"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Grand Canyon Journals, Chapter Two: No Refunds Now

(No, you didn't miss Chapter One. I haven't written it yet because Chapter Two was more fun to write. I'll get around to One some day. Right now I'm in Marble Canyon with a Road Scholar group. Marble Canyon is sort of at the head of the Grand Canyon--depends on who you ask.)

The National Park service has done an admirable job warning about the dangers of heat and dehydration health hazards at the Grand Canyon. In every brochure, in every guide, and everywhere you look, there are lists of symptoms and recommendations to keep you safe.

Drink lots of water and eat salty snacks, they say. Don’t rely solely on sports drinks because they don’t contain enough sodium to keep you hydrated. Take a ten minute break every hour and put your feet up. Eat a salty snack every time you drink water. Hike with sopping wet clothing—the evaporation will help cool you.

As I said, lots and lots of warnings and suggestions about heat in the high desert.

Dressed for cold weather mule riding and who gives a darn about appearances?

I must have missed the one about how freakin’ cold it is at 7 a.m. on a clear late October morning. One brochure DID mention temps down to 34 during the winter, but I think that was a Chamber of Commerce “34,” if you get my meaning. It was so cold, I almost froze my butt off, which, considering what happened, a fine state of posterior numbness would have been mightily appreciated.

For one thing, the sun wasn’t even up yet, so it was barely light enough to find my way from the Bright Angel Lodge a couple hundred yards through a dimly lighted parking area to the mule corral where I was to start a two-day mule ride to the floor of the Canyon, with an overnight at Phantom Ranch. The Park people brag about how dark the nights are and how you can see the stars, hence the stingy, I mean "careful" distribution of sodium vapor night lighting.

The mule corral the afternoon before.

Interesting place for this sign, right before the corral.

Anyway, my room was close enough that I could have smelled large warm-blooded animals and leather as soon as I stepped out the door. If I didn’t have a cold, that is. And if those hybrid beasts of burden had actually been there, of course. I was the only living creature in the area. As usual when that happens, I began to wonder if I was in the wrong place. I’d checked it out the afternoon before, read all the signs and such, so I was pretty sure this was the appointed hour and the anointed (there’s a sly bathroom joke in there, if you know equines) place.

Oh, yeah?

Eventually another couple appeared from the gloom, and just as we’d all agreed this was the right place, a wrangler with a string of saddled beasts materialized. Then another. Pretty soon there were mules and wranglers all over the place.

A denim-clad cowboy with a handle-bar mustache called us riders all together, then hitched himself up on the top metal rail of the corral.

“Dang, that’s cold!” he cried. Then he, Max, settled into giving us his safety spiel while warming the pipe at the same time. “Never lost a rider,” he said, “and you don’t want to be the one who breaks that record. Makes for lots of paperwork, and we won’t be very happy with you.”

I know, 7 a.m. is too early for me too.

He talked some about the mules, the history of mules in the Canyon, and what to do when we encountered hikers on the trail. The most important piece of advice, though, was to turn the mule’s head towards the outside edge of the trail when the wrangler brings us to a stop.

“This is not to give you a better view,” he said. “It’s so the mule knows where the edge is. He doesn’t want to fall off either, and if he knows where the drop-off is, he won’t.”

We were introduced to the proper use and manipulation of the mule motivator—a whip. Max stressed the importance of keeping the mules in a tight string. “If you look between your mule’s ears, all you should see is the butt of the mule in front of you. If you see ground, you’re too far back. Use that motivator.”

Then to prove it doesn’t hurt the mule, he slapped his own leg hard with the crop. The reason for the “tight string” became heart-poundingly apparent to me a few hours hence, but at the time I thought it was mostly to keep us close together so the wrangler could keep an eye on us.

We were all given the opportunity to back out of the trip now with one hundred percent refunds. Once we mounted up and followed our wrangler out of the corral, across a pathway and set four horseshoe-clad feet on Bright Angel Trail, though, there would be no refunds. I really thought the lady standing next to me might be having second and third thoughts about this whole thing. She said she was afraid of the mule and afraid of heights. She was shaking hard enough to convince me.

The Shaking Lady in a better moment.

I was shivering myself, but from cold, not fear. Well, I was a little concerned about how my knees were going to hurting in a few minutes, but I wasn’t concerned with the mule (he was more sure-footed than I am) or with heights (I spent half my childhood in a tree).

Nor would there be any refunds if any of us misbehaved according to the safety protocol. The wrangler had the ultimate authority to make us dismount and walk out on our own.

So with important words and a funny delivery ringing in our frosted ear drums, we lined up with our toes on a line in the corral dirt. Max strode up to Shaking Lady, handed her a leather pouch that hung over the saddle horn, and administered the mail carrier’s oath in which she even promised to dive in the Colorado River after it should it somehow fall into same.

The wranglers sized us up—literally—and assigned us to the mule of their choice. I was assigned a huge barrel of a mule called TC, and then spent the entire two-day trip wondering what those initials stood for. TC was so tall and, umm, stocky I could just touch the saddle horn with my longest finger.

A wrangler gave me a much-needed boost into the saddle and adjusted the stirrups. The braided red cord of my water-filled bota bag was double-wrapped around the saddle horn, my little plastic bag of “luggage” slipped into a saddle bag, and my yellow “Mule Rider” rain coat tied to the front of the saddle.

Within a few minutes, we were ready to go. Positions were assigned. Shaking Lady aboard Milo was right behind the wrangler, TC and I followed, another lady on Mercy, then the three men--Jack, John, and Bill were last.

The sun was up and it had been daylight for a while now, but there was no warmth in it. We didn’t know then that the trail was in shade, and cold, all morning. Shivering, shaking, and full of anticipation, we boldly rode out of the corral...

crossed the footpath...

and headed down Bright Angel Trail.

No refunds now.

Those little bitty spots are hikers.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The China Journals, Chapter 4, To Go or Not to Go? That is the urgent question.

I don wanna go. (That's me, writing with a cold. I'm in the worst first days of this cold.)

Tonight, at the un-gawdly hour of 12:30 a.m., I am to board a plane for Phoenix where the temps are in the 80s, awful weather for someone who's coughing, sneezing, and wiping her nose so much it's already sore.

I don wanna go. I saw my doctor Wednesday and he didn't think there was any problem. I recounted the awful horrors of high altitude sickness that beset me in Tibet. He gave me a prescription for Diamox, which is supposed to help my blood's oxygen-carrying capacity, or something. I was hoping for a doctor note excusing me from gym class.

Okay, I'm exaggerating. I did have some problems in Tibet, but I refused to let them stop me from anything other than one dinner and one Tibetan dance lesson. Migraines do not mix well with food smells and loud music.

Nonetheless, at the appointed hour I shall board the Alaska Airlines jet and head for my Grand Canyon adventure. I figure I'll be well enough by next mid-week to somehow attain the upper side of a mule and ride down a steep trail to below sea level, where I will overnight at Phantom Ranch. Follow that with ten days of hiking in and around the Canyon.

In the meantime, all I want to do is crawl back into my nice soft bed, blow my nose one more time, take a giant swig of Green Death (Nyquil), and sleep until sometime next month.

Instead, I need to change one more battery in a smoke detector, hoping that is the one that beeps when I'm out of range, climb up on the roof and install a new rain cap on the wood stove chimney, then drive a hundred miles to Anchorage and wait for the plane.

I don wanna go, but I will.

And, speaking of going, I'm going to tell you one of the few jokes I can remember:

Q: Do you know why beer goes through you so fast?

A: Because it doesn't have to stop to change color.

Now, that's something to keep in mind if you're a Westerner traveling in Asia, because "going" can be challenging in Asia.

Here's an Asian toilet:

This one, in a public restroom with a full-time attendant, was spotless. You'll notice, however, the absence of toilet paper. Either you supply your own, or there is one dispenser at the entrance to the restroom, so you'd best plan ahead.

Here's a sign for a handicapped-accessible restroom:

Seriously, the sign-maker needs a new translator.

Usually, you'd find one or two stalls with Western-style fixtures.

But most of them were Asian-style:

I didn't have a post like this in mind when I took these pictures. I took them because of the "Watch your step" warning, which is one of three things our guide always said. The other two were "Road Scholar! Road Scholar!" and "Take all of your belongings!"

Then I noticed the diagram on the Asian stall that showed which direction to point your feet.

"But it's wrong!!!" yelled our guide. "That's not right!"

Hah! So where do the Chinese have their signs made if not in China?

Some restrooms were much more primitive--sorry for this one, but this is the reality of traveling in outback Tibet.

And, another view.

Or this one below. Women to the left, behind the wall but still in view of the main highway, and men to the right behind another wall. That's it--just behind the wall. No facilities. Nice dog, but no enclosure, no stalls, no Western or Eastern porcelain. That wasn't a problem for me, raised in rural Alaska where there are any number of girl bushes around. The rest of my group, I'm proud to say, took it all in stride--unlike some fancy-pants gals on a trip to Japan where I first encountered Asian toilets. I thought the in-floor fixtures made sense.

And while we're on the subject, here's part of the winter's fuel supply for one family.

Yak and cattle dung, dried in patties and artfully arranged. Some of the arrangements were quite elaborate. This was in the high plains (13,000 ft.) of Tibet. You'll notice there are no trees.

This is the sidewalk directly across the street from Tianamen Square in Beijing. These inserts in the sidewalk cover "toilets" used when large numbers of soldiers gathered here.

Now, Beijing has a number of public toilets located around town. They are in varying degrees of cleanliness, just like you'd find in the U.S.

And, of course, as you've been taught, you must always wash your hands after going to the restroom.

Did you catch the sign above the wash basin?

I gotta go. I mean, I have to go up on the roof and install that new rain cap on the chimney.

(Some day I might want to apologize for this post, but right now I have to go blow my nose.
What did you expect here? A travelogue?)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The China Journals, Ch. 3, First Impressions

You have one chance, the expression goes, to make a first impression.

That's not always correct, now that I consider how many times I've had to change my mind about people and places.

As for China, I'm not sure what I thought before I got there. Maybe pastoral scenes of slender, gowned women with dainty trees and small ponds painted on silk. Or, did I have that mixed up with Japan?

Okay, China. Women in black clothing and coolie hats, up to their knees in rice paddies, bent over at the waist, working away. (Is "coolie hats" politically incorrect these days. It's so hard to keep track of those things anymore.)

Anyway, when I got off the Boeing 747 after an eleven hour flight from San Francisco, this is what I saw:

Besides Starbucks....

...a shining, spotless, ultra-modern, soaring terminal, soon to be jammed with people disembarking three other flights, and all of us lining up at the few desks open for immigration and passport control. Lines and lines and lines of people.

And then part of the exterior as we exited the terminal by electric train that took us under active runways to a baggage area:

Soon we sheep were gathered by our tour guide, Hui. Her real given name is Xianghui, or Hui for short. Pronounced like "whey."

Once she'd rounded up her flock--there was a long wait for one passenger whose luggage hadn't arrived---we boarded a coach for a long trip into downtown Beijing. It was here that my ever-lasting impression of China took hold--endless traffic and smog-shrouded skies. Smog from coal-burning everything, smog so thick that sometimes visibility was a half-mile. Everywhere we went in China, the same thick smog.

Finally, in late afternoon, we arrived at the Qianmen Jianguo Hotel.

At first, I was impressed. It was a couple days later I found out EVERY floor had the same sign.

Look comfy? Nice room, very nice room. After all, this was a four star hotel. Unfortunately, the Chinese sleep on concrete slabs and use rocks for pillows. You don't know what a "firm" mattress is until you've been to China. And those pillows? Each one was filled with buckwheat hulls and weighed fifty lbs.

Ah, the flock brand. Made it easier for the shepherd to find us.

Just for the heck of it, I photo'ed the room service menu. The exchange rate was 16 yuan for a dollar. I rounded it off at fifteen, which made it a lot easier to figure. So, a hundred yuan was worth $15.

I noticed something on the drive from the airport in Beijing, and was thinking about it when a fellow on the bus said, "I feel like I'm in Moscow." We were passing a bunch of Krushchev apartments at the time.

These buildings could have been anywhere in Russia. Simple, utilitarian apartment buildings with open or glass-in balconies. These buildings looked pretty uniform, but in Russia it seemed every apartment owner did something different with their balconies, and that made the exteriors look shabby.

This was cool. I loved walking down this narrow lane, dodging motor bikes and regular bikes. They don't honk until they're right behind you.

This is where the lane ended. Again, the smog. This is right-out-of-the-camera, with no touch-ups to fix the photo and reduce the smog.

Alongside the lake, I saw this marble bench.

Then I found out what it was for. The owner stood nearby as his pups cooled off on the cool marble.

A rickshaw man waited for a fare.

And lovers embraced.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Going Home: The View from Seat 22A

Leaving San Francisco, 1 p.m.

Descending into the clouds over Turnagain Arm, Alaska, 6:25 p.m.

The second layer of clouds.

Cook Inlet, 6:30 p.m.

Mt. Susitna below the clouds, 6:32 p.m.

Arriving at Anchorage, 6:35 p.m.