Shanghai, September 2002, Part Two

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

As I prepare for C’s and my move to Shanghai in January 2015, it seems particularly apt to take a look at when I last visited Shanghai. It’s funny, but I keep thinking that I was in Shanghai “fairly recently,” but 2002 is not recently at all! I visited Shanghai for one week during a break in my graduate classes in Singapore.

I find this excerpt interesting for a few reasons. One, these days in my Chinese reading class we have had several texts with criticisms of Mao Zedong, though his face remains on the Chinese bills. Second, my visit to the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe – at the very least I would like to take C to see one of their performances. Finally, I really can hardly wait to go to the hair salon and have one of those fantastic head and shoulder massages. As a single, without child person, I took those WAY too much for granted.

I think the Mongolian women are working here and have essentially moved into the Pujiang hotel. I thought it a bit strange that they went out dancing every single night. Yesterday I thought what a boring holiday that would be, not seeing any of the sights, and surely Ulaan Bator has a few discos to keep them satisfied. But now I am quite sure they are working here, probably at a night club, so there is little hope of them leaving me in peace any time soon. I didn’t get much sleep the night before last because they were chatting away as usual, and then one girl came back at 3:30 am and clomped around the room awhile. The other girls came back at 5 am and thought it a good time to have a heart to heart conversation, in loud voices. I sat up and asked them if they wanted to talk could they do it outside, and again “sorry, sorry” and then they launched right back into their dialogue. Probably they are rather drunk and don’t realize they are talking so loudly?

By yesterday evening, around 7 pm, I was so very, very tired, and didn’t think I was going to make it through the acrobatic performance from 7:30-9, and I had a pounding headache. But I bought some medicine and went to the performance. It was incredible!!! Simply breathtaking. I was literally on the edge of my seat, with my mouth hanging open, and making audible gasps as they continued to do amazing stunts of strength, flexibility and grace. I would highly recommend seeing this performance. I couldn’t help but wonder though about the lives of these acrobatics. How is that they got into this line of work? I think in the movie “Farewell my Concubine” we see at the beginning the children sold to the acrobatic schools by parents who can’t afford to keep them or to pay for debts, and the excruciating training the children go through to be so flexible and strong. I don’t know if that is the case anymore, or if like in the recent book I read “A Son of the Circus” by John Irving, which is set in India, that the children are often street children and are “better off” in the circus than on the street. Hmmmm……. I don’t think there are very strict labor laws like in Japan. Although in Japan there are many pop groups made up of children, they cannot perform live after 8 pm in the evening until they are over 16. In this performance I saw there was a little girl, maybe 7 or 9 years old who performed the last stunt after 9, and what a stunt it was! She balanced on one hand on top of a pedestal for approximately ten minutes, sometimes changing hands with a little hop, and stretching her legs in all sorts of contortions. It was so beautiful. She appeared happy as she made her bow, and as I was in the fourth row, so I could see all the performers clearly. But is she really happy? You could already see the muscles in her little arms and legs. She is so powerful, but so tiny and fragile at the same time. A truly amazing performance though.

I wonder about the still lingering admiration of Mao Zedong in this country. Is this man really adored? Is he venerated still after all the harm he did to the country? It seems so because his face now adorns the money here. When I was here in 1994, and even in 1996 and 1998, there was no Mao face staring at me from the currency, though it seems beginning in 1999 his face is on all the bank notes, replacing the faces of Chinese minorities. Maybe they no longer feel they have to placate the minorities for poor treatment by putting them on the money? I went to the Shanghai museum yesterday and there was even an exhibit for China’s minorities, and really well done. But to put Mao’s face on the money? Why not Deng’s face instead? I don’t see the little red Mao mirror pictures which I used to see hanging in taxis in Beijing when I was here in 1994. That doesn’t mean that they don’t hang somewhere now, but why have them when everyone carries Mao’s face with them in their wallets? Is this part of capitalism with Chinese characteristics? Every time you use money you are reminded of the revolution, of Mao? Interesting.

Yesterday I saw another spectacle on the street. As I was about to cross a street, a commotion arose to the right of me. I didn’t see what initially happened, but saw a policeman grabbing at a man, trying to hold him in a vice. The man was resisting and asking him what was the matter. Of course, this immediately caught the attention of every Chinese person in the vicinity and a circle was quickly formed around the pair. I was waiting for the light to change and cannot deny my own curiosity as to what was happening. I was more intrigued about this crowd though, and almost thought to take a picture, but could imagine the policeman then turning on me, so I refrained. The policeman kept trying to grab the guy by the hands, by the neck and so on, and the guy kept trying to get out of these attacks, but he didn’t seem to be prepared to run, just wanted the policeman to let go of him. He accidentally pushed the policeman who then fell to the ground. I let out a gasp at this, because I expected the guy was really going to be in trouble now for having pushed the policeman. But the guy then starts preaching to the crowd, pointing at the policeman and stating his case. I assume he was telling the crowd how he was wrongly attacked by the policeman. This was getting interesting, and the crowd was getting larger. I gave up trying to understand and crossed the street.

Yesterday I also had my hair done. I just went in to have my hair washed because I wanted the head massage, but decided to go ahead and have a little cut. The massage was exquisite. Wow, wow, wow!!! There was a head, neck, shoulder, and upper back massage included in this. I had my hair washed, dried, and cut. All of this for the amazing price of 29 kuai, or less than US$4!!! But what was more interesting perhaps was my hairdresser told me my hair was beautiful, I was beautiful, and would I like to go out dancing that night?! He gave me his name card and told me to call him after 9 pm!! I didn’t call him though. Too tired. But it really made me wonder. I have been in Shanghai three days and I had several people stop to talk to me, and tell me I am beautiful. One guy with his two female friends told me they just had to stop and talk to me because I looked exotic. I have been in Singapore two months and haven’t had anything remotely similar happen. But all this adoration could go to my head! Overall Shanghai seems like an interesting place to live. Sure it doesn’t have quite the cultural component of Beijing, but it is appealing in its own right.

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Shanghai September 2002, Part One

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

As I prepare for C’s and my move to Shanghai in January 2015, it seems particularly apt to take a look at when I last visited Shanghai. It’s funny, but I keep thinking that I was in Shanghai “fairly recently,” but 2002 is not recently at all! I visited Shanghai for one week during a break in my graduate classes in Singapore.

After the overnight flight on which I got only 2 or 3 hours of sleep, I was barely conscious of my arrival in Shanghai. As a friend told me, Hong Qiao airport is more like a bus terminal than an airport, quite unlike the beautiful new Pudong Airport on the other side of the city. At 6:30 in the morning there just wasn’t much happening at the Hong. I caught a cab to the city, because of course the cab drivers all claimed that there wasn’t a bus to the city, even when a bus drove by right in front of me!! At least I talked them down from the ridiculous price of 380 kuai to the city, because the guide book said it was 50 kuai. But I couldn’t get less than 100. And it wasn’t even a real taxi, it was a nice van. They, the nice van guys, told me the taxis were just for short distances. Hmmm, I think I will be going back to the airport another way. Though, to tell the truth, $12 is not a horrible price to pay from an airport to the city in any country.

The day before my departure I had checked online for information a hotel which was to have dorms. Their website indicated all the types of rooms were available for Saturday. I figured since I was checking less than 24 hours before my arrival, I could safely expect them to remain available after I arrived. Still when I checked in and asked for the dorm I was told they were full. I mentioned I had checked the computer the day before, and miraculously one bed became available!! I just love that, milk the foreigners for all they are worth.

At 7:30 in the morning my room was devoid of people. I thought it odd that in a 6 bed dorm everyone was up and about so early. But maybe they are like me when I travel: early to bed and early to rise? I stayed up to get some water at the little mini store which opened at 8, and then I took a nap until 11. That felt good. Once I got up it was still cloudy but I thought I should at least go for a walk. The hotel I stay at is quite close to the Bund, the riverfront symbol of Shanghai. I somehow thought the Bund would be a bit nicer than it was, so much hype about it I suppose, but it is a rather cool place to go for a walk, because so many people are about. On one side of the Bund, the same side of the river is a main road, and many colonial buildings from the early 20th century. Grand, imposing structures that have a proud, weary, worn feel to them. On the other side, next to the busy brown waterway, is the modern New Pudong area, with a huge pink needle like skyscraper, a building with two glass globes flanking it, and several more shiny new tall buildings. So the Bund seems to flank both the “old” and the new in Shanghai, kind of a walkway between them? Really cool. Today I took a picture of a set of quadruplets dressed identically and wearing funny masks. They were maybe 3 years old and so cute. I am a bit surprised by people’s reaction to me, they still stare. I thought since this is Shanghai and many foreigners live here, that there wouldn’t be much staring, but I am a celebrity again!! I even noticed a few people taking pictures of me when I walked by. But I thought it was kind of funny when I stopped to check in my bag and then was on my way again, and a group of young women became frantic because they hadn’t gotten their camera out in time. Just the day before, an old man and a little Chinese girl had stopped in front of a huge Soviet-style statue and it was such a perfect picture, I was fumbling about for MY camera, but wasn’t quick enough!! I was stopped by several people today to chat and for them to introduce themselves and practice English. One guy asks if he could accompany me all day and show me around. I politely told him that I prefer to sightsee on my own. And thankfully he accepted that. I have had others in Tunisia, Italy, and Paris who would not believe me when I said that, and I was followed for hours….. But not here, not yet.

When I stopped to talk to the first guy who introduced himself to me, and then three children hung around to try and listen in and demand I speak Chinese (which I tried!), of course a few people would stop and watch the spectacle. And when I stopped to take a picture of the four identically dressed boys (all in pink!) with the funny Groucho Marx glasses on, we became a circus act in ourselves. The parents beaming that a foreigner wanted to take pictures of their children, the children unable to all have their glasses and stand still at one time, and myself trying to take the picture. A regular three ring circus it was. I managed to extricate myself from the circus and still the crowd was forming, because it seems in China when a small group of people begins to form, others cannot help but go and see what is happening too, so even after there is little to see, the crowd continues to grow.

Yesterday, I took a walk down Nanjing Lu, the main shopping drag of Shanghai. I stopped in and got a bad manicure and pedicure, but the most incredible foot massage ever! I think the pedicure was so bad, because normally they only give it to men. So my toe nails were at a rather longish length and I just wanted them cut nicely and some polish on them. They are sooooo short now, men’s length! And the polish, ugh! It was somewhat amusing to watch the man trying to put polish on my toe nails (especially as they were so short!). A woman working there saw how it was putting the polish on and told him to move and let her do it because he was doing a bad job. But she didn’t do all that great either. But the experience was worth it. The nails will grow back.

The hotel I am staying at is the Pujiang Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Shanghai, and what used to be one of the most posh It used to be called the Astor Hotel and then Richard’s Hotel, and the likes of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, Einstein, and other celebrities stayed here. Now it is the location of some of the cheapest accommodation in the city. It still has the high ceilings and imposing rooms, but all are a bit worn for wear. It has a neglected feel and seems dark and tired, but it is also kind of cool. I wonder if Einstein stayed in my room? Though I have a feeling that it was the billiards room, because the light on the ceiling has that look about it. It has what used to be a fireplace, as well as a small alcove that can be closed off, which to me speaks of a small smoking room or gambling room off the billiards area. But I could be wrong, but it doesn’t matter, I’ll just think of it has the former billiards room anyway.

Ah, but what craziness my room is! Yesterday when I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, no one is there. Then at 7:30 pm when I returned, the others are sleeping. I was annoyed because I wanted to take a shower, but a pair of pants was floating in the bathtub. But I think, well, they ARE early to sleep, early to rise people. I am just going to go and do a little email, and then I will go to sleep early. But after email, I watched the Fellowship of the Ring in the bar, and went back to the room at half past ten, which had then become a flurry of activity! All the rest of the room members are women from Mongolia, and hard partiers from the look of it! They were all getting ready to go out, putting on make-up, in all states of undress/dress, and yakking up a storm!! They were talking so loud. The television was blaring. One girl in her bed chattering away on the phone, and almost as soon as she would hang up, someone would call again. I realized I wasn’t going to get any sleep right away, so I started to write in my journal. After half an hour though, my eyes were getting too heavy. I put my stuff away, and lay down, but the yakking did not stop! They even turned to me and told me sorry, they would be off soon, and then returned to talking to each other at the top of their lungs. Mongolian to me sounds like a cross between Korean and Russian, which isn’t all that surprising, but of course I did not understand a thing. But I didn’t care; I just wanted them to talk quietly. Half an hour later they will still going strong and I was about to scream. I asked them if they were going out, and they said in two minutes, sorry, and off they went again using up oxygen as though it were in short supply. About 20 minutes later they finally left. Though one girl arrived back at 5:30 in the morning and stomped about in her high heels as loud as she could, back and forth, back and forth across the room.  I cannot help but hope these women check out tomorrow.

Today I took the psychedelic Bund tourist tunnel under the Huangpu River to the New Pudong area and checked out a mostly empty mall and the Shanghai aquarium. The aquarium was really, really good. In my opinion it is much better than the one in Singapore, which really surprised me. Especially as the Shanghai one mentions conservation, while the Singapore does not. Yeah, China!

An Unplanned Visit to a Thai Prison, January 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school and headed back to Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

On January 18, 2002, I had planned to join the usual guesthouse-organized visit to an elephant camp in northern Thailand, except I woke up to late. That sleep in resulted in one of the most extraordinary unplanned activities I have ever done while on vacation. I sent this email that same day, right after visiting the prison.

I stayed up rather late last night talking with my two dormitory roommates, so I slept in this morning and gave up trying to get out to see the elephants on my own. I had breakfast and went for a short walk, but I wanted to do something. The night before one of the dormitory roommates has shown me a nice map of Chiang Mai and suggested I might want to visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. I did not even know if I could get in or if I really wanted to. I wondered what I would say to get in and would I sound convincing and would they think I was a journalist.

Generally, when people think of Thailand, they think of the beaches and mountains, beautiful ruins and great shopping, tuk-tuks and traffic and backpackers. I doubt prisons come into many people’s minds when thinking of Thailand, though of course they are there.

So I walked down to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which is located almost in the center of the four kilometer square city walls of old Chiang Mai. I walked up to the gate, which was two metal slabs of a kind of celadon green, with a small square hole that slid open for people to talk to the guards inside. It rather made me think of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy arrives at the Emerald City. Someone inside opened the gap and asked if they could help me. I said, “I want to go inside.” They told me to wait a moment. This seemed almost too easy. After some time – the gates open to let in a truck and some Thais carrying plastic bags of food – two female khaki-uniformed guards come out to speak to me. They ask me if I want to visit the American prisoner. I say I do.

One of the guards informs me that only her parents, brother and sister are usually allowed to see her, but I stand firm. I want to visit the American prisoner. So she tells me to go across the street to the store to buy some things for her and then come in for a visit.
I walk across the street wondering what I should buy. What would this woman need? The guard told me I could buy some soap and a toothbrush and toothpaste. So I purchase these items as well as a bottle of Coke, some talcum powder and some lotion. There is not much to buy in the store and I do not know anything about this woman other than she is American. At the cashier there are some other foreigners trying to buy some things for themselves. They are confused; they do not realize this is a store for prison visitors to buy items for the prisoners. A man at the counter tries to explain this to me and when I tell him I am buying these items for a prisoner who looks surprised. I pay for my purchases and fill out a piece of paper written completely in Thai. Someone tries to help me but one of the questions is the name of the prisoner and I do not even know that. I start to write “American Prisoner” when the clerk speaks with some guards and then turns to me and says “Rebecca.” Yes, I am here to see Rebecca.

The slip is stapled to a bag and thrown into a pile. I protest. I tell them I will be visiting Rebecca and I want to bring her these items. I want to visit her! I sound so sure. Do I really? They inform me it will be delivered to her and I am directed to a small office behind the store. There I wait on plastic seats waiting with a group of Thais. A guard calls out some names and some people waiting come forward and then cross the street to the prison. I wait for my name to be called. The guard merely looks around for me and nods. I want to get my gifts I bought at the store but I am told those will be delivered at 3 pm. It is now 2:05 and visiting hours end at 2:30. I am told to cross the street. This time the green gate is opened to me. I am now inside the prison.

Inside is yet another waiting room with more plastic chairs. There are many people here, perhaps 20 or 30, even some small children. I am told to place my paper in a small wooden trough hanging on some bars. I place it there and step inside another small room where there are people standing in wait. A Thai man next to me tells me in English, “Now we wait.” From there I can see another area. One the outside are guards who are checking the plastic bags of food, writing the names of the prisoners on them, and then passing them through a small window. Beyond that is the visiting room. I can see a long row of chairs and a glass partition separating the visitors from the prisoners. There is a lot of chatter in Thai, most people appear happy. A buzzer sounds and the visitors in the visiting room stand up and file out, a new group of visitors file in. The prisoners are led out, a new group is led in. I wonder what to do. The helpful man tells me, “You will be next, in the last group.” Then a young woman comes up, she looks at me and speaks to the man. She turns to me and asks, “Are you here to see Rebecca?” I tell her I am. The man asks, “What is her relation to you?” I tell them, “just another American.” I ask them, “Do you think that strange?” “No,” the man tells me, “Rebecca will be happy. It is hard in the prison.” He tells me the woman next to him is his daughter. He tells me she used to be inside the prison and she knows Rebecca. The buzzer sounds and the man’s daughter tells me she will take me in to Rebecca.

Rebecca does not have an American accent. Her age is hard to tell. A guard outside told me she has been in prison for about 2 ½ years. I would say she is 35 or 40, but I have no way of knowing. She has reddish-brown hair cut short, and held to one side with a barrette. She sounds German but speaks English well. And yes, she is very happy to see me. She asks my name and why I am in Chiang Mai. She tells me she was born in the US, but only lived there one year, and grew up in Europe, mostly Switzerland. She is in prison because she changed money with another traveler, receiving traveler’s checks in exchange. When she tried to cash them, they were of course with another person’s signature. She tells me she tried to exchange at two places. She says her sentence was 2.5 years for the first attempt and three years for the second. When I say that sounds harsh, she tells me that actually her sentence could have been 11 years but since she plead guilty she received half the time. I am astonished. Surely, this seems wrong.

She has been in prison two years and seven months; she has two years and eleven months to go. She lives in a cell with 150 other women. She tells me the hardest thing is the loss of privacy, but that things are better now as she used to be in a cell with 250 women. She tells me most of the women in the prison are in there on drug-related charges and most are hill tribe women who do not understand as opium is a common cash crop for their tribes. Rebecca tells me that before the sentences for these women were not too long but now they are often for life or even the death penalty. In comparison, Rebecca’s sentence seems light.

She does not tell me any of this angrily or sadly, but matter-of-factly, and even with a slight smile. She has smile lines around her eyes and I wonder how many are from before prison. She admits that she wrong to have done what she did and appears to accept her punishment. I let her talk. She tells me she is glad to talk to someone. Although she has learned Thai, she is currently the only foreigner in the prison. She jokes, “I have been here 2 ½ years and they haven’t managed to catch another foreigner.” The buzzer sounds. She asks me how long I am in Chiang Mai and I tell her I leave tomorrow. I feel sorry to say it, if I were staying another day I could buy her a few more things. She tells me she very much enjoyed our ten minutes and thanks me for coming. She tells me my visit will make her weekend much brighter. I am embarrassed I did not get her more things or that my visit, from a total stranger, could mean that much to her. When she rises, she presses her hands to the glass and I press mine opposite hers. She waves goodbye enthusiastically. I wave in return.

A Blast from My Travel Past

Just days ago I received a LinkedIn invite from someone I met a long time ago.  It was a very pleasant surprise to have communication again with A, who I met while backpacking in Romania in 2000.  It brought me back to that time, when I was in the midst of an 11 month solo backpacking trip through Europe and Asia, long before I was a mom, when the Foreign Service, even my graduate degree, was just a twinkle in my eye.

I do not have any email stories from that time in my life.  I know I sent some, but the Internet was a much newer thing, and anything I sent during that time is lost to cyberspace.  Romania was sort of a turning point in my trip, most certainly when I look back at the people I met there and in the weeks just after.  I had already been on the road for 3 months.  Beginning in Helsinki, Finland, I had made my way through the Baltics, to Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Hungary to arrive in Romania.  I was getting tired.  I nearly missed a train change at the Hungarian-Romanian border when the train stopped somewhere around midnight and I noticed I was alone.  I was wide-awake as I had been primed to fear strangers coming onto the train to rob me or gas me and do me harm.  I stepped off the train and noticed there was another train on an adjacent platform idling its engine, while my own train engine was already growing cold.  There were a few men, wearing dark clothes, moving like shadows around the train yard, lit only by a few poor lights.  I asked them if they spoke English.  They did not, and only laughed.  Somehow, I do not remember how, I figured out the other train was the one I need to be one and I changed, grateful then for the other passengers.

Once on the right train and with the morning coming and more passengers, I allowed myself to sleep.  And so I missed my stop at Sighisoara and ended up disembarking at Brasov.  In Brasov, I was harassed by two bus ticketing thugs, who muscled me off a bus and then demanded money and my passport when I did not comply.   Because it was midday I defied them, arguing with them, telling them with bravado I did not feel that if they wanted money from me I would be happy to accompany them to the nearest police station.  I only escaped when I jabbed my finger unexpectedly into the chest of one of the men, yelled “leave me alone!” and turned and ran as fast as I could for several blocks.  I lost them.

Then on my final day in Bucharest I was attacked by dogs.  No kidding.  I was walking along, minding my own business, headed for the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second largest public building (after the Pentagon), when out of nowhere four dogs appear and surround me.   They are barking and jumping and nipping at me.  A woman leans out of a nearby window on the third or fourth floor to yell.  I think she is telling me to be quiet and not the dogs.  Maybe I am screaming?  The dogs start tearing at my clothes.   I know one dog had my left hand in its mouth.  Another was pulling at my pants behind my left knee.  A third was pulling at my right pant leg at my ankle.  I have never been able to remember what the fourth dog was doing.  A man approaches and holds off the dogs and tells me to run.  I assume he told me in Romanian, but in my head I heard English and I took off like a shot.  I ran across a large street, I’m not sure how many lanes, and the dogs did not pursue.  I catch a glimpse of myself in a tinted bank window and I look like a crazy person.  My hair is a mess, my fast red and tear splotched, my pants torn.  I collect myself and limp a few more blocks to the Palace of the Parliament.  There I first request a ticket for the next tour and then a first aid kit if they have one.

It is after the tour I head back to the hostel.  I start every time I see a dog.  And there were a lot of dogs.  According to the “Welcome to Bucharest” brochure I find at the front desk of the hostel upon my return, the approximate population of Bucharest is 3 million people and 2 million dogs.  The brochure explains that the dogs have become wild and rabies shots are required if bitten.  I think about whether I would have wanted to know this information before my incident, and cannot make up my mind.  What I do know is that my plan to depart Romania that evening on the night train to Bulgaria seems too much for me to take on.

It is at this point I meet A.  He is backpacking for a few months through Europe while on leave from a teaching job in the UK.  He tells me he is traveling to Bulgaria the next day and I can tag along with him instead of leaving that night.  I feel so relieved.   (especially as on the way to dinner that night with another hostel-mate, we watch a dog attack another person in the street)

And wouldn’t you know it.  As we try to leave the next day we are confronted by a fake policeman at the Bucharest train station.  As soon as we enter the station he approaches and requests to see our passports.  We hand them over.  He gives an exaggerated sigh and tells us that unfortunately our permission to remain in the country has expired and we will have to pay a fine.  We have had enough of these poor attempts at bilking tourists and we grab our passports back, tell him to shove off, and continue on our way.   Yet our trials with Romania are not complete.  At the Romanian-Bulgarian border a fake border officer boards the train and tries one last shakedown.  We almost fall for it until A notices the officer’s badge is flimsy, like a Cracker Jack sheriff badge toy, and hanging off his nondescript khaki uniform at an odd angle.  Minutes later the real guys come through and it is obvious our first guy is an imposter.

I travel with A for 5 days.  We visit Veliko Tarnova and Sofia and the Rila Monastery.  In Veliko Tarnova I search the Internet for information on rabies and grow a little concerned that my days are numbered.  A agrees to monitor my progress and let me know if I start frothing at the mouth.  He goes with me to the US Embassy in Sofia as I make inquiries with the Embassy doctor about my possible rabies vaccination plan.

After Sofia we parted ways.  I headed on to Macedonia and A went back to the UK.  He and his girlfriend were preparing for a visit to Iran, a country Australians could visit, though Americans could not.  His girlfriend was having an abaya made to wear while they traveled.  A and I kept in contact for a long while.  After his trip to Iran and the end of his contract in the UK, he made a plan to return to Australia entirely without flying.  He traveled by train across Russia to Beijing, south to Vietnam, then by bus through Southeast Asia to Singapore, then by boat through Indonesia to Bali.  It was only on Bali when he learned he had missed the boat to Australia and the next would be awhile when he finally hopped on a plane.  He joined Australia’s version of the Foreign Service and served in Vanuatu, then Afghanistan, when we lost tough.  Until now, when returning to Australia after 3 ½ years in Pakistan, on the recommendation of a friend he joined LinkedIn.

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly 14 years since we met in a hostel in Bucharest.  Those days in Romania do not seem that long ago.