If you score low, you get to go to the worst schools or none at all. Also, like in the US, it matters where you are from. If you are from a different province, you have to score much higher to get into the good schools. The last part I could never really square with the communist ethic. If you want to get into a better school but score low, then you can pay more. The lower your score, the more you have to pay. In this way, the truly rich get to send their kids to the best schools independent of merit.

We finished our walk at the other end of the park tired and a little hot. The van turned slowly into traffic and after about 15 more minutes the city began to drop away to hot, arid land.

Here we entered what is referred to as “rural China”. Rural and metropolitan China are very different places. The former is agrarian and poor, whereas the latter is industrial and more affluent. As we heading into the countryside we saw many farms and smallish towns. The housing was much cruder, and the style of living was much more basic. Being Sunday, women were washing clothes in basins, the populous (mostly farmers) were gathered in small enclaves exchanging stories and smoking, and kids were playing in muddy streams.

The farming towns are collections of connected, single story brick buildings. Often accompanied by a front courtyard, each house seems to contain what looks to be no more than 3-4 rooms. There is trash around and the disrepair is similar to any of the borderline third world low income villages and towns around the world.

Note that I don’t say poverty. Interestingly, China (at least the part I have seen) does not have the overly destitute populous you see in countries like India. Rather it has a massive community of subsistence level workers. I saw no evidence of hunger or need. To be clear, the average quality of life I have encountered in is below that in the western world, and substantially lower in the country. I just don’t see obviously hungry kids begging in the streets or the other markers of poverty so pervasive in other parts of the world.

Rural China

Rural China


We begin to climb into the mountains and the villages become more primitive. A farm village here, a quarry there. Every inch of the mountains here is terraced to create room to grow nuts and other things. Like Japan, the size of the population and amount of available real estate requires that every inch that can be used, gets used. Dotted amongst the tiers of farmed tree are non-fruit bearing peach trees which luckily have just begun to blossom. It makes for a beautiful sight. We climb in and out of hills and continue our journey.

At last we arrive in a largish and more contemporary village we are told is near the base of the great wall. Our driver and guide stop a nice looking restaurant and we go in. The food starts coming in piles and quickly we gobble it up. It is tasty fare consisting of chicken, eggplant, tofu, fish, green peas, egg dishes with tomatoes, and many other sundries. The food is excellent and well spiced. I finally got to try one of the red Chinese peppers and was not disappointed. Hot hot hot. We finish and move on toward the wall.

About 10 minutes after leaving the restaurant, we arrive at the bottom of the hill on which one part of the great wall rests. We look up the monstrous hill and note with some relief that there is a cable car heading to the base of the wall. We unload the van, with Terry (our friend on crutches) to watch from the bottom. The rest head up the steep hill to the bottom of the cable car run.

We arrive at the top of the cable car run and have a horizon-to-horizon view of the wall. Here, it rests on a ridge of a considerable range of mountains. It is crowded here, but not—as I am told—by Chinese standards. We walk up an entryway flight of stairs and onto to the top of the wall. Words fail me on the scale of the wall, so I will just go with it is impressive. About 20-30 feet tall with guard towers about every 100 yards. The side facing away from Beijing has small holes in the wall for arrow fires (murder holes?). The wall is perhaps 10 yards wide and every brick is perhaps 2x2x2 feet. How they got materials to the top is beyond me. The sheer effort to required to build this 5,500-mile structure is unfathomable.

Walking the Great Wall


We all look around a couple of guardhouses and begin to walk down the wall. The part we are on is an undulating section of mountain on which the wall was laid. Some in our party begin to get tired and fall back. First one, then three, and eventually it is me, my host, and a first year graduate student from China. My host Yanchen—a wonderfully cheerful and pleasant professor in his early to mid-fifties holds out as long as he can. He says he must stop and is tired. To my horror I realize that he has been trying to hold off for some time and feels that it is only good manners to stay with me. I run about 5-10km a day and am in great shape, so I feel doubly bad for dragging him this far. My other companion is a young Chinese student who refuses to stop and joins me for the ascent to the top of the wall. By the altimeter in my watch, the last stretch is a 110 meter vertical climb in perhaps 300 meters of horizontal distance. The last 10 meters is up a vertical stairs that you climb on your hands and feet. The view from the top is amazing, and I get a great shot of the valley. After resting a few minutes we head back down. We reach the base and the assembled crew hails our effort. We chat and have great fun heading back to the van.
Yanchen

Yanchen


Having expended our energy for the day, the return ride is more restive. We are all at various stages of jet-lag and late afternoon (about 4:30pm at this time) seems to be low-ebb for this sort of thing. There is a dinner to be held that night and we exchange possible plans for the evening.

I get to the hotel and realize that I am bone tired. Having been in China less than 24 hours and the excitement of the day, I realize that I don’t have anything more in me. I drink a couple of beers, call home, surf the Internet, and relax. Around 7pm I order a rather good club sandwich and watch a movie on my laptop. My goal is to make it to 9pm (to avoid more jetlag tomorrow) and I make it.

April 9, 10:11am 2012, Beijing – I have decided to skip out on some of the professional stuff today and see more of Beijing. I tried to get a guided tour, but I was too late and everything was already booked. I am going to head out on my own and see what comes of it. It is always more stressful to go out on you own in places like China, but the adventure is sometimes a lot more fun. Lets see what happens.

Going to get a shower, pack my backpack, and see what the Forbidden City has to offer …

April 10, 6:32pm 2012, About 30,000 feet above China between Beijing and Kunming. Now setting off on the second part of my trip. My first three days was in Beijing and my next two will be in Kunming. Kunming is in south central China about 150 miles north of Viet Nam and about 1300 miles from Beijing. Because it is much further south and in a different region of Asia, it promises to be a very different kind of place. I get to sightsee for one day (Wednesday) and give my keynote the next (Thursday).

Interesting morning.

Interesting morning.


I woke up to yet another strange event this morning. I got up and looked out my window, out on the highway was a truck that was ablaze. Not just a little, but shooting flames upwards of 10-20 feet off the ground. It just sat there burning in the middle of a 6-lane highway for a full 10 minutes before I heard the fire trucks. What was truly amazing was that the other drivers did not seem to care much. They would ease by the flaming wreck—often within a foot or two. If you have ever seen a gas tank blow (I have, it is spectacular), the very last place on earth you want to be is near it. Yet, there went the drivers, one after another. It was like watching a game of vehicular Russian roulette. Crazy. After the ten minutes the fire trucks showed up and put out the fire. The car was removed efficiently and traffic returned to normal.

I guess I have not had a chance to write about yesterday yet—just too tired at the end of the day yesterday and too busy preparing my keynote and getting on the plane today to write.

After deciding to go it alone yesterday morning I took a deep breath and jumped into a cab headed for the Forbidden City. I was staying about a block from the Olympic site containing the water cube and the bird’s nest, so getting there was a long slog. At first it was 4 lane highways but the city began to close in as we drew toward the center. Beijing is built around concentric circle roads that mark the major regions of the city. The closer to the center you are the more expensive it gets. The direct center is the hidden city.

As we began to approach the hidden city the traffic went from bad to worse. It was very slow going. The cab driver turned down a side street and stopped the cab. I was a little confused as were sitting in front of some touristy looking shops selling the low-grade crap you can find at any major landmark. He gestured vigorously and pointed down the main street. After a few seconds I realized he was suggesting that the Forbidden City was just down the street. Satisfied, I paid the driver, jumped out, and headed down the street.

At this point I would comment that English is not spoken by many people in China. This makes getting around a little harder and sometimes more stressful (more on this point later). Many of the Chinese academics I encounter professionally here speak English fluently, but I have discovered that this is not the norm. Of course this makes total sense, but only in Japan have I had this much trouble communicating.

I continue on down the street for few blocks when I get my first view of the city. Or rather, I see one of the moat and walls surrounding it. The hidden city is a massive complex of palaces surrounded by a 50-meter wide moat and a 20-meter tall wall. It was the home to the last two dynasties of China the Qing and the Han, and is about 600 years old. I would estimate it is probably about 2-3 miles fully around the moat.

I look down the street and there appears to be an entrance. There must be at least 1000 people milling about. I begin to close the gap between the entrance and me when the street vendors accost me. Some are selling books, toys, and the random stuff one finds again in these places. The truly aggressive vendors are the rickshaw drivers. The stereo-typical walking wagons have been replaced with 3 wheel bicycles. There are lots of them and the kind get behind you and yell “HEY MISTER” or something like that. They get a reaction from me the first couple of times, after which I recall my days in New York and I aggressively ignore them.

Exit Only

Exit Only


I finally arrive at the entrance. Something is wrong. It appears that all these folks are leaving, not entering the Forbidden City. I make my way to the portal against the tide and read a sign “THIS IS AN EXIT ONLY, PLEASE ENTER BY THE SOUTH ENTRANCE”. I look to my watch compass and deftly calculate that indeed I am at the north entrance. This means that I have to walk all the way around the entire hidden cite to get to the entrance. I look both east and west and see the moat stretches on the northern edge about ½ mile in both directions. Cursing the cab driver and his unwillingness to face the traffic, I arbitrarily begin to head west. After about 10 minutes, I reach the northwest corner of the moat and turn south.

The problem now is that that I have to work my way though unfamiliar neighborhoods to get far enough south to head east to reconnect with the Hidden City entrance. I begin heading that direction and after 15 minutes I begin to get nervous. The bustle of the hidden city has given way to city life. There are no more vendors or families heading to see the sites. Just houses and random businesses. I consider turning around before I get too lost but decide to press on. After another tense 10 minutes, I see a road breaking left that leads to a previously undisclosed western gate to the city. I make for it and find myself crossing a bridge to the other side of the moat. There is a road on this side that goes along side, heads south, then back east again to the southern gate. 15 minutes later I am at the south gate.

Here I encounter The Throng. The throng is a seemingly endless collection of humans in one place that move in a kind of hypnotic undulating mass. I have only encountered The Throng in a few places; India, the Tokyo Subway, and a Def Leopard concert in 1987. Here the Throng are tourists (95 percent of whom are Chinese) seeking to view the city and are crammed together like mackerel.

Everyone is filing through the ticket queues and paying 60 yen (about 10 dollars) for an entry ticket. I pay for mine, purchase a map and a poorly translated booklet, and head through the massive arch into the city. I reflect, just for a moment, on the dignitaries, soldiers, and finally revolutionaries that went through this arch. The sense of history is palpable.

Outer Courtyard of Forbidden City

Outer Courtyard of Forbidden City


I walk in the main courtyard and am dumbstruck. It is perhaps 400 yards by 600 yards with a river running through it. There are three bridges crossing the river to a massive gate. The city consists of an outer palace region and an inner palace region. This is the first courtyard of the outer regions. I move around the courtyard and snap pictures from a number of different angles in an attempt to capture the scale of the place. I do my best and move into the next chamber. It is even more grand. I spend the next 3 hours just moving around the city and exploring seeing different courtyards and palaces.

I could go on for pages about the Forbidden City, but I could not really do it justice. The concentric courtyards and palaces were huge and intimidating. The ancient objects showed incredible wealth and craftsmanship. All of the palaces were in the inner city, and arranged not unlike a neighborhood. When in use, each palace was inhabited by the Emperor, his wife, his consort, some family members, and other officials of the regime. Each palace was arranged with an outer wall housing a number of rooms with a shared courtyard in the center. The more important the person, the larger and grander the area was. The center or the inner city was the garden. The garden was at the far north end of the city surrounded by palaces. There were many rock formations, gazebos, shrines, and plants. Apparently this is where the people in the inner city would meet and entertain themselves. It was truly beautiful.

The one thing I found very surprising of Forbidden City was the level of disrepair of the palaces. The paint was pealing all over the place and the palace contents, while behind glass and protected, were faded and dusty. Given the advances made in the rest of the country, this was really out of character. This is the kind of place that I would have expected to be better cared for. Weird.

I finally make my way out of the palace and emerge at the exit I started at nearly four hours before. I look at my watch and see that it is still only 3pm. I have two options, I can a) go see something really cool like the summer palace on the other side of Beijing or b) do something stupid like just start walking in a random direction. Predictably, I choose option b.

Wandering Beijing

Wandering Beijing


I will say that one of the lessons I have learned traveling the globe is that the best way to get to know a place to just wander around the places where people actually live. The landmarks are impressive and enjoyable, but it is in the daily life where you learn what the place is. Remembering some promising shopping and food the way we came in the cab earlier in the day, I try to reconstruct reverse directions from memory. Sadly, this is not generally speaking a task that I am not well suited for.

I walk in a northernly direction for about a half and hour and begin to get into a shopping district. There are all kinds of shops from Pharmacies, to groceries, to Camera shops, and just about anything you can name. There are many kiosks selling tasty looking goods. Even though I have not eaten since breakfast, I remember deeply regretting eating street food in other parts of the world. I demure.

About this time, I see to my left a side street l see water. A lake in fact. I walk down the alleyway and find myself standing next to a beautiful lake. It is a medium sized lake with paddle boats and fishermen, vendors selling ice cream, and many people simply enjoying a warm day. I see that most of the people are couples; some old, many young. The sight of them makes me miss Megan. She would enjoy this lake.

Well now I am thirsty. A day and a lake like this deserve some kind of drink. Lemonade won’t do. I scan the horizon for a bar and I see that one side of the lake has a number of bars on roofs overlooking the lake. Right on. I practically knock down an old lady getting up the street. It takes a minute, but I find the stairs and head up to the roof.

The waiter hands me a menu and I begin to play the “point to the thing you want” game I have become so good at. I scan the menu and see the standard fare of Chinese beers when my eyes cross over “JIM BEAM WISKEY”. Now were talking. Jim Beam ain’t top shelf whiskey, but it will do nicely. Gimmie one of those and a beer. Feeling right with the world, I await anxiously for my drinks.

Refreshing!

Refreshing!


My drinks arrive and he puts them on the table. I smell the whiskey and praise my good luck. I look down and see that the Beam has been delivered, inexplicably, with an ice cube in it. Now China may have invented paper, fireworks, good karate movies, spaghetti, sweet and sour pork and many other things great and small, but no civilization should ever allow anyone to put an ice cube in strait whiskey. Over the railing the ice cube goes and I set to have a drink in a warm spring sunset.

One detail I have left out. The bar has loud speakers that are blaring “rock-a-billy” and country songs from the US. It began with “Sixteen Tons”, followed by Pasty Cline singing “I fall to pieces”. I finish my drinks and get the hell out of there when they play, without a bit of irony, Conway Twitty.

I head down the street and see a rather well traveled ceramics shop. This is clearly a place where the locals buy their day-to-day gear, so I pop in. It is perhaps 10 feet wide and 10 feet tall. Every inch of the place is covered with different tea sets, chopsticks, and plates. What I am after is on one side of the shop—rice bowls. I am looking for a set of four for Megs, the boys, and me. I pick out a set Megan would like (red and black) but there is only two. The shopkeeper and I look everywhere in the store to find a matching set and after a good 15 minutes we find their twins. I purchase the four for perhaps 20$ US, and leave the shop.

It is after six and starting to get dark. I want to head back to the hotel, so I head for the main road. I step out and try to hail a cab. Here’s the problem. None of them will stop for me. They appear to be giving me stern looks and I don’t know why. After about 15 minutes I still have nothing. I panic a little because it occurs to me that if there is a standard way to call a cab, I don’t know it. Finally, somebody stops and I point to the hotel name and address written in Chinese I had smartly acquired before I left the hotel. I make it to the hotel, have a good dinner, and fall asleep before 9pm.

April 12, 2:00pm 2012, Kunming – It has been a while since I have been able to write. I am sitting here at the Airport waiting for the first leg of my return trip home. I am off to Beijing where I will stay the night and then grab a Delta flight for home.

Time to catch up. I arrived with a number of folks from the conference Kunming around 9:00pm Wednesday night. Air Chia was rudimentary but livable and I was none the worse for wear. We were met by a contingent of folks from the local University and we set out in several personal cars in transit to our new hotel.

Michelle

Michelle


The problem now is that the people who picked us up don’t know where we are going. Kunming is a large city by western standards with an impossibly complicated road system, so I don’t fault them for getting lost. Yanchen is obviously getting rather annoyed at the locals, but me and my backseat companion (Michelle, a dean from a University in Queensland, Australia) crack jokes and chat about life. We are both obviously tired, but the ride is rather pleasant. It takes us about an hour to get to the hotel (we learn later we were only about 15 minutes from the airport).

It is probably worth commenting why Michelle and I are finding humor in the situation. China has this rather odd characteristic that things are very often much, much harder than they have to be. Almost always due to the best of intentions, simple things become difficult. In this case, in an effort to make our transit the ten miles more comfortable, our hosts turned a 15 minute, ten dollar cab ride into an hour long trek to every corner of the city. This was repeated a hundred times over the last week and it has begun to wear on me considerably. It went from confusing, to funny, to irritating. I suppose the American in me is showing at this point, but I am too tired from the week to care.

We get to the hotel and find that it is actually a golf resort, and a really nice one to boot. It is called Lakeview (not a translation, but its literal name) because it is on the edge of a large lake. There is a huge mountain and lots of beautiful near-tropical vegetation. The climate here is very much like the coastal part of California, but perhaps a little more tropical. Kunming is actually a resort area and I have come to find out that most of China vacation’s here. This was pretty clear as we crossed the city. There are hundreds of clubs, hotels, and shopping everywhere.

Kunming is also much more western than Beijing. Beijng has been the capital of China for centuries, and used to be known as Peking. In fact the Airport still bears the code (PEK). Kunming is apparently much more the child of the new China, with shining, clean apartment complexes, lots of green space, and very little to non-existent pollution. It was by far the most western place I saw in China. I could see myself staying here for vacation.

My room at the hotel is equally nice. It is very modern with a control panel only NASA could love. It takes me 10 minutes to figure out which switches to work to turn on lights other appliances. It overlooks a very well kept golf course and has that Asian dark wood paneling that looks very classy. It reminds me very much both in quality and look to the best places in Japan. I drop down into the bar and share some drinks with the other folks from the conference.

Michael

Michael

David

David


There are two other folks that bear mention, Michael and David. Michael is a doctor (anesthetist) and administrator of some considerable renown from Queensland, and David was a bioinformatics researcher from the same. We were bonded by a common language and outlook and got along famously. We tended to stay together on our excursions and by the end became quite good friends. All three of us had two boys at home (Michael also had a girl), and we swapped stories of family. They truly made the trip fun. Would that I could meet people like on travel like this more often.

We have one more day until the conference begins. Our host Yanchen arranged for us to take a ride out into the country to the stone forest. The stone forest is a colossal rock formation with groupings of pillar shaped rocks. We are told it is a two-hour drive out of the city. I look forward to seeing more of the country.

After taking a morning stroll around the surrounding area, Michael and I with a collection of other folks head out of the city (David has to stay behind and speak at a workshop). It takes a full hour to escape the city because of traffic and the sheer size of the place, and we head into the countryside.

The countryside here is quite different than outside Beijing. There is almost no unused space. Every valley has a highly populated village. Sometime these villages have 10-15 story apartments, sometimes they don’t. Nearly every inch of the earth bears the mark of human intervention. While not wholly unattractive, it is a little strange. Remembering the vast regions of untouched land in the US, I cannot wonder if this is what Colorado will look like in 50 years. I suppose one could look the central valley in California to get an answer.

Perhaps the darker side of this terraforming is that whole sides of mountains have been torn away and there exists little vegetation. To be honest, some of it looks like the strip mines I saw in Southern Ohio and West Virginia of my youth. The environmental impact of this is not clear to me, but unless they manage this better it seems like they may have real problems down the road.

Lunchtime

Lunchtime


We continue driving until we reach a medium sized city near that park. We stop at a large restaurant and collect around two large tables. As has been the group meal tradition throughout the trip, the employees slowly bring, dish by dish, all kinds of different foods. I try a little of everything and like almost everything I try. I bit the head off what appear to be a battered gutted fish and ate it. I am a very picky eater, so I declare this a personal victory. There is a sheep cheese dish that is absolutely out of this world. We eat and chat sociably, finish, and head out the door.

The bus takes us up a steep incline out of the city and we begin to see signs of the stone forest. Outcroppings are everywhere and the vegetation drops away. We finally turn into the park, get out of the bus, and proceed to renter The Throng. The park itself is extremely well done and the park offices and gates look and feel like the best national parks in the US. After our guide obtains tickets, we jump on a golf-cart bus and move down to the park itself.

The park opens to a very well groomed pond with pathways leading into the park. The effect of the stones is at times to resemble trees and at other to be archways or caves. The main event is a large collection rocks that you can climb in and out of. Our guide releases the group and Michael and I search around the formations. There are literally thousands of people here but it does not feel very cramped. We take lots of pictures and in the end meet the group.

Near the exit to the park is a collection of indigenous people with traditional garb playing traditional instruments. They men play the instruments and the women do a little dance. Some tourist Chinese knuckleheads jump in and ape the performers. I make a mental note about humanity—knuckleheads are everywhere. The youngest performer in the group is about 75.

That is another striking thing about China. Everyone works. It is not at all common to see somebody clearly approaching 90 years old sweeping the street at 5am. Is retirement even possible in China? I don’t know. They apparently have 100% employment, but many of them are low paying jobs.

The Stone Forest

The Stone Forest


We finish our tour of the rock forest and get back on the bus for the long drive home. Traffic is worse and it takes a very long time to get back.

So long it turns out that we don’t have time to stop and refresh before dinner. Yanchun gets us off the bus and to the buffet dinner. It turns out there is no beer or drinks. Michael, Michelle, and I have been dreaming of beer for at least three hours and find this horrifying.

Michael says something like “Fuck that” and grabs a waiter. He jams 100 yen into the hand of this bewildered man. He tells him to find some beer and bring it to us IMMMEDIATELY in a voice intoned with a level of authority that can only be gained by somebody has spent time in an operating room. The three of us grab some food and sit and wait for the beer to arrive.

An eternity later the waiter returns with a large box. I look on the side and with great disappointment note that it says “Budweiser”. I am a total beer snob, so I tend to drink only microbrews or beer I have made myself. Given the length of the day and the heat, my inner voice says no problem.

Michael reaches into the box and suddenly his face contorts. By the look of it, there must have been a dead animal in the box. Michelle and I exchange worried looks.

“Its warm”, says Michael. We all burst out laughing and we pour and quite frankly enjoy our warm “bud”. We power down our food and one and a half beers and Yanchun hustles us back out to the bus.

We are too see a performance by Yang Liping. She is a very famous dancer and choreographer in China whose movements portray different animals and plants. It is a very unique dance style that she invented many years ago. She is considered a national treasure and many people come to see her. All of the Chinese folks in our group know of Yang and seen her on television. They are visibly excited. Our host paid about $80 US for each of the 20 people attending, which is a huge sum in China.

We go across the city again and make it to the theater. It is very nice. The performance is actually a combination of interpretative, modern, and other dances from or inspired by the local indigenous peoples. There are actually five acts with perhaps about 60-80 dancers. There are drums and mating rituals and lots of primiative symbols and metaphors. It culminates with what appears to be a Tibetian dance of the whole cast while a blizzard of fake snow falls on the stage. It is quite a sight and very enjoyable.

Yang Liping has two numbers that display her unique style. To our great disappointment, a stand-in does both of these numbers for our performance. Yang shows up and sings for perhaps 45 seconds in a transparent move to allow everyone in the theater to say they saw her without actually requiring her to dance. I can see the faces of many of our Chinese companions and they crestfallen. It was a great show, but many feel cheated. I feel sorry for Yanchun because I think he feels responsible. I remind myself to repay his kindness somehow in the future.

It is now 10pm. After getting outside of the theater, I turn to Michael and say, “I need a drink more than any man in Asia”. When we get back to the hotel we start drinking seriously. Around midnight I wobble to bed.

April 12, 6:35am 2012, Beijing I am sitting here in the Delta club in Beijing awaiting my flight home by way of Tokyo and Detroit. I flew last night from Kunming to Beijing and stayed at the Hilton. I have a zillion Hilton points and they upgraded me to a suite without me asking. I am exhausted and homesick, but feeling like this trip was really worth it.

I got up at 3:30am this morning and mentally prepared myself for exiting China. Getting out of country is often much harder than getting in, and I had the expectation that China would be near the top of the list of the most painful places to leave (Israel by far being the worst, but that is another story altogether). I even checked my watch to measure the time and document the pain to come. Shockingly, the whole thing to twelve minutes, and seven of those were expended at the Delta counter. So here I sit waiting for my flight with 2.5 hours to go.

The New China

The New China


This brings me to an interesting point about China. In the US, we have a common narrative about how oppressed and controlled people in China are. I have found no evidence of this. The people and visitors appear to move about the country with less hassle than we get in the States. The middle class lives a lifestyle just below that in the US (minus the nice houses). The people in the cities have nice phones and laptops, dress in the latest trends, eat well (I was surprised by the number a obese people in China—this is going to be a problem in the future), and generally live the same kind of lifestyle most people live in the Western world.

But not everybody is getting in on the game. Everywhere you go, there is a vast army of people cleaning, building, and basically doing the menial jobs the Nuevo-rich don’t do. Talking informally to people here, the truth is that while the middle class is growing, most people in China have yet to enjoy the prosperity. The people in the bottom 75% (a guess) live on subsistence wages and serve the remaining 25%. This appears to be the secret of their economic success—they can pay somebody less than 10 dollars a day to do a job that would cost at least that an hour in the US or Europe. China is a force to be reckoned with, but I wonder how long this can be sustained. I would observe that the current arrangement is kinda what started the communist revolution in the first place.

More broadly, there are no visible signs of communism in the areas that I traveled. The experience here was very much like any place in the world. The society is fiercely capitalist with department stores, McDolands, gas stations and the like everywhere. The only times you really encounter the government is when in transit or at hotels. You never really lose the impression that you are being carefully tracked, monitored, and documented. However, the whole thing seems more like habit than a genuine effort to curtail or understand my efforts and motivations. Vast repositories of movements are clearly being assembled, but I suspect that this is an simply affectation of the past. I am not sure I could have just jumped in a cab and wandered around the capital unattended twenty years ago.

But China has real problems. You can’t really own property and the “party members” live outside the rules of society. The corruption is omnipresent and for many the game is rigged and unwinnable. If you live the in country or come from poor families, it is very, very difficult to climb out of lowest classes. There is a lot of subtle and not so subtle racism towards minorities. Pollution and over-use of China’s natural resources is reaching critical levels and the long-term environmental and health effects are yet unknown.

Emerging China

Emerging China


However, the fact that I can sit in Beijing drinking good coffee in a Delta club and write that last paragraph without fear is a testament to what China has become. This is an industrious place and there are many working very hard to fix the excesses of some. The Chinese are gracious and welcoming, and not at all unlike people I meet worldwide. I leave with a sense of China and its people I could not get any other way. I am glad I came.

What to make of China? A tough question. I like it here and the people and places were fantastic, but I suspect that I have been shielded from a good deal of the country’s ills. The industry is improving and academics becoming competitive. Yet, many of the cultural ticks that have long defined China’s national personality have to be overcome for it to join the league of nations with fair and open societies. I suspect that is their destiny, but the transition will take a long time.

Right now, however I am ready to go home. For now I follow the sun into the east …

A Passage to India

December 15th, 2006 (State College) – Leaving Home — I am heading out today for India. It is Christmas season and the tree serves as a constant reminder that we will soon be enjoying home, hearth, family, and bowl games. The semester is essentially over, and we are settling in for a long awaited and needed break.

One last thing before I can rest for the holiday season — I need to travel to Kolkata (a.k.a. Calcutta) in India to deliver two talks; one paper presentation and one Keynote. The Indian government is paying all my expenses and to be given a such an important Keynote role as a untenured professor is a honor. That, and one of my close friends Sushil asked me to do it — so I am pleased accept the invitation.

India has always been a location I wanted to go. I read a good deal of Ghandi while I was in graduate school (my lead quotation on the first page of my dissertation was his), and my mentor and advisor Atul Prakash and many friends and co-workers are from there. My internal thoughts of the place are conflicted; I anticipate a country of enormous energy and ambition, a traditionalist family oriented society, and a populace struggling with poverty. I suspect these are all true, an this trip will in some way help me to sort this out.

I left State College with Megan, Sinclair, and Emerson in the car. My job requires a lot of time away from home, and far too much isolation when I am home. These trips get harder and harder. I watch the van with the three loves of my life turn the corner toward the horizon and disappear down the road. I am already homesick.

(Philadelphia) I checked my bags all the way to Kolkata from State College, but when I arrive at the ticket counter in Philly, I discover there is no booking for me. Turns out that they misspelled my name and lost the booking. The good news is that they did find it and changed the name (from MacDaniel) — of course, they have to track down my luggage and correct the name there. I hope they pull it off, otherwise I am going to be wearing traditional Indian gear to my keynote (I guess there would be some symmetry to that). I am on the plane now and ate my muscle relaxer, and I am feeling the sandman coming to get … zzzzzzz.

—-

December 16, 2006 (London Heathrow, UK) – A good breakfast — Given that I only got about 4 hours of rest last night, I am feeling pretty good. The 11.5 hour flight ahead of me is less enticing. Time to kill time.

It seems very odd, but this is my first trip to the UK. Travel here just has not ever come up–not sure why. I suspect that people do not like to schedule anything in the UK because London is too expensive and everywhere is too hard to get to.

Had a great breakfast in what amounts to a British diner. A fritata, toast and the best potatoes I have had in a long time. (A note: I suspect this travelogue will be fixated on food–I travel on my stomach, and this will reflect that thinking.) The cost was 10.5 pounds, which could either be enough for a cup of coffee or a boat payment in the United States. Note to myself: look into exchange rates.

Security is worse in the UK than in the United States, but less surly. The one thing I detect about the English is that they take everything in stride. I suspect if I set the bench I am sitting on fire, somebody would just waltz over and put it out, say “good day”, and go on about their business. I guess that level of acceptance about things one cannot change is more mature than I am prepared to be.

Heathrow has all the charm of the old Detroit airport (at least international terminal 4, of which I am currently imprisoned). Good food, lots of opportunity to buy all kinds of things I don’t need, and lots of glitzy store facades, all housed in the kind of eastern block architecture only an accountant could love. Still, there is an energy here that I feed off of. One observation—this is closer to New York than it is to Paris in terms of people, facilities, and atmosphere. I would not have guessed that.

Heading toward the plane … one last leg and I am there …

(delay)

OK, I was wrong. Terminal 4 is beautiful. Once I got away from the gate area I was in before, I saw the main mall with really high-end stores, bars, etc. It is more like a mall than an Airport–makes sense, because this is the hub connecting Europe, North America and Asia. I have never seen a departure list like that here — from Tokyo to South Africa, San Francisco, South America, and Russia. The only one I did not see was Australia, but I bet it comes from here as well. The people watching is fun … amazing how easy it is to pick out the Americans–or the European’s trying look American, but just not quite getting it right; I think they see a few too many Gap ads.

The plane is delayed. Sitting amongst the Indians who are going home for the holidays. By the looks of it, a collection of fabiously successful people. This stands to reason as one has to work hard to escape the gravity of India to a western life. They look very happy. Back to waiting, and to reading.

(delay)

Midnight turning to the 17th – been flying from London for about 9 hours now. British Airlines has a personal TV for every seat, and you can dial in a live-update map of where you are. We crossed over northern Europe, over Poland, just south-west of Moscow, then south over parts over Afghanistan and Pakistan. Saw an eerie sight near the border of Pakistan–ten or so huge flickering lights (we were over 35,000 feet). After watching them for a while I finally figured out that they must have been huge city-block sized fires because of the space they were covering. I have no idea what they were.

—-

December 17, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – Indescribable. I got in last night around 2am after a significant amount of time in customs, I was received by my two personal escorts. We got into their beat up range rover sans seat belts and set out into the heart of the city. It is difficult to describe the following 20 minute drive to my hotel. Kolkata is simply the worst kind of squalor I have ever encountered. Every building is collapsing in one manner or another and their is trash, dogs, and filth everywhere. The ever-present acrid third world stench permeates here–but it is somehow different. There is of course the smell of a million cooking fires fueled by god only knows what, but there is something else. Decay, I suppose. Decay and rivers of human waste.

By the time we are head to the hotel it is 4am. There are no major roads to speak of, so we end up going down a wideish road toward the old central city. I notice long slender lumps, sometimes in 2s or 3s, and sometimes more, lined up along the miles of buildings we pass. Originally I thought they might be trash or broken down kiosks. It is then when I realize it is people. Not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of people lie in the street every night here. Based on the size of the covered lumps, there is a disproportionate number of children among them. This is without question the worst place I have ever been.

What must a good day for these people be like? What would they look forward to? I cannot imagine what a bleak, grinding life it must be. I feel like flinging money out the window to try to help, but it is vanity to think it would do more than just make me feel better. I think every American should get this little slice of life once in a while. Puts a lot of things in perspective–how could anyone care about American Idol, Cola Wars, or the BCS system in light of this?

I guess the best visual comparison I can make is the city in the movie Black Hawk Down, shaky buildings with a storefront in the bottom and what I can only guess is housing up top. Every building has one of those tin pull-down garage doors you see in the really bad neighborhoods in the states. After about 10 miles the buildings went from predominantly two-story buildings to much larger ones–six or seven stories and sometimes more. We have to pass through a checkpoint to get into this larger part of the city. There is about 5 seconds of tension while the 3 armed men (obviously Indian army) stop us and ask us our business. They argue briefly and then spot me in the back spot, say some words in Bengali of which I sure meant “Gringo”, and they let us through.

We go up a particularly dirty alley and stop at the junction of two streets and an open area. One of the drivers pulls up to a particularly large trash mound and proclaims we are here. Sure enough I look up and see a sign that says “Kinsey Hotel”. Note here that have become somewhat of a hotel snob. If it is not Hilton or better I get a little out of sorts. This hotel is not even close, as it has this weird modern looking facade basically glued to a rapidly deteriating building. I feel of pang of anxiety as I will be ostensibly living for the next week in the middle of all this misery. This lasts all of ten seconds before I start thinking of the thousands of shadowed cold lumps on the sidewalks we passed on the way here and I am ashamed of myself.

Now we have a problem. There does not appear to be anyone at the hotel and it is clearly locked with a huge chain from the inside (I wonder what happens if a fire breaks out). Two policeman milling about and some others join the fray as they pound the door, call people on cell phones, etc. The driver is rather insistent I stay in the car and since I am several nautical miles away from being in my element, I aquiess. This goes on for about 10 more minutes before a sleepy looking security guard comes in and opens the door.

I check in (he needs to hold onto my passport until morning, which makes me nervous, but against my better judgment, I let him). Accompanied by two bell-hops, I go up to my room. The insides of the hotel are barely acceptable. Largely clean in the sense that there is no visible trash on the floor, some marble. I suspect it used to be or is the process of becoming for Calcutta a niceish hotel, but has fallen into significant disrepair. I think the surrounding chaos cannot do anything but just seep into a place such as this.

The room has a dorm refrigerator with water bottles (clearly refilled with tap water from some previous use–DO NOT DRINK THESE), a tea maker, a oldish Phillips TV and two hard as dentist’s chair beds. The bathroom has a sink, a toilet, and a shower head sticking out of the wall. There is a bucket on top of the drain in the middle of the floor. There is a ceiling mounted hot water heater you see in Europe, which at peak performance gives about 30 seconds of room temperature water. I can see getting clean is going to fun. I fall into bed and stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours before sleep finally catches up with me.

(morning)

The organizer at the Indian Statistical Institute where I will be speaking called at 8:30am to ask when I needed a car. I told him 11:30 and fell back to sleep. I am to see a new driver today.

My new driver came early today (11am), and without showering (more on that particular challenge later) I went into the city. It is Sunday here, and everything is closed. Money changers in particular. So, with no money I can spend I set out to try to understand this place. The sunlight and seeing the many, many people in the city lightens my spirits.

My new driver does not speak English really at all, but can distinguish places and services by single words and gestures somewhat. We have worked out some kind of pseudo-lingua to communicate, and it seems to so far work reasonably well–of course, the words and gesticulations used to communicate something complex like bottled water escape me. After a failed attempt to communicate that latter idea, I am quite certain he determines I am retarded.

I noticed something subtle (or maybe not so subtle). About three quarters of the advertisements show shiny, happy, white faces. Even the Indian looking folks in advertisements are overtly trying to look Western, and mostly American. They are trying hard to get that bored too cool to exist super-model thing going with mixed and sometimes humorous results. Now juxtapose this with the people on the street. Almost everyone ranges from ultra traditional to moderately traditional. The shirts, clothes, etc. are omnipresent sandals are everywhere. The young rich and the angry teen boys, however, look distinctly American, again with mixed results. To see a brooding 125lb posing teen trying his best to look gangsta with a bandana, LA dodgers hat and mini-mouse t-shirt is priceless. Of course, I am acutely aware that as 6’2″ 200lb white guy walking around with a huge backpack, north-face jacket, dockers, and camera, I must look about as cool as Elmer Fudd to these people.

Given that I skipped much of the food on the plane the previous day, I was definitely getting hungry. Given further that I had no local money, the only solution I could identify was to go to the best hotel in town and hope they took American Express. I went to the Taj Hotel, which as one of my Indian graduate students told me was the best in town. I was not disappointed. It is a palace on the river that would match up with the best hotels in New York. I thought momentarily about getting my driver to take me back to my hotel and checking in the Taj, but decided it would embarrass my hosts. The Indian Institute for Statistics is amongst the best in the world. However, it is still a publicly supported educational institution in the third world and on a very tight budget. My plane ticket cost about as much as many employees would make in a year. The hotel was not unclean and unsafe and I am sure it was acceptable for India, so I decided to stay put.

I asked the concierge at the Taj about the restaurants. The traditional Indian restaurant would not open for another hour, but the coffee shop was open. I did not fly half way around the world to eat at a coffee shop, so I decided to look for shopping. I got directions to the best mall in Calcutta, and me and my driver set off again. It was now around noon on Sunday and everybody was out and about. Families, kids, groups of men playing cards on the sidewalk. I had always understood India to be a very family oriented society, and I finally saw what that meant. Families traveled as laughing, arguing, ambling masses. Kids were everywhere and parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, moms, dads, were in tow. I really makes you think about the many students who come to the states and don’t see their family for sometimes years–it must be unbearable. Feeling particularly lonely on a sunny day, I muse that Americans are poorer for the lack of that kind of family. I can’t stop thinking about Megan, Emerson, and Sinclair.

We get to the Forum (an Indian kind of mall) and again I set out by myself while the driver parks. Now here is the story about parking in India. There appear to be these guys who monitor stretches of streets and regulate parking. Basically, you park while this monitor fellow waves his hands wildly in an attempt to aid the process. Of course, this is unnecessary, as every driver here could parallel park an 18 wheeler in a phone booth while drunk and blind-folded. Anyway, you are supposed to give this person 5 Rupee for the honor (about 11 cents). I am not sure if this is something that the government regulates or these are just some the many “helpers” you get here.

I get into the mall and it looks like any low mid-tier mall in the states, but is the best in Bengal. Lots of glitz, neon, loud Brittany Spears-esque music, etc. There are a couple of traditional clothes-shops and I select one. I had decided before I left I was going to get some of the traditional Indian clothing for Megan and I to wear to relevant events we are invited to–traditional weddings of Indian friends, etc. I go into a largish store and a personal shopper takes me everywhere and helps me make the purchases: a beautiful Indian getup for Megan and one for me (I wish I could remember the names of these things, but I spaced–note to myself, lookup the names before giving to Megan). I buy what the store folks assure me are the very best hand-made Indian clothes (Megan 3 piece, me 2 piece) appropriate for the finest gatherings–grand total, $100 US. A really good deal I think. The women helping me were incredibly nice and friend. They were also a little tickled my earnestness, cluelessness, and probably more likely being the first male to buy clothes in their store this century.

We return to the the Taj and I go directly to the Indian restaurant. To be sure, Indian food is my favorite. I order a paneer appetizer and a paneer cream dal with a special kind of Bengali naan bread. The food is absolutely incredible. Every part of the meal is cooked to perfection and the service is impeccable. The restaurant itself looks like an Indian museum. I get to talking to the waiter who clearly appreciates my complements and knowledge of Indian food. We talk about the city and my desire to see more of the country. He then says, wait a minute, and leaves. He comes back saying, “I love paneer too, and this is what I make for my lunch” and lays a new plate in front of me. It is a kind of paneer/bean dal mix with very hot spices, and is close to culinary heaven as it gets. I finish with a double cappachino and all is right with the world again.

It is around 2pm. My driver and I head to the Victoria monument. The monument is an enormous white marble building with many monuments to various British people. It is a huge destination for both Westerners and the locals, and by the time we arrive there is at least ten thousand people milling about the grounds. The fact that the locals still feel a sense of pride about the English presence here is a little confusing given the history.

The grounds are huge and again is teaming with family and friends. Vendors sell every kinds of imaginable snack, some of which look quite tasty. On orders of my doctor in State College, I stay away from these delights. Again leaving my driver behind I walk around the huge grounds and alongside the main promenade between the monument and a huge military base, and a huge field where there appears to be no less than twenty games of cricket going on simultaneously. The people pretend not to stare at me because I think it may be impolite (I tower over most), but it is easy to tell. I make eye contact with more than a few and the men are quick to nod and smile. The women immediately look away or at the ground–I hope I am not being rude.

The army base is quite big and from the looks of it, very well kept up. I thought the designer of the sign on the front of the army HQ somehow missed its western colloquial meaning when he penned, “The Indian Army-The Iron Fist”. At least I hope so.

A thing you have to get used to here is the sheer number of people. There is simply more people in every corner of the city than one can count-no event or place no matter how small escapes the throng. It is omnipresent, oppressive, and quite often a little frightening. I understand now why some of my Indian students get a little weird out by the space in the US. On EOF the chief byproducts of the crowds is the lack for appreciation for personal space. This can be quite unnerving, with people pressing up against you in every line, elevators, etc. It is already wearing thin, and I imagine it will only get worse.

Another element that makes it a little more challenging are the helpers and vendors. There is as vast guild of people whose apparent job is to give you help you don’t need and then ask for money. People are always trying to help my with my 10lb pack, find directions, whatever. The vendors are the same: they push some muddy looking substance they call “coffee” or other unidentifiable thing in your face and try to make the sale. They can be quite aggressive, but my days in New York City serve me well, where I simple ignore their existence. I had one guy follow me for at least two blocks in order to try to get me to go into a shop before he gave up.

It is now 3:30 and realizing I have had about 12 hours of good sleep in the last three days, I decide to head back to the hotel. I get back, read for about 10 minutes and fall asleep.

(evening)

I slept for about 3 hours, hard. Feeling a little more refreshed, I wash up and start doing some other work for my expert witness engagements. I do this for a couple of hours, write a little, and head out in search of something to eat.

Now two things happen to give me a break. First, I discover the rooftop restaurant in my hotel is nice. It is very well kept up for Indian standards, and the food is out of this world. The second was that I ran into an acquaintance from the Brooklyn PolyTech, and we have dinner. It was really welcome because I had spent about 3 days without really talking to anyone and was becoming terribly lonely. We had a nice dinner and discussed our experiences in the city. He is Indian, and had been here 25 years ago as a student on a “party weekend”. Hard to imagine such a thing in a place like this.

We discussed a number of topics including why this place is in such a terrible state. He concluded a couple of factors were really driving the poverty and clear lack of involvement of the government. First, this state is communist, but only in name as far as I can tell; commerce drives this place and it seems that every single person in the city opens up shop, whether in a nice story or on a dirty blanket in the street. Mostly, the government uses the communist front as a way to take whatever they want from the people. Second, as told to me by me friend, the aid agencies are completely corrupt. They take a lot for themselves and give little to the poor, but exploit them for their own gains. Ghandi once said that he would rather have a bad Indian government rather than a good British one. Well, I guess he got what he asked for.

Exhausted, heading for bed.

December 18, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – Got up feeling not very refreshed. The 10.5 time zones difference is hard and my body has not quite adjusted. This little oddity I was not aware of: some parts of the world have half-hour time zones, rather than full ones. Kolkata is just such a place, thus the weird 10.5 hour difference. I sleep from about 10pm the night before until 1am, then lie awake until 5am and then sleep again until 7:00am. I take a shower, which is difficult but better than I was expecting. The trick is to let the little water heater on the ceiling run for about 10 minutes to get full and hot, and then make the shower (which is more a less a small stream of water from a sprinkler above my head) fast. They supply the cheapest soap and shampoo I have ever seen in my life. Amazingly, I get clean and dressed.

My driver is due a 9am, but does not appear until 11am. I am feeling more than a little disoriented, but we press on. My first task is to find some money. I talk to the driver and find that I need to go to an American Express office to cash one of my travels checks. So, we head into a different part of the city. This new part is a little nicer. A few stores actually have windows, there are a few banks, etc. I go into the bank and am told that the American Express Bank does not indeed take American Express checks. This is absolutely not the case I know, but apparently the local manager has done the calculus that this transaction is financially not worth it to him, and will simply deny it. Welcome to India, the motto is, “we make the rules as well feel at any given movement, but they are set in stone”.

At this point, I have had about enough poor service and complain rather vehemently. I calm down quickly when the security guards with fairly large rifles show up. I ask if there is something else I can do, and he tells me that I can use my American Express Card to advance some money. I suspect the exchange rate is horrific and I will see some huge “processing fee” when I get home, but I need the money. This guys has me over a barrel and will use that to his advantage as best he can.

The culture here is rather strange. People are very friendly and honest and very respectful. Except, it seems, when it comes to money. There is a kind of armed combat dimension to commerce here; every one will try to screw you as hard as they can for a Rupee (the currency). This is particularly true if you are a westerner. Of course, people will work very hard to screw you out of 5 Rupees, which is something like 11 cents US, so I cannot get that worked up about it. This is similar to the Middle east, China, and parts of Manhattan, so I don’t take it too personally.

Armed with a wad of colorful money, I next ask the driver to take me back to the Forum. I saw a place that had a cappachino machine the day before and by god I was going to enjoy that particular piece of western culture. I am a complete coffee junkie, so the lack of consistent access to it for two days has me in a real state. We go and I quickly down a double cap. The coffee goes does easy and quick and as it hits my bloodstream and I feel myself again.

I do some shopping and get some gifts for home. I then set out to find my driver again who is waiting in the street parking arrangement. I pay the 7 rupees (apparently inflation struck between yesterday and today) and we set of for some tourism. We head to a building called the “Writers Building”, which is famous for some reason that I cannot determine or extract from my driver. It is in a large section of old English buildings. The place is surrounded by guards and barriers, etc. I suspect that it is a government building of some sort, so we do not stop.

We head to a Hindu temple in the middle of the city. It is in a highly congested part of Kolkata, and the poverty begins to really become apparent. There are vast stretches of tens of blocks of ram-shackle shacks made of random parts of wood, tin, and plastic. Everything is filthy and the people are clearly on the very verge of starvation. I have never seen this kind of suffering before and it is an assault on my system. The state of their health is appalling as they have no teeth, open sores, missing limbs, and enumerable visible maladies that I cannot bring myself to recount.

At a stop light I see a woman sprawled in the dirt. Not begging, just sitting at a random place in the dirt like a discarded piece of trash. The only thing on barely covering her is a filthy piece of blacked cloth, and she is covered is sores and cuts and bruises. It is then that I notice that she has no eyes, only dirt-encrusted holes where they should be, surely removed for some unnamed trespass. Her head is cocked in a strange way, slightly skyward. What unimaginable life she has experienced I cannot imagine or wish to. She has surely suffered beyond anything I could ever comprehend. We sit at this light for perhaps two minutes and she does not move. I cannot take my eyes off her. She appears to have moved on to some other place mentally, and if there is any mercy in the universe it is much better than this. As the car pulls away, I can only wonder how much longer she will live.

When they proceed across the major suspension bridge across the Ganges (which is a marvel of modern engineering) into another part of the city. He turns and shows me what he proclaims as the “first Calcutta”. We are an an elevated position, so we can see what looks to be at least a mile in every direction of the same kind of shanty town I saw before, only at an incredible scale, mixed with some heavy industry. We stop for a moment and look into the town.

I little boy about Sinclair’s (my 4 year old son) age runs up to the car and sticks his head into the car and starts begging. He has the same grin and perpetual bad haircut bed-head my son has and the thin frame. He is wearing fruit of the loom underwear and nothing else, blacked to the point to be unrecognizable. I smile back and desperately want to jump out of the car, give him all my money and play. Of course, as you cannot give beggars any money here; they are highly organized and the money you give to an individual has almost no chance of getting to the people you give it to. There is a Mafia element to this. My driver starts calling out something repeatedly in Bengali (the local language), and with enormous pain, I look away. Not giving this boy money is a sin I will live with forever, and one for which I am sure there is no forgiveness or redemption.

We cross more of the town and reach what looks to be a market, with the destination temple. When the driver pulls over to park I find that the weight of the suffering I have seen leaves incapable of getting out and walking into yet another bleak neighborhood. I ask him to take me back to the hotel. My day out touring lasted just over 2 hours.

(afternoon)

After returning to the hotel I take some papers I brought to work on to the restaurant on top of the hotel and work on them while I eat yet another incredible meal. It is a pleasure to take my mind of the earlier parts of the day, and I get an enormous amount of work done. I go back to the room around 3pm and sleep until 5pm. It now occurs to me that I have to give my first talk in the morning, and the second (keynote) on the following day. I work on the presentations for about 4 hours and head to dinner again at the same restaurant at the top of hotel.

It is a cool night and I drink a Kingfisher beer and look out over the city. I note that I no longer smell the city, and consider this to be a kind of metaphor for Kolkata. It is an assault on all your senses that is gradually dulled from the repeated shocks. I feel a tad guilty about hiding out in the hotel for better part of the day.

Heading to bed.

December 19, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – Another sleepless night. I am finally getting around to reading Freakonomics, and it somehow feels fitting. I get about 5 hours of broken sleep and finally get out of bed around 7am. I take another shower (getting the hang of that now) and get dressed for the conference. The driver shows up and we head out to the conference.

The conference is held at the Indian Statistical Institute, one of the very best places in the world for the study of you guessed it, statistics. It is a little like the MIT Lincoln Labs or Berkeley/Laurence Livermore Labs of Indian mathematics. It is a teaching institution with 100 faculty and 200 students, e.g., a research institution with a little teaching. The campus is on the other side of the Kolkata, and getting there is an adventure.

Driving in Kolkata is an experience. There is absolutely no rules. As far as I can tell, people are supposed to drive on the left side of the street. Typically, the larger streets have enough room for about 3 cars abreast (the dominant car here is a 40 year old ambassitor*, which looks like some of the really small, pudgy Edsels from the 50s). The game is that you kind of cut from right to left and dart around other cars while constantly hitting your horn when you want somebody move out of your way. Surprisingly, they do move. The effect is that everyone darts back and forth in between cars and buses as they go down the block in a complex ballet of random action. The closest thing I can think of is bees in a hive, only less organized.

The drivers themselves are Olympic darters, moving effortlessly and quickly in teeming traffic, leaving as much as a 10th of an inch between us and the next car. They move with such speed and precision, that you are certain you are going to be in an accident every 10 seconds, but they always seem to miss by inches. I am thinking I should get a couple of these guys and enter them in NASCAR, they would kick everyone’s ass.

A brief note about the name “Kolkata”. It seems that the government of India is changing the names of the cities and other things back to Indian names from British ones to preserve Indian Heritage. Calcutta was changed to Kolkata, Bombay was changed to Mumbai, … The people here are rather ambivalent about the whole thing, and I suspect it is one of those vote getting issues with little or no tangible effect on anything other than to confuse foreigners (like flag burning). There are so many other pressing issues this seems like misdirection to me. Of course, I am not Indian so I cannot truly appreciate the realities of the issue.

I get to the conference cite and meet the local dignitaries. I finally see Sushil (they person that asked me to come) and get a warm greeting. The campus is beautiful and we work our way to the auditorium and sit down. I meet a number of colleagues, mostly from India and Europe. There is the standard but heartfelt opening address and we head to high tea.

The tea they serve at high tea is a mixture of warm milk, something that tastes like chocolate, and tea. The effect, as one would expect, is something like chocolate milk with a tea-bag dipped in it. It seems to be the national drink, because I have seen thousands of booths with them on it. I grow to like it, and look forward to the many conference breaks in which they serve it.

The day passes without much interest, another conference, another bunch of talks. Some good, some bad. I am presenting a paper as the last one in the opening session. I give a talk on the growing loss of privacy on the Internet and how to use the Internet as a spread spectrum device achieve private communication. I give it my best P.T. Barnum (step up, step up, and see the amazing bullshitting American do mathematical gymnastics on the high wire) and it seems to go over pretty well. We break for lunch and then back to papers and talks.

One thing arises about the hotel. Apparently there was some mixup with it, Sushil indicated that we were to be put me in a 5-star hotel, but in actuality we got a 1 star hotel (he seems to be very embarrassed, but I assure him things are fine). Also, there was a strike called for the next two days, which could make getting around the city hard and possibly dangerous. The conference organizers graciously offered to move be to the guest house at the institute, and I jump at the chance. I am to stay one more night and check out the next morning, and move to the guest house for one last night in Kolkata.

Around 5:30pm the conference adjourns for the day and I head back to the hotel. I have met a guy from MITRE in DC and we decide to go to dinner around 7ish. We head out to a Bengali restaurant suggested by another colleague. We had a couple of beers at the hotel bar first (a very nice trendy place with lots of bad music from the 1970’s U.S. top 20. We find that we are working on some related projects and have a genuinely good time. The food is great, but very different from the other food I have had since arriving.

India is big place with a number of states, all of them with different cultures and food styles. Actually, India did not really exist as such until the British made is a whole colony. Hence, like the United States, the country if mish-mash of styles. There are light and dark skinned Indians, Mongolians, and a host of other races and religions heaped in. However, unlike most diverse countries with similar cross sections, India has little to no friction between races. Religion is a different matter, but people here think the issue is a little overblown in the western press, and again the government uses it to misdirect away from more pressing matters like poverty.

I have been without email or phone contact for 4 days now, and I am sure Megan is starting to worry. I make one more last ditch effort to use my cell phone and it works! Unfortunately, she and the boys are not home and I have to leave a message. I call her cell and manage to get a single word out (hello) before her cell phone dies from lack of power (her inability to keep her cell phone charged is one of those little mystifying and aggravating wonders of married life). It is late and I am tired, so I call and leave another message on the house phone to the effect I am going to bed and please call me in the morning.

I fall asleep for perhaps 3 hours and awaken to dogs fighting to the deal on the street below. It is gruesome sounding battle which leaves me sleepless until about 5am.

December 20, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – I awaken a 6:30 to the sound of my cell phone ringing. I hear Megan’s voice and suddenly I feel much, much better. I chatter for a few minutes with her and the boys (who tell me they love me but are more interested when I am coming home and what I am bringing them). I instantly feel better. I get up and do some more work on the cases, then move get ready for my ride.

I gleefully check out of the hotel and we start our 45 minute journey to the institute. Note that to my estimate, it is probably only about 6-7 miles to the institute. Of course, the traffic and confusion is such that you spend much of your time sitting and jockeying for position. This morning, it is a good ride.

Again the conference begins and I sit through the morning talks, tea, and lunch. Right after lunch I give my Keynote talk about how broken passwords really are, and it is received very well. I am glad to have it over, so I can relax. As soon as it is over, the organizers ask if I would like to go to site-seeing with a small group. I say yes and we head out.

Our first stop is to be a Hindu temple. It is on the other side of Kolkata, and at 3:30 in the afternoon it takes 1.5 hours to cover the possibly 10 miles. It is a smoggy ride as almost every car is about 40 years old an belching smoke. There are some new cars, but they are in the vast minority. Also, Kolkata has the most extensive bus system I have ever seen. Every byway is literally jammed with them. Them, and taxis.

We arrive at the temple in a nice neighborhood. This is the nice part of town that has so far eluded us. There are a number of attractive high-rise apartments and western looking stores. The temple itself is a huge marble structure with a number of the Hindu gods. It a quite beautiful. They do not allow Cameras, so I cannot take any pictures inside. A pity, because it is very beautiful.

Moving on to shopping again, and I finally purchase myself something nice, an Indian carving under glass for hanging on the wall. Total cost, 100 Rupee ($2). We meander around and I get a present for the boys and finally head back to the institute. We have missed a concert at the conference (it was a instrumental sitar-like thing, and I am disappointed to have missed it). I eat dinner at the banquet and make hasty retreat to the room at the institute. I fight sleep for a while by reading, but to no avail. Exhausted, I am asleep by 9:30.

December 20, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – I had an off and on sleepless night, but fall into a deep sleep around 4am. I hear a tapping (they want to know if I would like to have my room cleaned), and I wonder back to the bed and check my watch. To my amazement, it is 10:30 in the morning. After writing for a couple of hours and taking a shower, I rejoin the conference. It seems that some of the final speakers were canceled and this was the end of the conference. I eat lunch, talk with some Indian graduate students, and return to my room to write some more. I spend the afternoon working on more casework at the guest house.

The program chair asked his graduate student to take me to dinner and we head out across town yet again. The pollution here is the worst I have ever seen, we can barely seen through the smoke at times, particularly during rush hour when hundreds of thousands of old smoke puffing cars are belching out tons of blue clouds into the air. This night is seems worst since I have been here and by the time we reach the restaurant my eyes are burning uncontrollably. The student and I have a nice dinner and I return the the guest house. I am picked up at 12:30am and they take me to Airport where I check-in without event.

It is at this moment 3:30 in the morning and we are waiting for the airplane to take me home. I guess this as good a place to end this log as any. I wish I could close with something conclusive, profound, or full of hope, but this place defies such an easy out. The people here are the most generous, kind, and thoughtful folks I have encountered internationally. At the same time, there is such crushing suffering and poverty that it leaves one in a daze. Though I wish it were otherwise, I am sure the mental photographs I have gathered in this place will be with me for all time.

This is a government that has completely failed its people. The overt corruption and cruelty of life here is beyond comprehension. Could we help, I don’t think so. Money alone does not fix these kinds of problems. Nor can the US or anyone else really have an impact. Until the government and the people begin to address this poverty themselves, it will never change. It do not possess the wisdom or insight to know what the real problems are. Corruption, the Caste system, over-population, apathy, racism, I just don’t know. I alot of all of these, I would suspect.

Helping the poor is a good thing, but any external effort would be a drop in the ocean to the hundreds of millions of people here on the edge of starvation, and closing in on a billion in poverty. I guess we all have to do what we can and hope that the new economy does indeed raise all boats. Until then, I guess we will have to just search for answer. All I know is I don’t have any.

Finally, an interesting question. Do I want to come back? Sitting here now the answer is yes, I suppose. It will take time and distance for me to properly recover from the trip. Right now however, all I want to do is to go home.

A view from the track …

8:18pm – Friday, August 27, 2010 – Tense. That is the way I feel tonight. I got here a little over an hour ago. They did a “tech check” of my 911 to make sure it is track worthy. Everything cleared and I got registered. Somebody else got my packet by accident and I have to wait till they track my number sticker down. Got my wristbands and event t-shirt though, so I feel like I am at least in the game.

There is a bunch of people at the hotel. Most of them appear to be old hands at this. I have talked to a few and they are nice and inviting into the community, but there is a whole subculture and lexicon I don’t understand yet. For example, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me Caymans are called “crocks”. They seem to be the vehicle of choice for some of the more advanced in the crew–mostly “has-kids-in-high-school/college” types who really like racing. There is a good mix of men and women. I am focused determined to drive well. The left side of my brain tells me to ease off the testosterone, as that kind of thinking gets people in trouble at 120 MPH.

At this point, it is probably a good idea to explain why I am here. I am here for a DE (drivers education) event. This is not your high-school drivers-ed or a racing school. The purpose is to teach the entrants to drive their cars at speed on a real racetrack. Cars don’t race against each other, and there is no strategy discussion about how to race. It is all about learning to drive closer to the limits of the cars, which is pretty insane given the classes of the cars we are talking about.

Me and my car.

There are a couple of GT3s and GT2, plus lots of Turbo 911s. My 40th anniversary 911 fares well amongst the banquet of autos. No so much that it draws stares, but enough that it stands out. This particular 911 was specially made in 2003 to mark the 40th anniversary of the first 911, and was one of 1963 made. They are numbered by the order in which they were manufactured. Mine is number 304, and carries with it a track package that gives it a startling 345 horsepower. For the uninitiated, the Porsche 911 probably the most famous and almost certainly longest continuously manufactured high performance auto in history.

The assembled lot at the hotel represents a lot of well cared for cars. I look forward to using the down time tomorrow to detail my car, which is carrying a lot of road dust and bugs from the 5 hour ride from State College.

Fall is braking and so the sun is setting at 8:30pm. Time to start getting my game on. Drinking some Mount Nittany beer I brought from home to calm the nerves. I hope I get some sleep tonight. I better get some chow and bed down before long.

I have wanted to do this all my life, and now it is time to get it on.


5:48am – Saturday, August 28, 2010 – Did not sleep very well, but it was not all nerves. Had too much pizza before bed and was restless. Coffee is helping, but need to get it together. Will shower and shave, pick up some supplies and head to the track. Too tired to be sleepy.

8:23am – Been here for a couple of hours now. There is a real sense of fellowship, and the greater sense of fun is pervasive. Everyone is just a little on edge and wanting to get going.

The rumbling is nonstop now, with cars being tuned, worked on, cleaned and checked for track readiness. This is the apparent soundtrack for the weekend, and it seems to underscore the tension. I have been cleaning the car, but am hesitant to tune the car. 911s are over-engineered and very complex, so I leave the more important maintenance to the pros until I learn more. Learning to care for these cars well takes years, and you want to be careful. Damn, I wish I had taken more mechanical engineering and less computer science.

WHOA!! I can see the track from here and the first group just went out and they went past so fast all I could make out is the color of the car. These guys are moving really, really fast. This is the “A” group, which are the top-level drivers. Mostly near professional drivers with years of track time. These speeds are lethal. My stomach just dropped about a foot.

This is probably a good point to explain how things work on these events. Drivers are graded from A to D in decreasing order of experience, with instructors being a class by themselves. As I read it, “A”s are basically pros/semi pros, “B”s are lifetime drivers, “C”s are enthusiasts, and “D”s have no idea what they are doing and are potentially dangerous. This is my first driving event of any kind, and therefore I am a D. Interestingly, cars are not graded at these events. Of course, there is a car rating scheme for racing events, but this is a driver education event. Each group gets a number of “runs” per day on the track with all cars from the same group running simultaneously. Each run is about 25 minutes long. I should get 4 runs in today.

I am waiting for my instructor. His name is Adam and he graduated from Ohio University’s college of engineering (as did I). He has driven Porsches for about a decade, and cars in general since long before it was legal for him to do so I am pretty sure. His dad is a well-known figure at the track that drives a circuit-ready Porsche GT3.

Basically, I don’t get to get out on the track all weekend without Adam in the passenger seat (there is a potential for “solo” time, but that is not worth thinking about right now). We have a microphone and earpiece at all times so we can talk back and forth. Our first run we will take his car and he will drive. That is going to happen at 9:05am. I am nervous and want to get this going. The waiting is killing me.

6:39pm – Exhausted. I had no idea driving could be this tiring. It was so busy all day I did not have time to write. There is so much, I guess I will just begin.

I got out at 9:05 this morning with my instructor. For logistical reasons, we had to take a track ready Mazda Miata, which is a small and not particularly powerful car (by comparison to the rest of the field). We went around the track for about 15/20 minutes. This was a great way to get a lay of the land and understand what the “line” is (more on this in a minute). We flew fast enough that I felt like a ragdoll, even in a 6 point harness (a six way seat-belt). The speed was fast but not frightening. I think everyone took it easy to let some of tension off. It was really helpful to get around the track about 7-8 times. We got passed alot, but I had my eyes on the track. I felt bad for one or two of the other drivers, whose instructors seemed to be running to impress rather than teach, and I think the students probably learned a little less for it.

We had a rather obvious class at 9:30 on safety and track procedure. I think it was important for people who did not do the reading before getting to the track (and there was a lot of it), so it was worth doing. I had trouble listening as the clock sped faster and faster towards 10:05.

10:05 came with me sitting in the Porsche, helmet on. Adam was the passenger seat. We both had headsets on and could talk to each other. Engines revving, we slowly pulled out into the pit-lane, where the cars were lined up. We sat and contemplated what was about to happen.

Then it started. The car in the front of the group was given the “green flag” means go. Off it went, then about 5 seconds later, the next one went, then another. And another. Slowly we streamed out onto the track. Next it was my turn. BLAM. Off I went probably more abruptly than Adam would advise or like, but he did not say anything. I was behind a BMW M3, which is a fast and nice car, but it is not a 911. I was up on him in no time.

Then Adam started talking in my ear, “brake … turn … throttle”. Very calmly (at least at that time), he just kept talking me through each and every point in the entire track. Intertwined with these commands was an incredibly detailed description of the turns and how to take them, when to speed up, slow down, how not to hit the car in front of you, etc. I am absolutely certain that he could drive this course blindfolded and drunk with perfect accuracy. Having him in my head telling me how to drive was an amazing experience that made it fun instead of scary. Each lap got progressively faster as I and the other drivers got more confidence.

About halfway through the “run”, things started to jam up. Some people were getting the hang of things quicker and started to run up on the slower drivers. Suddenly, there were 6-7-8 cars in a row. I was in the back with a line of cars in front of me. Normally, people would pass, but this group was so green that we really could not get it to work. In all groups, the person in front makes the decision to let somebody behind pass. They stick their hand out the window and point “left” to allow passing on the left, and “right” to pass on the right.

The problem with us new drivers is that a) we don’t always see people behind us, b) the passing drivers sometimes don’t have enough skill or car to pass in time for the next corner (there is no passing in the corners), or c) the whole thing is too scary to attempt.

They threw the checked flag to indicate our time was up. Everyone pitted, got out of his or her cars and relaxed. The adrenaline was amazing. I called my Dad and Megan (my wife) and basically yelled into the phone for about 20 minutes, “THAT WAS REALLY, REALLY FUN!” We had some down time from then until lunch, but I spent most of it in the observation tower watching other groups run.

I suppose this is a good time to acknowledge one of the great truths of racing a learned today. Cars don’t matter nearly as much as drivers. A really good driver could smoke my enhanced 911 in a street Volkswagen. The issue is that “road” race tracks (not the big oval ones) are made up of lots and lots of turns and hills. How you get into these and out of them make huge differences in how fast you get around the track. There are thirteen turns at varying elevations in the Mid Ohio track and you have to master them all. The Mid Ohio track is one of the most famous tracks in the United States. It is an hour plus from Columbus and is truly world class. They run everything from DE events to formula one. It is also one of the most technical tracks around I am told, which that there are many turns and that they are difficult to master.

From what I learned, there are three important factors in getting through a turn. First you need to know where the “line” is. The line is an imaginary stripe that goes all around the track. If you are driving correctly, this line should be right underneath your car at all times. If you are on it, you are “on line”, and “off line” otherwise. Staying on line is no mean feat at the speeds we were traveling. Steering is key to staying on line, but it was the one thing I seemed to feel the most comfortable with. Steering when pulling 3-Gs around a 270-degree “Carousel” turn was somewhat more difficult, to say the least. The second important factor is knowing when to brake and how hard. I discovered today that you must work the brakes _much_ harder than you would under normal (street) circumstances. You stomp those brakes getting into turns (something that first timers like myself have trouble with)–the reasoning is that you can transition to the third factor more quickly. Throttle. Once you slowed the car down enough and positioned it in a turn, you need to start giving it gas to blast out the other side. How much depends on the kind of turn and what is going to happen next. How fast you come out of a turn is proportional to how well you go into it.

The key to getting good at driving is putting these things together, turn after turn, for the entire track and doing it well. Smoothness is also important. You need to transition from brake to throttle and back again over and over very smoothly. Don’t pump your brakes or gas or the car is going to get jumpy and not drive well or fast. I struggled all day to prevent myself from backing on/off the gas. I got better, but never perfect.

I ate lunch and had my second run at 1:05. It was much smoother and Adam was really complimenting me on my technique. I felt very comfortable and was hitting the right points with some level of consistency. I felt great, and I was clearly driving better than some in my group. I passed almost the entire field by the end of the run. I felt great and just a little cocky.

I had some more caffeine and headed back to the observation deck. Watching the A and B groups is a ton of fun. They have some insanely nice cars being driven by some truly gifted drivers. There were a couple of Cameros with god-knows-what under the hood that could really fly. The guys driving them really knew what they were doing, but just could not corner with the Porsches and Lotuses (the latter being surprisingly fast and nimble). The problem with the Cameros was the sound. Wound all the way up, the cavitation from the noise a quarter mile was painful. I can’t imagine what it was like inside–I don’t care what kind of ear protection they had, it can’t be good for you.

I rested up there waiting for my next run at 3:05pm.

3:05 came and I headed out of the track. Something just did not feel right and I was not making the turns correctly, mostly because I was braking too lightly and often too late. Each time around the track is seemed to get worse and I could tell from the tone in Adam’s voice he was getting concerned. It was like I forgot everything. I was pressing and trying to make the car go fast, but then not paying attention to the important stuff.

Then it happened. I was coming into turn 8 (appropriately named “madness”), which is a sharp left uphill, and I just missed it. I went off the far and of the track and into the grass. No more than a couple of feet, but my heart was racing and I was shaking. We sat for a second and when Adam said it was OK, we pulled back onto the track and proceeded slowly.

There is a rule in racing. If you get all four tires off the track you have to go into the pits and talk to the track coordinator. This is called being “black flagged”, although I did not actually have somebody point a black flag at me (my memory is kinda hazy at this point, so aliens could have been landing in the infield and I would not have noticed). You tell the coordinator what happened, he looks and your car to make sure no damage was done, and he can make the call to pull you or let you back out on the track. The coordinator did not seem overly concerned, so he let us go. Adam told me to park for a minute, and he went through a detailed synopsis of everything we had learned earlier in the day. I did not hear a word he said, but it was calming to have him talking. I was still shaking.

“Time to get back on the horse” Adam said authoritatively. I pulled out back onto the track and very hesitantly drove the remaining laps. I did better and was improving each lap. I was hitting the turns, but way too timid. It was some solace, but I was still really rattled.

Adam suggested I go for a ride with him in the “C” group to help me understand how to drive the track. I waited again and he pulled his Turbo 944 out on to track with me in it. It was just a different experience than anything I have had in a car. Every turn was hit with precision. I was thrown around the car like before, but much more so. The thing that was amazing was how much that car would grip the turns. My old Ford Granada from high school would spin like a top if it got 1/10th the G-forces we were experiencing. I started to see where he wanted to put the car and why. This was the most educational part of the day.

We finished the ride about 10 minutes before my last run of the day. We hurried up to my car, jumped in and headed to the pits. I was nervous because of my previous visit to the Mid-Ohio lawn, but told myself to focus. If I am the slowest guy out there, so be it. We waited and chatted, then launched again.

It was amazing. I was driving well (or so it felt), hitting the curves (even turn 8!), accelerating at the right moment, braking, staying on line. Everything. Adam kept saying, “Day-and-Night difference” and “We are going to make a race-car driver out of you yet!”. The last 4 laps felt absolutely perfect, but I am sure they were not.

We got out my car and I was walking on air. Adam said, “Now THATS the way to finish the day.” Not sure if he was trying to lift my spirits or if I really had done well, but I forced myself to believe the latter. Now I am screwed. I am hooked. [Now if I can just get Porsche to sponsor me.]

Looking back at taking my car off track, I remember trying to get a grip on what happened when I launched off madness. I probed Adam, “Do you think I was trying to push the car too hard or was driving too aggressively?” “No.”, he answered, “The problem was you did not hit the brakes.” Sometimes the most obvious answers are the hardest to hear.

Take away lesson for today: don’t be stupid, hit the damn brakes.

6:33am, Sunday August 29th, 2010 – Just woke up. Fell asleep at 9:15pm and could not drag my butt out of bed at the 5:30 wakeup. It is amazing how tired you get. Got coffee, but I need to shake a leg–my first run is at 8am.

9:30pm – finished the day and made it back home to State College. The day was eventful.

I got to the track around 7:15am and made the 7:40 drivers meeting. We got the same detail we got yesterday. The good news is that Saturday went by without much in the way of problems or accidents. Good news for all. The new bit is that they took out the “Chicane” (pronounced “Shi-Kane”), or quick jog right and back left, in the track heading into the toughest turn of the track known as the “keyhole”. This is the “pro” track setup and you end up moving much faster.

I bailed out of the meeting quickly, put my helmet on and jumped in the car. Heading to the starting line just as the instructors meeting was just breaking up. Saw Adam and he waved. He jumped in and we talked for a few minutes. I think he would not have been surprised if I went home yesterday. In fact, there were a lot of stories floating around the event of people from past events who did not like it or got rattled and went home, or stayed for one weekend and never came back. There were people in my group who I thought not make it back for Sunday, but if anybody did not come back I did not notice it. I never thought seriously about not coming back, but I understand how this could just be too much for some.

We were the first group of the day at 8:00am and we launched onto the track. I was a little hesitant at first, but got into it after a few laps. I spent a good deal of the previous night staring at the ceiling drilling every braking zone and acceleration point into my head. It was now paying dividends. My sense of flow of the track was becoming something that I did not need to think about as much. I was starting to hit some of the turns well and was starting to look a little further down the track. By the end, it was feeling smoother.

I headed down to the registration booth. I found out what happened to my missing number and information packet. Apparently the guy who got mine by accident was putting on the wristband and wrecked his car. Don’t know what kind it was, but that has to be one of the worst things I have ever heard. I never saw him or knew who he was, but I feel for him.

The second run was a continuation of the first. I was really starting to feel the flow of things and I was running well. Adam was saying less and less each lap. When we finished he said the last 5 laps was really good.

Richard, Dan, and TomWe broke for lunch, and I headed over to hang with some of the other drivers. I met some really great people over the weekend. My next-door neighbors in the parking lot were a father (Richard), son (Daniel), and uncle (Tom) trio. The father was in the C group and the son and uncle were in D with me. The Richard and Dan shared a 1999 911 and the Tom had a really, really fast Honda S2000. They were great guys and we hung out together, ate lunch, and talked about the runs all weekend. I also met Jeff who used to race Corvettes and now had an incredible Cayman S, and Sharon and her husband Adam who worked in energy industry and shared a nice 911. We all were like old friends by the end of the weekend.

It was time for my last run. My confidence was rising, and I looked forward to getting on the track. Actually, I should have gotten one last one after this, but I needed to leave back to PA in time to put my kids in bed (three days away from a 6 and 7 year olds is a long time).

We blasted off and I was flying around the track. Each lap got better and better and I really felt the ebb and flow of the turns. I was more relaxed and more focused. I was aware of people in front and back and had to think much less about what to do and just let my internal auto-pilot do it. The turns came and I ate them up. I backed off the throttle on the straight-aways when people were in front to give me room to hit the turns hard.

At one point Adam screamed into the mike, “NOW YOU ARE CARRYING THE MAIL!!!” as I absolutely blew through Thunder Valley–a series of challenging turns–at speeds which would have been inconceivable at the beginning of the weekend. I can only guess what this means, but it seems positive. Seriously though, that 12 or so seconds of flawless turns and blinding speed was the highlight of my weekend.

At the risk of getting philosophical, the only thing I can compare this last run to is when I used to play basketball. There is a Zen-like feeling when you get into “The Zone”. The game slows down and the rim looks like a hula-hoop. You stop thinking and just flow from one play to another. On the track, 90 MPH feels slow and those turns feel less sharp. The noise falls away. You know where all the cars are around you and begin to anticipate what they are going to do. You do less thinking and just flow through the course. I am not sure Adam said anything for the last 5 minutes of the run.

It was over way too soon.

Adam and MeAfter the last run I hung around the track and said my goodbyes. I thanked Adam for his instruction and patience, packed up my car, and headed home. Heading home in interstate traffic felt like I was driving in reverse.


8:04pm, Tuesday August 31st – Back in my study at home having a scotch and reflecting on the weekend.

I can say that this was one of the most memorable weekends I have had in a long time. It was challenging, momentarily frightening, engaging, and enjoyable. The challenges I had on Saturday heightened my euphoria on Sunday.

Looking back, my problems were not caused by my reflexes, knowledge or car, but by a failure between my ears. I tried to do everything all at once and ended up not paying attention to fundamentals. I wanted to be the best guy on the track immediately and was not mastering the small stuff first. Once I accepted that I needed to progress at my own rate, I was OK.

I would also note that this is a generally safe activity. That does not mean that it is not without risk, but the organizers and drivers are almost universally committed to safety. I think I saw only about 3 incidents the whole weekend where somebody almost got hurt (and those were not really close to that). I also can say I only saw only car with visible damage over the whole weekend.

So, what would I tell somebody else coming out for the first time? The most obvious lesson that many took a while to come to (as did I) is that you need to listen. I was surrounded by at least 100 experienced drivers who were willing and ready to give advice. If somebody tells you something it comes from experience.

Other lessons I heard/learned over the weekend that might be of value to new drivers:

  • Driving is about technique and muscle memory. You need to unlearn street habits like pumping brakes, Smoothness is the only way to drive. The cardinal rule is that the smoother you drive the faster you go.
  • No matter how much you are using your brakes it is not enough. Learn to “stand the car on its front end” going into turns. Learn to decelerate fast. This is key to preserving speed (and not ending up in the grass or wall) is ironically braking.
  • Always brake straight. If you are braking as you are turning, bad things can happen. Just don’t do it.
  • Drive the first few laps of each session slowly, and then build up speed. Some drivers like to gun out of the gate. At least as a novice, every time you go out you have to re-orient and relearn a little bit. Take your time and it will come. Don’t press.
  • Trust your car. Chances are if you are driving a Porsche or other high performance vehicle, you are not even close to pushing it past its limits. Being hesitant is almost as dangerous as being reckless. Backing off and on the brake or gas because you are unsure of what your doing destabilizes the car. This causes all kinds of problems, not the least of which is that you never get into the flow.
  • If you don’t feel right, get off the track. Being distracted or uncomfortable of plain old feeling like it is not clicking is natural. Trying to push through it is a mistake, and it could be very, very costly. I got off light and I know it. As it turns out, you will get as much track time as you could possibly want over the weekend. Bailing out or skipping a run is not a big deal.
  • Find Adam. Seriously–get a good instructor. Talk people in the club before the event about who would be a good instructor. I had a one of the best, but I saw one or two who were clearly not very good. A good instructor makes all the difference.

It all comes down to this: You know you are advancing when you don’t have to think about where to brake/accelerate and how hard. Develop track awareness; always be looking a couple turns ahead. Get into the flow of the track and feel the car. The feeling you will get from it is simply indescribable.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to hit the brakes.

Welcome to My Personal Blog.

Patrick McDaniel

Welcome to my personal blog.  This is something the I started in 2010 to post personal experiences and thoughts not related to my professional life.  This is going to be a petty mixed jumble of topics, but perhaps that is the fun of it. The diversity of my life affords a lot of fun and often strange experiences, and writing is my way of thinking through them. I hope to write often.

If you are interested in professional topics, please see my personal webpage.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy.

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