Monthly Archives: June 2013

Travel tales


Taipei welcomes me with an ice pick in the eye. It’s not a real ice pick, which is worse since I can’t pull it out. I sit patiently and hope it will vanish as quickly as it appeared. I am in a transit area, waiting for the final leg of my flight to Shanghai. I have just got off an all-night flight from San Francisco.  I hold my head down and bury my face in my hands. I hope this helps. It doesn’t. Time ticks away slowly. It’s cloudy and rainy outside. But it’s also sticky, sickly warm.

The airport has that sweet yet repulsive odor of mold. Above me, a vent spews chilled air in the airport’s ongoing battle against Taiwan’s warm, moist summer. The bare, florescent lighting doesn’t help my condition, either. Flight announcements repeat endlessly in Chinese. They sound like recordings of a three-legged cat sauntering across a pipe organ that’s seen better days. My fatigue-addled brain feverishly searches for meaning, translating the Chinese sounds in one announcements as “Special K.” I know that “Special K” is never really mentioned, but my brain tells me it’s there each time the recording plays, which is over and over and over and over. I then hear the same announcement in Japanese, and then in English. But only the Chinese one announces “Special K.” The ice pick digs deeper into my grey matter. I go Zen and try to think of nothing, that fails. I try to think of the sound of a softly flowing stream. It doesn’t help. I curl up, as best I can, in the oddly fashionable, oddly uncomfortable waiting-room seat.

I hope for relief. But there is none. The customer-service agents announce that we will soon be boarding. First on, people in need of special assistance and those with small children. The first- and business-class passengers —  the airline aristocracy — are visibly irked, but they discover the last drags of sympathy in their carbon-black hearts and acquiesce. For their generosity, they are boarded next. I’m surprised airlines personnel don’t carry them on board. Finally, the rest of us are boarded like cheap cattle.

My seat is far in the back. I sit down and remember reading that slave ships provided more space for their human cargo then airlines do theirs. The thought sends the ice pick spinning.
Maybe I’m dehydrated, I think. I flail my arms until I get the attention of the busy flight attendant. I ask for some water. A few moments later I receive a swallow of tepid water in what looks like a little white paper hat for a Barbie doll. It doesn’t help.

My arms are jammed to my side in an invisible straight jacket of courtesy. If I relax my left arm, it rubs against a stone-faced Asian man. If I relax my right arm, it is battered by the bony flight attendant as she passes by. The pain in my eye and head increases, and I begin to sweat until I’m drenched.

I know that we will have to be at 10,000 feet before I can get up and over to the toilet without a beat down by the attendants. As a precaution I check the seat pocket and find the barf bag. It’s waxy, non-descript and the only paper product without ads printed on it.

I’ve never thrown up in-flight before. If it happens, I wonder if there’ll be a chain reaction. Will I detonate a massive puke chain reaction? I imagine a sour fountain of half-digested breakfasts from around the world overwhelming the barf bags and spilling over like polychromatic lava, warm not hot. I feel my body begin its pre-purge autonomic preparations.

Finally, the captain announces that we have reached 10,000 feet. I stand up and move to the back where the bathrooms are. They are both occupied. Have people been in there all this time? Are they selling those as seats? Is there a bathroom class? The thoughts swirl around in my head and nausea blossoms within me like a dark, foreboding storm. The flight attendant sees that even for a white guy, I’m really white, and She quickly points me to the front where there are four more bathrooms. As the aircraft is still climbing, I begin my own ascent, fighting the g-forces and inadvertently striking passengers as I hastily make my way towards the front. They say nothing, but I sense their eyes drilling me from behind. This is no time for apologies. Would they prefer an acidic shampoo?

I reach the toilet and open the door to a beautiful sight of stainless steel. I close the door, lift the lid and release my payload. As I un-swallow, I experience the sour shadow of my consumption for the last 24 hours. The ghost of orange juice past is particularly nasty.

Still cold from sweat, I’m relieved and happy. I straighten my shirt and rinse out my mouth. I wipe the perspiration from my face. The ice pick is gone. I walk back to my seat, managing to strike a few passengers as I make my way down the narrow aisle. The remainder of the flight is smooth and happy. I am full of sparkling anticipation for my final stop: Shanghai.


Do dinosaurs taste like chicken — A trip to the dentist

Is it safe?

Is it safe?

“You have a lot of saliva,” she says. I look into the small, intense headlight the hygienist is wearing on her forehead. She’s a dental spelunker exploring a new cave. I’m surprised she’s not wearing a helmet. “What happens is this,” she continues, her unseen lips moving from behind a thin paper surgical mask, “the plaque builds up on your teeth and then the saliva hardens it into tarter.” As she speaks, she probes and scrapes my teeth with a pencil-thin metal instrument. Its sharp hook at the end dances just above my gum line. ” Since you have a lot of saliva, you’re more at risk.” She has my full attention. My jaw muscles strain to keep my mouth open as wide as possible.

She finishes up and puts the hook down on a little stainless steel table. She pulls out a long measure of dental floss, and then doubles up the already thick, white cord. I fear she’s about to get “Medieval on my ass.” I open quickly, and she deftly lassos my right lower canine.

Industrial-strength flossing begins, and soon my flabby, weak  gums have given way. I taste my own blood, tinny and salty, as it flows in thin vertical rivulets. Remembering an article about how iron originally came from a far-off galaxy, I wonder if I’m tasting a distant star. I look up at the light and squint. She tells me she’s almost done as the string bites into my flesh again. It sends my brain a flash bang of pain. As a defense mechanism, my consciousness recalls that scientists are attempting to turn chickens back into dinosaurs through gene therapy. I wonder who  funds these things. “Mr. Davis,” the hygienist’s voice shocks me back into the dentist’s chair. “Why don’t you go ahead and rinse now?.” It’s not really a question. I lean over a porcelain spittoon and,  like a trained circus animal, catch some of the water that streams from the faucet. I swirl and spit, sending a bloody discharge spiraling down the drain. With a strange sense of accomplishment, I readjust myself in the chair and resign myself to more bloodletting.

She continues the flossing. With time, her movements fall into an easy, natural rhythm. Together, we enter dental-floss nirvana. A few more teeth and she’s done. She steps back and throws the string away. “Floss regularly and come back in three weeks. If there’s no improvement, we’ll need to do a deep cleaning.” She doesn’t comment on our moment of galactic synchronization. Our perfect lock step with the universe.

I pay my bill, walk out of the building and get into my car. Like a dog let out into a new yard, my tongue explores its new surroundings in a frenzy. My post-tarter teeth feel smooth and healthy. I am happy.

Let’s get Shanghaied!


Shanghai is a beautiful, exciting place to visit. Here are a few tips to help make your trip there more enjoyable.

The first experience of many who visit Shanghai is the colorful discourse of the Chinese taxi drivers picking them up at the airport. First-time visitors listening to the driver banter with his dispatcher in Chinese might think he is a bit angry. But more experienced visitors will tell you he is in a blind rage. After all, he must take a passenger who can’t speak his language to a place he’s probably never heard of.  Welcome to Shanghai where the people have two emotions: none and anger.  The only person in Shanghai I’ve seen laugh was an old woman. And that was after she hit me with her little scooter.

Getting around

Hoofing it

The best way to learn about a city is by walking around it. Remember: You can cross the street and be safe, but not at the same time. You must make a choice: cross the street or be safe. Pedestrians are the lowest rung on the Shanghai transportation ladder. Just like in California, drivers can turn right on red lights. But unlike California, they don’t have to stop. In fact, taxis and very large tour buses are apt to speed up. Those wishing to completely cross the street tend to wait until a large group forms. At some point, critical mass is achieved and they all walk across the street together. Apparently a large number of people is a deterrent. It would do more damage to the vehicle than just one or two people. But don’t feel too safe on the sidewalks either. I’ve seen large, black sedans jump onto sidewalks and cut across the corners, sending pedestrians fleeing like penguins from a killer whale that has shot onto the shore for a quick meal.

Taking the subway

The subway is your safest bet. Visit the customer service booth and act out where you want to go. They will circle something on a map that’s all in Chinese, and then hand it to you. Hopefully, they correctly guessed what your performance was about. Count the stations on the map to the circled one. That will save you the hassle of learning Chinese. Also, when the train arrives, be sure to rush the door with the others and participate in a kind of subway football scrimmage against those trying to get off. You’ll know you’ve won when you find yourself on board.


Shanghai has excellent food. Many of the bigger restaurants will have photos, which makes ordering easier. If they don’t, just think of yourself as being in a greasy actors’ studio. Before your trip, you might want to practice your chicken, beef and vegetable impersonations. Also, if the restaurant has snake or frog on the menu, don’t order it. It tastes like snake and frog.

Things to see in Shanghai

  • Oriental Pearl Tower
  • Skyscrapers from the planet Zartron
  • Small shops selling used, rusty gears and other machine parts next to mom-and-pop restaurants (my favorite was called “Let’s Eat Tar”)
  • Women spitting
  • Pet store/food market
  • Food market/ pet store