Polite (2023 October 15th)

December 28, 2023

[This is a story that’s been four years in the making. I no longer remember all the details exactly, so I’ve taken some poetic license here and there. Just so you know that this isn’t up to my usual standards..]


So, picture this. It’s Dublin and I’m in 2019, at Worldcon, which in this city doesn’t have a clever name, just "Dublin 2019: An Irish Worldcon". Although I had intended to go with my parents, my father had an unfortunately-timed accident that fractured his clavicle, meaning my parents were staying home, and with my relationship with RL being on its last legs, I come by myself, although Todd and Tracy are there with some of their family. The Airbnb that I had booked got cancelled, and I had scrambled to find another one, which I did in a mediocre studio that was clearly designed for this kind of short-term rental. It is a lonely time.

The convention has its charms, some of which I don’t expect — Jeanette Ng’s [ed: confirm name/spelling] speech at the Hugos is a highlight, as is an incredible panel about African SF, which starts with a gentleman delivering a magnificent rant about how one of the panelists couldn’t attend, because the Irish government wouldn’t give them a visa, and how the visa for Ireland is in some way controlled by the British government, and how this is just one more demonstration of the presence of colonialism in today’s world, before the panelists deliver recommendation after recommendation of work that I’ve never even heard of. After a few minutes I realize there will be more than I can fit in my head and I spend the remainder of the hour scribbling frantically into my phone.

The exhibition hall is another highlight. Not only is there a DeLorean parked in the middle of it — a piece of Irish science fiction right there! — but there are tables from many different places. I pick up a book of some kind of Scandinavian micro-stories in translation, and a book containing academic analysis of African science fiction. There are also tables for the upcoming bids — we are voting for 2021, with DC running [ed: who else?], but Nice is bidding for 2023, and so is some city in China. They are generous with the swag; I get a pin which reads "Chengdu: More Than Panda".

It feels very much like a "World" con, which makes an interesting change of pace from the feel of most conventions, which are increasingly attended by the old white fogeys that my parents’ generation of fans have become. At a bid party for CoNZealand (who have already won 2020), I meet a gentleman from Norway. This is the first convention I’ve been to where there is a bar. (I spend a pleasant time watching the Gaelic football game on a projector with a bunch of fans who understand how the game works better than I do.

Still, I’m somehow disaffected. I spend a certain amount of time riding the escalator from level to level, not sure what to do, not knowing anyone and not totally convinced it’s worth the effort to try. At some point, I have an epiphany, that while this convention satisfies an important part of me — the part who is a science fiction fan, who attends conventions recreationally, who cares about what it means to be a nerd — it hasn’t been as nourishing for the other parts, such as the New Yorker, the chiptune partisan, the one who served in Peace Corps, the one who thinks in software architecture. I become aware that I am at the junction of several different facets, and become aware how rare it is to connect, to be embraced on more than one of them. (Sometimes even one is hard.)

Skip ahead a couple years. Of course I don’t attend CoNZealand, even remotely. DisCon is relocated to the end of 2021, and I attend with my family since it’s reachable by car. It’s a quiet convention, more typically American in flavor. The "World" part of "Worldcon" is absent; it’s more like the "World Series". By this point, Nice has dropped out of bidding for 2023; the last bids remaining are Chengdu and (of all places) Winnipeg. The rumor mill is full of intrigue about the Chinese bid. Jeddah’s bid [ed: when did this happen?] was soundly rebuffed, and there’s some concern that traveling to China means supporting an Evil Empire full of human rights violations. Not only that, something seems to be up with the voting; mailed-in ballots are arriving that are incompletely filled out, often without the mailing address filled in. There’s speculation that the Chinese government is funding the bid, perhaps only to demonstrate some soft power, but perhaps to do something nefarious like taking over our good, red-blooded Worldcon. After all, the cost of a few thousand Worldcon voting memberships is nothing to the government of a billion people. The other perspective, that Chengdu is home to its own science fiction community including the most popular science fiction magazine in the world, doesn’t get as much discussion. Neither does the idea that if I were a citizen of another country and could have Worldcon at my doorstep simply by voting for it, I would do so in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t say that everyone is suspicious of the Chinese, but there’s a xenophobic undercurrent to the discussion which is surprising in a community which prides itself on being open-minded and welcoming.

The Chinese fans, for their part, don’t seem prepared to address the concerns of the Americans. There’s a Q&A panel, where the dueling bids are asked questions by an audience. One question goes something like "Since free expression is such an important part of science fiction, how will the Chengdu bid provide an environment where one can speak without worrying about offending the Chinese government? For example, how can something like Jeanette Ng’s Hugo speech happen in an environment of censorship and repression?" The answer, once translated from Chinese, is something along the lines of, of course there is censorship in China and the bid cannot contravene government policy, but that they expect people to be able to have the discussions they want. On the other side, the Winnipeg bid has its own issue: they have an uphill battle trying to convince me that a plains town in the middle of Canada would be worth visiting.

I don’t even remember who I vote for (maybe a write-in protest vote?), but Chengdu wins by a large margin. The on-site attendees mostly break for Winnipeg, but the mail-in votes are largely for Chengdu and they outnumber the on-site ones handily.

I’ve never been to China — I had planned an ill-fated trip for early 2020 with some friends. What even would a Chinese Worldcon be like? It could be much the same, with the same graybeards attending, an insular event for tourists at a fancy location. But there’s a chance it would at least be different, a chance for it to be more like the Dublin Worldcon, a chance for the "World" in the name to mean something. This would be the first time China hosts, and only the third time Worldcon takes place in a non-English-speaking country (the other two were The Hague and Tokyo). It could be that a Chinese Worldcon would be something dramatically different, that the Chinese approach to the event would be foreign in some compelling way. I attend a bid party to try to check it out. To my disappointment, it’s largely the same as every other bid party I’ve ever been to, with veggie trays from a local supermarket. I’m convinced that the greybeards don’t have to worry — if the party is any indication, the Chengdu Worldcon will be a very familiar experience indeed.


Almost immediately I’m "interested" in going, but I’m on the fence about attending for a very long time. At first the question is philosophical. Would attending the convention count as supporting the Chinese government? At some point, Peter mentions that he doesn’t think it does, and knowing that he has probably thought about it more than I have, I accept that answer. On the other hand, do I have a responsibility to go — to build connections with Chinese fandom, to counter the xenophobia I heard in the hallway conversations in DC?

Over time, the concern largely becomes practical. Would I be able to get a visa? I remembered having to apply for a visa in 2019 for the ill-fated 2020 trip, and needing an invitation from a resident in order to get one. How about lodgings? Looking briefly at Wikivoyage, it seems like there are regulations restricting the kinds of hotels a foreign tourist can stay in. Would it be safe? There’s stories from time to time in the news about the Chinese government not letting foreign tourists leave. Both the Chinese and the American governments engage in saber-rattling in the media from time to time; what would happen if open hostilities break out? (This risk becomes more acute after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.)

Then there are more everyday concerns: what about food safety? Would I be at risk of a mugging? Might I get stopped by police at a checkpoint somewhere? (I honestly have no idea what to expect — on some level I’m mentally assuming an environment much like Cameroon.) Would I be able to get around? I took three semesters of Chinese in college, but I’m very rusty and I never would have considered myself conversational. I’m intimidated by the idea of traveling by myself someplace where I don’t know the language at all.

But the most important question is, would it be fun? I cast about from time to time to see if I can talk any of my friends into going. Ashley makes it clear right away that she is not going — "If you get into trouble," she tells me, "They’ll send the Marines. For me, they won’t send anyone." None of my other friends are interested either, but for varying reasons — one is expecting a child; one doesn’t want to go without his wife; some simply need more lead time than I give them. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I were, say, five to ten years younger, and possibly single, traveling to China would be a great experience, one that could completely change the trajectory of my life — but I already have a life trajectory by now, with a career and a committed relationship, and it feels irresponsibly risky to go. Not to mention that 2023 is already a busy year for travel for me, with trips to Cameroon and the Netherlands already on the docket.

For a while I am waiting for the Chengdu convention committee to publish visa information, figuring that until they do the decision is out of my hands. By the time they do, I no longer have time to get comfortable with the idea of going. I discuss it at length with many friends, but eventually I resign myself to the FOMO of staying home.

Then one day in August, I’m on a trip to San Diego for work. Some co-workers and I go to a magic-themed bar, and in the front of the bar is a machine entitled Zoltar. It’s an animatronic fortune-teller with a vaguely Near East theme. We all get fortunes drawn — for $1, the machine tosses off a humorous one-liner and prints out a slip of paper with a fortune on it. By now you probably know how much trust I put into randomness and fortunes…


… so when I read this, I knew immediately that I had to go to Chengdu.


By the time I finally start planning my trip, it’s quite late in the game. One lucky break is that I realize that after that 2020 trip got cancelled, I never ended up using the visa I got in 2019. When I check my passport, I see that it’s valid for 10 years. Really? So the visa is taken care of.

Flights are expensive, and I spend a long time trying to figure out my itinerary. I’m looking at 20-22 hours each way, and it doesn’t seem practical to just go for a weekend. At the same time, I want to attend the whole convention, which is five days, so I don’t really have a lot of time to see other places. China is a big place, and going to other cities you might have heard of — Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen — is not realistic, since they are all on the coast and Chengdu is on the western side of the country. Even so, there’s a lot to see. Even just Chengdu itself is huge — as many people as in the greater New York City metro area — and there are museums and old towns and historical sites. One surprising discovery is that when Peace Corps still existed in China, they had offices in Chengdu, at Sichuan University, and I wonder if there is still anything left, some plaque or monument worth visiting there. There’s even more stuff nearby. Lots of travel advice online encourages visiting places like Jiuzhaiguo and there are beautiful photos of places like Huanglong. But I know my taste tends away from nature and more towards cities, so between the airline schedules and the attractions I decide to fly into Chengdu, attend the convention, spend a couple days seeing the sights, and then spend a couple days in a nearby city called Chongqing before flying home.

Finding a hotel gives me the first taste of traveling in China. The convention committee has put out a list of hotels they’ve made arrangements with, but many of them don’t show up on Google Maps, and the venue isn’t there either. Of course Google products are not as well-developed in China because of the Great Firewall. For maps, the situation is even more exciting because of Mars coordinates [ed: link]. OpenStreetMap exists at about the same level of completeness as usual. Baidu Maps are probably the gold standard, but there’s no English support, and I don’t even try to manage it in Chinese. Even once I figure out which hotels might be convenient, the booking pages are all on a website called Ctrip, which doesn’t have any English either. The materials published by the convention include an email address to write to, to request help booking a hotel, and in desperation, I do.

Around this time, I stumble across the three "promotion plans" that the convention has published — "The Stars and the Sea" Co-Creation Proposal, "Galaxy Echoes", and, most interesting to me, the "One-Hundrdedth Light-Second" plan.


It reads:

One light-second is close to 300,000 kilometers
One-hundredth of a light-second is equal to about 3,000 kilometers
Dear members, from your hometowns one-hundredth of a light-second away
We’ve prepared the following benefits for you to enjoy:
1. Walk-in reservation channel for the Worldcon opening ceremony and the Hugo Awards ceremony
2. Free pickup service from airports to the venue (This policy applies to both the Chengdu Tianfu International Airport and the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport)
3. Assistance on hotel reservations
4. Free shuttle bus service between Fandom Warm-hearted hotels and the venue, translation and international payment services along with the welcoming souvenir for the guest room
5. Special Star Cloud gift
6. Free city tour in Pidu District
7. Online assistance for you to enjoy a more convenient and comfortable service in visa, translation, local travel, etc.
8. 2023 Chengdu Worldcon mascot doll and commemorative badge
9. Three online tickets for your friends and families
10. Limited edition digital figure of the Worldcon
Please send information of your ticket to onehundredplan@chengduworldcon.com, and we will contact you ASAP
Welcome to Worldcon, a gulf for all the fandoms, a home away from home

I pull up some city distances online. Three thousand kilometers essentially covers China, but pretty much anyone coming from a foreign country is going to qualify. And check out these words! "A gulf for all the fandoms, a home away from home". This feels very welcoming and sweet.

Another pleasant surprise comes up when I try to register for the convention. Apparently because I voted in 2021, I automatically have a free attending membership! I don’t know if this is because of the differences in currency value, or a campaign promise, or just another nice gesture to the community of international fandom, but I like it a lot.

I have some challenging exchanges over email with the convention staff (or are they volunteers? committee members?) to try to find a hotel. The closest hotel has already long since filled up, and so have several others, and it doesn’t really seem like I have a lot of choice, although it may also be that the convention has designated a hotel where they will have translators and that’s where they put me. I am torn between a desire to have an "authentic" Chinese travel experience and a desire to take advantage of the comforts that are being offered to me. In the end, I choose comfort and convenience and get a reservation at the Holiday Inn Express near-ish to the venue.

In terms of safety, it isn’t really clear how to best manage that. While I originally intended to plan everything in pencil — get refundable flights and cancellable everything just in case something should happen — I am too busy to actually buy travel insurance and in the end nothing is really refundable. The US Department of State has a travel advisory out about China, warning that the government "arbitrarily enforces local laws, including issuing exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries, without fair and transparent process under the law". It’s hard to know how seriously to take this, since the warnings are even more dire than those for Cameroon (to which I traveled earlier this year). My friends who have been to China mostly advise me that I’m unlikely to be important enough for the Chinese government to care about, and so for that reason I should be fine. I read that the Chinese government takes drug use very seriously and even occasionally tests the hair of people for cannibis products. (I’m hopeful that if I don’t indulge for 60 days or so before going, that I won’t test positive.) While the guidance online is soaked in anxiety, it feels like if I keep my head down and don’t go looking for trouble, I should be fine. All the same, I find the STEP program and register there.

There’s one last concern, which is communication. There’s some discussion online, hard to know how seriously to take it, about Chinese border control officials asking to see your phone, perhaps to look for connections to politically sensitive organizations, and as a computer person, it feels like once a device leaves your sight, you can never really trust it again. So I order a "burner phone", a used Google Pixel, to bring with me, so as to not compromise the rest of my digital life. WhatsApp has a feature where you can "share" an account across multiple devices, so I can use WhatsApp on my temporary phone without removing it from my main one (at least, for up to two weeks). Of course, the Internet is censored in China, so I need to have a plan for how to access it, or at least enough of it to keep in touch with my family. There are lots of recommendations (including affiliate marketing) for different VPNs, but there’s a game of whack-a-mole between the authorities and the VPN providers and it’s hard to know which ones will work in China ahead of time, and of course you can’t download VPN software from within China. I get a one-month subscription to Mullvad for 5 EUR, download a few different apps "just in case". My backup plan is to get an eSIM with a provider like Holafly, which I think I will be able to load instantaneously if needed, and which will give me roaming data access, which is not censored. Finally, I create an email account with Hotmail, which is not censored in China the way Google products are.


By the time October rolls around I am thoroughly exhausted. My friend Boris visited from Cameroon in September, and although that trip went relatively smoothly, it’s always a handful. Then a couple days later I go to Portland for a work trip, and after I get back I only have one week before my flight. I’m scheduled to catch a late flight to Hong Kong and then a short hop to Chengdu. Departure is at 2 AM, and I find myself on the subway platform late on a Sunday looking down the barrel of 22 hours of travel time, with a visa I’m unsure of, to spend almost two weeks away from everyone and everything I hold dear. Why am I doing this again? I am so tired. I tell myself that if I have literally any problem at the airport at all, I will turn right around and go home. I will eat the loss but I will spend the time at home and I will get some rest and I will not complain. This soothes me enough to get to the airport. I have "Three Body Problem" by Liu Cixin on my iPad, which I start reading because I am confident people will be discussing it at the convention. It is a grim story but for where I am, alone on a train late at night, it is perfect.

The airport is remarkably smooth. I am early for my flight, which means I have enough time to brush my teeth while I wait. Eventually we all file into the plane. It’s Cathay Pacific, with a layover in Hong Kong. I find the HK fusion of British and Chinese fascinating, and I start to feel better almost as soon as I hear the accents on the public address announcements. This is going to be OK. We are going to have a fun trip.

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They feed us dinner and breakfast. In between that and sleeping, I watch "From Beijing With Love" and "Weird: the Al Yankovic Story", as well as continue reading Three-Body Problem and start on "Infomocracy", by Malka Older. The flight is 16 hours, but the time zone difference is 12 hours, so although for me it is Monday evening, the clocks all say Tuesday morning.


We arrive at Hong Kong Airport quite early. It’s surrounded by hills reminiscent of the "gumdrop mountains" tourists to China are advised to see, and again I feel at ease, looking forward to the joy of exploring another country. Many of the concessions, especially the ones that serve alcohol, won’t even be open until my flight to Chengdu has already left. I wander aimlessly. The free airport wifi is the last Internet I will be on that isn’t censored, that I can still use WhatsApp and Google on. (An alternative plan might have been to buy a roaming SIM card in Hong Kong.) I walk essentially the entire length of the terminal.


Hong Kong Airport has a satellite terminal across an apron, which is accessible through this kind of airport overpass bridge thing. In the end I think my best chances for getting a drink (which I deserve! I’m on vacation!) is in a bar in that structure. It isn’t open when I pass the first time, but eventually I make it inside.

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I have an Old Masters beer and a cocktail made with baijiu. The cocktail is interesting but the earthy flavors of baijiu are hard to work into a cocktail, and the fruitiness doesn’t quite work for me. Thus fortified, I head to my plane to Chengdu.


Cathay Pacific feeds us again.


We get off the plane in Chengdu Tianfu International Airport. There appears to be some kind of tour group disembarking in front of me who are raucously conversing with one another. They are dressed like middle-aged men. In my sleep-deprived state, I wonder to myself if everyone in this country is a FOB. I go to the bathroom, but at the sink the bottle of soap turns out to be hand sanitizer. There are some attestations, which you can do online, except I can’t get on the wifi because it wants a phone number and my burner phone doesn’t have a SIM card. Instead I use a kiosk. I manage to fill out the arrival card and wait in line for passport control. I am on my best behavior. Then, another tour group wanders chaotically in. Their behavior is different. They are loud — they sound like they are yelling — and I don’t know what they are saying but they almost sound like they are arguing with the border control staff. Border control is not the place I would be doing that! They get on the foreigner line too, so I have no idea where they are from.

Border control takes what feels like forever. I’m watching the people in front of me struggle to do what seems like basic traveler stuff like getting their hotel information out. Eventually I get to the front of the line. The border control officer does not speak much English, and I don’t speak much Chinese, but they have a translator built into the desk, and this isn’t my first rodeo so I kind of know what kinds of questions I will be asked. In addition to the phrasebook and travel advice I have saved on my iPad, I also have a progress report from the convention, which has the Chinese name, so I show him that and he dutifully copies it down. They take my fingerprints. (For another American this may have felt totalitarian, but they did the same thing the last time I arrived in Cameroon.) Everything passes muster somehow and I’m through.

I think it’s a little old-fashioned to head out of the airport and have someone waiting for you with a sign, but sure enough, once I exit security with my suitcase, there is a young lady holding a sign for the Worldcon. This is one of the convention’s volunteers. I don’t know the exact arrangement but there are many of them and they are largely college-aged, friendly and helpful. She passes me to another volunteer, who takes me to where the shuttle will depart, offering to carry my suitcase (which I decline). There is some confusion once I get there because the hotel I will be going to is not one of the ones that the shuttle will go to. I will need to take a taxi from one of the hotels the shuttle does go to.

One logistical concern I have when I arrive in a foreign country is to get the local currency. A lot of people online say that China is a "cashless" society, and there is some of that — credit cards aren’t used much; instead lots of payments happen through mobile phone applications such as Alipay or Wechat — but of course I can’t use those because I don’t have cellular service yet. If I will be taking a taxi, I will need cash. I ask the volunteers if there is an ATM nearby. Two of them accompany me on a tour through the airport. The young woman speaks English quite well; the young man not so much, but he seems more confident about where we are going. The signs for the international terminal read "Int’l / HK, Macau, Taiwan Departures", which I find amusing. (Because of course HK, Macau, and Taiwan aren’t "actually" international from the perspective of the PRC.)

We take a shuttle train to another terminal, or perhaps it’s another part of the same terminal (we don’t take the shuttle train back). There are two cars in the train, and they open from opposite sides, perhaps to maintain a "before security"/"after security" division. There is no ATM at the other terminal either but we see a giant display advertising the convention. The convention’s marketing is very pervasive! Eventually we find a branch of ICBC or something and I manage to withdraw 2000 yuan (about $280). By the time we get back to the desk, the bus to the hotels has arrived. It is also heavily branded, as are four or five other buses we see in the parking lot. We load up; there are few enough people that nobody has to sit next to anyone if they don’t want to. I think I am the only person on the bus who is not fluent in Chinese.


We see more marketing materials almost immediately. Some include the "slogan" of the convention, "Meet the Future", which I like.

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I tried to take pictures of the surroundings but it’s not easy from the bus. More dramatic hills, although most of Chengdu is relatively flat. Clearly development is happening everywhere. I’m starting to realize that on some level, I expected Cameroon, and this is a very different animal than Cameroon.

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The bus ride takes a surprisingly long time — an hour and a half. The airport, I will later learn, is 75 kilometers from where we are staying — we circumnavigate Chengdu to get there. We are staying in Pidu district, to the northwest, near the end of the 6 line on the metro. The volunteers on the bus make announcements in Chinese and read their prepared equivalents in English. (They do a good job.) I get out at one of the hotels and look confused for a little while until someone comes up to me and asks in English if I need help. I tell her where I am going, and after a hurried conversation between her, the volunteers, and other hotel staff, she tells me that the best thing to do is to take a taxi to my hotel, and would I like her to flag me down one, which I absolutely would. How much will it cost? Probably around 10 yuan. I can only pay cash, and I only have 100-yuan bills, but she assures me that won’t be a problem. (This isn’t Cameroon.) She calls over a taxi and explains the situation in Chinese to him, explains to me in English that she has explained the situation in Chinese, and off we go. It’s only a few minutes, and sure enough, he makes change for me — he has to fish around under his chair for a Ziplock bag of cash, but he has change. I give him two yuan as a tip.

At the hotel, there are more volunteers waiting and able to help in case there are challenges with the hotel, but registration is smooth. I can pay with a credit card. I’m way too late to attend the "city tour" in the promotion, but the volunteers wish to give me a free gift, which I sign for. There is also a young woman in the lobby selling souvenirs. She is able to communicate in English to some extent, plus she is able to use her phone to access some kind of translation application when necessary.


Prices are posted, which is very reassuring. This type of cup with a lid is apparently typical of the region.

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Different kinds of tea.


I think these are different kinds of spices for Sichuanese cooking.

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This is later in the trip but gives you a sense of it.

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When I get to the room, I discover more free gifts.

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Here’s the free gift they gave me in the lobby. Inside are postcards, a model of the panda mascot (who I later learn is named Kormo), and a pin. Listen, Chinese Worldcon Bid, if you think you can purchase my affection with cheap trinkets, well, it’s absolutely working.

I try to settle in a little bit after a full day on the road. I’m able to verify that the VPN works fine. Although the sun hasn’t set, I’m still in the wrong timezone. I decide I need something light for dinner, and although the hotel restaurant seems convenient, it seems more interesting to explore the area. There is a haze in the air that is not fog but something more like smoke.

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This cost me 16 yuan.


This is the Pidu Library, kitty-corner from the hotel. Of course there is another display here.

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I stop at a couple supermarkets for dessert. The chew candies were like 1 yuan. The Oatly ice cream was like 13 yuan. To quote Wikivoyage, in China "basic items are relatively cheap, but the prices of luxury items are exorbitant". The shopkeeper also used his phone to help translate and I was able to ask what baijiu he recommended. (It was much like other baijiu I’ve had.)


This is the library from my room.


This is the view from my window. To the left is I think some kind of park.


The next morning I wake up before sunrise. I am able to finish my morning routine and go to the hotel restaurant for the breakfast buffet. I end up eating at the breakfast buffet every day that I stay there, and it’s actually pretty good. Among other things, they had great fruit juice, typically apple but on one day they had a kiwi juice which was great too. I’ll spare you most of the pictures but here’s a few from throughout the trip to give context.


In the background are Leadie and Sean, although I haven’t met them. This is the first day, and I eat by myself, but subsequent days I will mostly have breakfast with other convention attendees staying at the hotel.


This is the other side of the long table in the previous photo. Even further is a window where you can order certain foods — I ordered a dumpling soup and he pulled the dumplings out of a package in the freezer, which made me a little less enthusiastic about it. Even so, you can garnish with these. There are also some fried things in the bottom left of frame — these are quite sweet, I think the long ones were some kind of fried banana thing, and they were delicious.


Some steamed things available for consumption including potatoes and peanuts. The buns in the middle of the back row had some kind of vivid purple color that made me think they were not your standard red bean paste. I asked one hostess about it once and she gave me some name in Chinese but I couldn’t figure it out.


Some kind of small fruit.

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At one point the hostess brings her phone over to translate for me that this dish is especially local, being from Pidu specifically. It’s a kind of radish dish. It’s pretty good!

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I thought it was funny that Yi-Sheng was trying to take beautiful pictures of his food for Instagram, but then again, I guess I did the same sort of thing.


This is the name of the restaurant. I wondered if January 6th had any kind of special meaning here that it didn’t have for me, but couldn’t figure it out. In the end I used Google Translate to ask the hostess and she explained that January 6th is the date they "took the land", which I understood to mean that the hotelier received title to the property that they built the hotel on.

The hotel doesn’t have a separate bar; the restaurant serves alcohol, although it is only open restaurant hours. I never end up taking advantage of this service, although James apparently asks for a local beer and is offered Heineken or Corona. If you want to learn about the local libations, you will have to look elsewhere.


Advice on having an orderly breakfast.


Overall the hotel is pretty nice. You can’t drink the tap water in China so housekeeping leaves you two bottles of water every day. One annoying thing about the room is that every time you come in the door, the TV comes on and shows you promotional videos and public service announcements. It’s not the end of the world but you can’t turn it off for like thirty seconds. As I’m brushing my teeth I see this spot out of the corner of my eye…

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What the hell?? Is this some kind of nerve gas prevention thing? Is it about the smog?

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Ohhh, no, it’s a fire safety thing. There’s masks in every room. Kind of a smart move actually!

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The hotel had this little robot running around. He would say "excuse me" in Chinese. I guess he is dispatched to the rooms to deliver things to guests.

There’s a shuttle from the hotel to the venue and back every day. I end up waiting longer than I expect for the elevator to come, and then I decide on to get off to look at the hotel "fitness center". I’m sure that there will be a couple minutes of leeway for the shuttle, right? The shuttle is at the curb when I get there but at exactly the departure time of 8:30 AM, the door is closed and I can’t figure out if I’m allowed to get on. For once, looking confused isn’t causing anyone to rush to my aid. The shuttle leaves without me.

The volunteers, when I get their attention back in the lobby, regret to inform me that the next shuttle isn’t for several hours. That’s fine, I say — there’s another piece of business I want to get taken care of, namely getting a SIM card. Is there a place I can do this? The advice on Wikivoyage is that most branches of the telecom companies are only able to register Chinese nationals — if you have a foreign passport, you might have to go to a central office downtown. The volunteers call around and find a nearby China Telecom branch which will be able to help me. "How much money do you think I will need?" I ask, since I have only taken several hundred yuan, preferring to leave the rest in my room in case I get mugged. "That should be plenty," they assure me. They offer to call me a cab, but when we get to the street, no cabs are forthcoming. How far away is it? Maybe a 20 minute walk, they guess. OK, in that case I’m happy to walk it. (They seem surprised at that, but I assure them that New Yorkers walk quite a lot.)

I set off — it’s further than I expect but walking is fine and I get to see a little bit of the area. As I cross the final street to get to the office, I notice what look like train rails in the street. It turns out there is a tram line! I am eager to ride it later but want to get the lay of the land a bit more first.

The staff at the store are solicitous — first I try to explain my situation in my halting Chinese to the front desk, and they give me a number like at the DMV. I am seated in front of another young lady, along with a young man who floats in and out of the conversation. They use their phones to translate and we are able to conduct business. They start by saying they will try their SIM card in my phone to see if it works. It doesn’t. The gentleman tells me through the translator app that it’s because of the frequency bands used in China — my phone doesn’t support them. (This doesn’t sound right to me because I had deliberately selected the Google Pixel based on the LTE bands it supports, which should include the ones used in China.) Still, I can buy a phone from them as well. They have a used phone they can sell me for 400 yuan, plus the SIM card with 200 yuan of credit. Unfortunately I can’t pay digitally. I tell them that I only have 500 yuan (a negotiating tactic I learned in Cameroon, which also happens to be true) and they agree to lower the price of the phone to 300 yuan. Once it’s all settled, we go through the processes of signing up for their network. This mostly involves me "signing" lots of agreements by writing my name in print exactly as it appears on my passport. They also get me on camera and have me recite some kind of vow in Chinese, which I have no idea what it was but I assume it’s something like "I understand that using this device to perform crimes is bad and I won’t do it".


They also make me stamp this document with my thumb. (They have a little packet of tissues to use to wipe your hand afterwards.)

They give me the phone with the SIM card inside. It seems to work fine, but it’s entirely in Chinese and none of my data or applications are on it. It’s not running Lineage but some kind of weird Android fork. I’m not excited about the situation but it’s still an improvement. Maybe I can use it as a hotspot and VPN in from my other phone or something, or maybe I can figure out what’s wrong with the phone or the SIM card later. Before I leave, I ask for one of the devices they use to press the release to get the SIM card out of the phone. The woman smiles and gives me two paperclips.

From here I walk to the convention — about which more later. However, I’m still dissatisfied about the phone situation. When I get back to the hotel that night, I try to figure out what happened and why my phone didn’t work with the China Telecom SIM. When I put it into my phone the settings just say "Out of service". Using the hotel wifi I search around a lot, trying to figure out what LTE frequencies it might be using and how to find the ones my phone uses, or why this specific error message. In the end I find this discussion on an Estonian Sony users forum which links to a site called FrequencyCheck which reports that "This carrier only accepts approved devices on its network." Son of a gun! So it wasn’t the frequencies! The next day I decide to find one of the other major mobile operators in China and see if it works any better. I try to find some on the map but in the end I happen to see a storefront for China Mobile on the way and stop in. I have a tab open with Google Translate and an explanation of my situation. The staff there are also helpful, and when they put the SIM card in to the phone it works right away. They seem confused about it, as though they were expecting to have to console me about the phone not working and have to be convinced that they don’t have to. Still and all, we conduct business again through the translation apps. The first woman I speak to seems somewhat befuddled, and the colleague that takes over for her speaks loudly and assertively. (Perhaps this is the origin of the reputation Sichuanese people have as fiery people.) The staff seem to want to sell me something involving a subscription plan, which makes no sense, and then we have a failure to communicate because I want to know whether I am required to come back to the store when I leave the country to cancel my subscription, and they are trying to tell me about a prepaid SIM where I will have to forego the balance on the SIM card if I don’t come back to the store to exchange it. In the end I am able to get the SIM card for quite a bit less, I think under 100 yuan but I don’t remember exactly. The business proceedings are much the same except instead of having to repeat a long Chinese sentence into a camera, I only have to listen to a computerized statement and then say "Tongyi" (meaning "agree") at the end.

I decide to take the used phone, which I no longer need, back to China Telecom. To their credit, they are happy to refund the phone and exchange the SIM card for the credit remaining (a little less than the 200 yuan I started with). I try to explain to the clerk (the same one as yesterday) that in the end the problem wasn’t the frequency, that China Telecom blocks devices, that I am able to use the phone correctly on the other company’s network. She doesn’t seem to understand but she proceeds with the transaction (with a little less ceremony than the day before). Later, she asks (perhaps as part of the close-account process) "Why did you decide to use China Mobile instead of China Telecom? Do you like them better?" I’m not sure how to get through to her but I translate back through the app that China Mobile worked for my phone and China Telecom didn’t. She smiles and writes back "It’s OK. Everyone can have a preference", perhaps assuming I feel shy or awkward instead of being frustrated about the inability to communicate. "Please tell your co-worker," I say again through her telephone. "It’s not the frequency." That’s the best I can do — except, perhaps, write about it in this blog.

Let’s skip back to leaving China Telecom the first time. I decide to walk to the venue rather than trying to go back to the hotel and getting more help from the volunteers. I’m pretty sure I know where I’m going based on the map and I want to see more of the city if I can. I stop on the way and successfully a plain steam bun in Chinese.


Some bike parking I pass on the way. Chengdu seems to have a lot of bike infrastructure, which doubles as moped and scooter infrastructure, and to be relatively flat. You definitely see bikes here and there, especially in the populated areas. There’s also a bike share program. The urban environment feels modern somehow, with the frontage of every street full of businesses and with huge residential towers often looming behind them, along with a certain amount of parkland and gardens to break things up.

I also ask a security officer about the tram, and although I don’t understand almost any of what he says, I do learn that you don’t buy tickets; if you can’t pay with your phone, you can pay when you board and it’s only 2 kuai to ride.

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On day 2, after I return the used phone, I definitely ride the tram.

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Oh lord, I’ve already been writing for almost 8000 words and I haven’t even gotten to the convention yet! Oof. Eventually I cross the road whose name is in the instructions about where to pick up my badge. They’ve blocked off several roads and I am able to follow signs. Once again, volunteers leap into action when they see me and helpfully guide me to the registration desk — past a maze of temporary crowd control fences, almost entirely empty, through a special channel for international visitors to a pair of dedicated desks manned by English-speaking volunteers. I give them my passport — the volunteers at the hotel insisted on informing me that I would need it, though of course I always carry it on my person when in another country — this might be a cultural thing; I think in China the passport is more like a birth certificate, a precious document that you would not normally walk around with. Before long I have my badge and I am directed to another desk to get another "free gift", which turns out to be a program book, which I don’t look at for the rest of the convention.

The entrance gate is still quite a ways from the venue, and once you get to the venue, there’s a security bag check. In my bag is the bottle of baijiu but nobody says anything about it. Instead they find my water bottle, which they ask me to drink from, to prove its safety.

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Apparently trees can have IVs too.


I spend a while just wandering around and seeing what the whole place is about. Wednesday, being the first day, is a little empty and a part of me wonders or worries whether the event had been overpromoted. Although the venue is described as a "Museum of Science Fiction", there isn’t really much in the way of what you might call "exhibits". It felt like construction had just barely managed to get the building done on time.

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I love the translation "Derivative Products Store". This appears to be some kind of official merchandise store, selling products related to many franchises. While I am here, more friendly volunteers come up to me and talk in English. Everyone seems very friendly!


One group has this big roll of paper which is open to anyone who wants to draw something. I draw the outline of New York State and write "Hello from New York".

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I think it’s the same group that has these cool light-up signs. They also give me a gift of postcards.


One of the vendors. Look for fellow travelers. This is in the vendor area. Seattle 2025 has a table there and I have a pleasant conversation with the gentleman on the other side of it. He is the first non-Chinese I have met so far today.

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At the entrance to the other hall, which I think they call an "Exhibition Hall", there is some history about Worldcon and about science fiction in China.

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One important problem is lunch. There is a small "food court" at the venue but it only offers a few Western fast food choices. I am not excited to have come all the way to China to eat American food but it doesn’t really seem like I had a choice — I don’t want to leave the venue and have to risk my baijiu a second time coming back through the security checkpoint.

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The food court has volunteers too. The volunteers listen to your order and then tell the restaurant workers what you wanted. This seems a little weird and subservient at first but I learn it’s because the restaurant workers largely don’t speak English.


I get the black pepper steak sandwich and the cookie because I wanted to maximize calories. It is fine.

The attendees are almost entirely Chinese. The average age is much younger than at an American convention. Everyone is friendly, particularly the volunteers, who will come up to you at the slightest provocation. I have met a lot of volunteers already and I am struggling to remember which ones are waving because they have already met me and which ones are just being friendly. In the exhibition hall, a gentleman strikes up a conversation with me — he’s Chinese originally but lives in California now, where he is a science fiction author. I hold his things while he tries on a costume — an astronaut outfit from one of the TV shows based on Liu Cixin’s work. Then a TV crew asks to interview me. They are from one of the Chinese networks and they ask a bunch of questions, including what my favorite science fiction is, why I came, and my history with science fiction fandom. I’m not prepared for the experience and later I think poorly of my answers. I wish I could run into them again and give better ones, but of course I never do. (I’ve had a lot of time to think about it since then. Indeed this blog post could be viewed as the "real" answer.)

While the convention is clearly pitched at a Chinese audience, there is a visible effort to welcome those few of us who came from abroad to see what "our" Worldcon would look like when translated into Chinese. Panels can be in either Chinese or English, and the panel I go to first has a station outside it with little earpieces. These are for simultaneous translation — some panels have a team of translators in the back. The first panel I attend is in English, so I don’t need one, but many Chinese people use them to hear the panel translated into Chinese. The panel is "Anthropocene and Capitalocene: Threats and Hopes to the Future of Humanity", and it is a firehose — recommendations, opinions, predictions. I come away disagreeing with most of what I heard — in particular one panelist who wrote a story about a city with no people in it, because from his perspective cities are "of course" fundamentally inhuman and not desirous of humans, being messy, unclean animals rather than the cars that cities "truly" run on. This is the kind of nonsense you would expect to hear from someone who lives in Rome. My feeling is that our path to avoiding global catastrophe runs right through increased urbanization, so it feels bad to have the panelists conflate "rural" and "natural" with "ecological". Nevertheless I leave with a short reading list.


An earphone. I take this photo at another panel much later.

The big event of the evening is the opening ceremonies. Not every Chinese attendee got a ticket, but because we are on the One-Hundredth Light Second Plan, we are guaranteed entrance; there are tickets printed right on our badges. There is even a section of seating reserved for us — not too good, sort of the back of orchestra left. There I encounter a group of other international attendees. I sit next to them, although I don’t know any of them yet.

Opening Ceremonies is a great big spectacle. It’s mostly in Chinese but they give us translator earphones on the way in. (Set channel 1 for Chinese, channel 2 for English. Mine seems to cut out unless I hold it at a specific angle.) It includes performances, which you can see at https://www.youtube.com/@chengduworldcon1121. Check out this one for a bit of face-changing opera. There’s a segment where a teacher and two students come onstage to chat with Liu Cixin, and there are speeches from Big Name Fans. They also play the official Promotional Video. Honestly, check it out and tell me you didn’t get a little hype.

A desk is rolled out with a long knife switch, which they pull dramatically to activate the convention or whatever. The final symbol is of course the gavel, which the chair of the Worldcon traditionally bangs to start the convention. They play it straight — no funny sound effects or anything.

Then this happens:

Some young people come onstage and they start to sing a song, before they are surrounded by what looks like the performing arts departments of several schools. They continue the song while backgrounded by some kind of moving light show. The song is called "Meet the Future" and it is the the theme song (!!) of the convention. Verses alternate between Chinese and English but I couldn’t really understand either without the lyrics, which are helpfully projected onstage. (They are mostly omitted from the video.) The venue has it on loop and you will hear it when walking around the grounds for the rest of the convention, so get used to it.


As we file out of the ceremonies, we see that there was some other event happening around in the back. It’s a light show that projects light onto fountains of water to play a movie. I’m nervous about missing the shuttle, especially how tired I am, so I don’t stay for all of it.

[FIXME: something wrong with the videos?]

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In the front, the fountain/pool has been rigged to have music and light synchronized and it is also pleasant to watch.

I get on the shuttle. There are some other international attendees, including many of the ones I sat with. I start to make friends with them — I guess some of them might know each other because they have already been in the area for a few days, for example to take advantage of the free city tour and attractions that the convention organized on the days before the convention, but there are introductions all around. We are what Yi-Sheng describes as his "wolf pack" for the convention — instant friends and mini-family, united by the fact that we are all not from around here. We are all lodging in the same hotel so we see each other regularly at breakfast and on the way to and from the convention. Additionally, it’s handy to be able to see someone around the convention and be sure you can speak English with them. (Though some of us, for example Melissa, speak Mandarin fluently, so I can’t say that none of us speak Chinese.)

I’m exhausted by the time we get back to the hotel, but overall my impressions of the event are quite positive.

Thursday I don’t even try to take the shuttle. Instead, after breakfast I set out to find another SIM card (see above) and then take the tram to the venue, or at least near-ish to the venue. On the way in I am careful to keep an eye out for nearby food options because I will be damned if I flew all the way to China to eat Subway. All the same, I’m careful not to bring baijiu so I can leave freely.

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There are some kiosks selling snacks, including these baozi. I am able to mostly get by in Chinese here. The last one is Sichuan flavored somehow, and it is delicious! Because I had business to conduct, it’s about lunchtime when I get to the venue so this will be enough to tide me over until dinner. Nevertheless I ask at information if there is really no other dining options in the venue. The program book says something about a "Nebula Camp" containing a variety of food trucks which is supposed to be relatively close to the venue so I ask about that. It seems that it isn’t open although the volunteer cannot tell me exactly why. In the end, my guess is that it was part of the museum area that wasn’t finished in time, and won’t be for the duration of the convention.

I have a strict limit, born of years of experience, not to see too many panels while at this kind of event, because they start to drag and the parts of the convention I enjoy the most are usually elsewhere. I think about one a day is good. I have a couple of hours to kill until the first panel I want to see that day. I intend to go back to one of the pictures I saw while wandering around and take a picture. As I am coming up the stairs to look for it, I hear someone say, "Excuse me!" It’s a young lady named Yang. She’s a journalist who lives in Beijing who came to cover the convention, and she wants to interview me. Like the interview yesterday, it feels flattering that someone thinks my opinions are worth listening to (I’m famous!) so I agree. We have quite a far-ranging conversation that covers a lot of topics and it’s quite enjoyable, not just because I get to hold forth while a young lady listens attentively. Because I have had some time to think about some of the questions, I have some better answers. (What’s your favorite science fiction work? Maybe Accelerando by Charles Stross.) At the end, we exchange contacts. She doesn’t seem to mind that someone else has gotten to me first. While I will only do these two interviews at Worldcon, one member of our "wolf pack" ends up doing something like seven.

It seems that us "foreigners" (as we are sometimes referred to by Chinese nationals) are quite a sight — from time to time a Chinese person will come up to you and ask if they can take a picture with you. Because it is novel to me, I think it’s hilarious, but I can imagine it wearing on someone who has spent a lot of time in China.

The panel I see that day is about a magazine called Galaxy’s Edge. I don’t know much about it, but from what I understand in the panel, it seems like it’s the name of two "sister" publications, one based in China and the other in the US, and each will publish stories from the other (in translation, of course). This sounds really interesting and it also goes on my reading list. (See here for more details that I looked up later.) The panelists include the editors for both "sides" of the publication. This is my first opportunity to see how the translation works — some panelists speak in Chinese, and others in English, and many attendees use the earphones to listen to the language they don’t understand, so the translators are converting in both directions on the fly.

"Dream", by Qin Yizi

This is the picture I wanted to get a photo of. Unlike other conventions, there isn’t a separate "art show" with just artwork — instead, there are lots of art pieces arranged in three or four clusters in the venue. There is also no "silent auction" that causes pieces to be sold. (Is this a cultural difference related to different economic structures? No idea.) One cluster shows large prints of cover art from Science Fiction World; another shows art by well-known Chinese artists (that, of course, I have never heard of). I think one cluster is art by schoolchildren. I’m not sure about this piece — maybe an older student? — but something about it resonates for me.

Yang has proposed that while she is in Chengdu she is going to take advantage of the situation to try to get some local food, particularly hot pot, and would I be interested in going? Of course I would. She suggests that I can invite some of my foreign friends as well. Also, by the way, she asks, this word "foreign", "foreigner" — is it an OK word to use? Is it polite? The term’s relative in Chinese, laowai, is one that I had encountered when studying Chinese back in college, although I don’t remember any more what Professor Shen said about it. I tell her that I personally don’t find the term offensive, just a little confusing because from my point of view, I was surrounded by foreigners! Of course, my specific situation is a little complicated because of my time in Cameroon. There, the term they call "foreigners" is le blanc, "the white" or "the white one", or the equivalent in a local language (ours was something like nduk), and being reduced to this attribute never feels good. By comparison, "foreigner" seems fine. (A Cameroonian might also use the term occidental, "Western"/"Westerner", because that tends to be the most salient divide in that context. However, our "wolf pack" includes an Indonesian and a Singaporean, so "Westerner" wouldn’t be appropriate.) The whole question strikes me as uniquely Chinese — both using the word, but then also the focus on whether to use it was polite. A Cameroonian would never wonder if the term was polite!

By now I am on WeChat but don’t yet have the contact information of the other foreigners, but milling about aimlessly they are easy to pick out, and as I encounter them I tell them about the plan to get hot pot with Yang. In the end, I get Sean, Silvana and Leadie interested. Around 5:30 we leave; we take one of the free shuttles from the venue to the closest subway station. We are aboveground at a bus shelter, which I want to take a picture of, but there are two Chinese women sitting in front of it. I don’t want to include them in the picture without permission, so I start to stammer out in Chinese, "Excuse me… can I… photo…". Abruptly, one says "You can speak English." I am grateful but maybe just a little chagrined.


Did I mention about the marketing the convention did?

From the subway station we take taxis to the restaurant. Actually there’s a whole strip of eateries and businesses:

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Leadie, Sean and Silvana were in the other taxi; we find them around the corner. We enter the restaurant for our first hot pot experience.

First, you have to be dressed for the occasion. They give you an apron to prevent your clothes from getting dirty. For those with glasses, they give a microfiber cloth so you can clean them afterwards.


They also give you a little plastic bag to put your phone in, so you don’t get it greasy (or spicy?). Mercifully, the bathroom is fully stocked with soap.

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I get a local beer. It’s totally unremarkable!


They bring out some appetizers and a timer. The timer is how long they are allowed to take to get the broth ready. If it takes longer than 20 minutes, you get more free appetizers. (They were well under 20 minutes.)


This pudding was amazing and I didn’t want to eat it all before the spicy food started to happen.

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We opted to have some part of the pot be spicy and one be less so.

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We eat a lot. Different kinds of food need different amounts of time in the boiling soup.


I think this is rumen, i.e. beef stomach.


Afterwards, the restaurant staff ask if we liked everything, and if we had any feedback about their service or any advice on how to improve. It feels obsequious to me, like if it were America, I would have assumed they were fishing for a tip, but Yang says it’s not too unusual.

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Afterwards, we decide to stroll through the "snack street". Apparently Yang chose her hotel location according to where the good food options were. These fruits are coated with some kind of crunchy sugar coating and they are all delicious. (Thanks to I think Sean for the second picture and Silvana for the third, fourth and fifth.)

Once we get to the end of the street, we take a taxi back to the hotel. (Silvana has figured out how to use the taxi app.) We pass a variety of interesting-looking shops — a place called Urbrew, which (unless I miss my guess!) is a local brewery; a place called "Frog and Fish Lab". I want to check out more of these places!… assuming I can find them again on the map.

Friday my stomach does not feel well. I spend the morning fielding a phone call with Peter, which normally I would decline while I was travelling, but since I was hesitant to leave the hotel room and its bathroom for a while, it was fine. By the time I finally leave the room, I have definitely missed the shuttle to the venue. By now I’m familiar with the route and I walk it.

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There is lots of interesting art, much of it sci-fi, along the way.


On the way in, passing where I collected my badge, I see this unassuming sign which seems to signal a restaurant. It seems worth considering…


… but the "wolf pack" instead decides to go to a different restaurant, which isn’t too far although nobody is exactly sure how to get there. Yi-Sheng is able to ask directions of one of the locals in Mandarin, although her response is not totally clear. "She said we should see a big balloon…?"

On the way, I chat with Sophia. She and her husband Tim live in Portland now. She asks where I’m from.

"New York," I say.

"Oh, really?" she says. "I grew up in New York."

"Oh, really? What part?" I ask.

"Brooklyn," she says.

"Oh, really? What part of Brooklyn?"

"Midwood," she says.

"Oh, really? What part of Midwood?"

She gives me a funny look before I explain that actually where I live now is this street and this avenue, and I grew up not too far away on that street and that avenue. It turns out she grew up just a few blocks from here. The high school she went to is on the way to my parents’ house! It’s a small world.

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We pass some interesting sculptures.


Eventually we find our way there. Sure enough, there is a big inflatable "moon".

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There is a restaurant on the corner. The food is quite good. (Thanks Yi-Sheng and Sophia, respectively, for the last two pictures.)


I try to ask about these desserts and I think the person making them explains that they are for the convention although I am not exactly sure what they are for.

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There are also a handful of little stalls here. They seem like they are affiliated with the convention, but we are a good twenty minutes’ walk from the venue and it isn’t clear what they are doing here. Indeed, many of the vendors standing behind them are sleeping.

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Sophia and Tim get some of these adorable little dessert things. I get one. The woman who is selling them gives us these little skewers to eat it with but I am not sure how to get the food item onto the skewers. The vendor demonstrates and holds it out for me to see. "Oh!" I say. "Can I take a picture of you? My girlfriend wants to see all the food I eat." The woman nods her assent, but after a second, she says "… maybe it would be better if I take your picture." Like, maybe it would be better for you not to send pictures of strange women to your girlfriend. We all think this is hilarious. "Some things really cross cultural boundaries," says Tim.

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We bid farewell to the moon and its alley and go back to the convention.

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There certainly more people today than there were in previous days. You can probably get a sense of the demographics of the event from these pictures. The gender balance is not as skewed as at an American convention, and there are lots of families, especially with young kids. Science fiction is for some of these people not just a niche nerd thing, but a fun genre for the whole family. I always think of science fiction fandom as countercultural and struggle to square that with the fact that a lot of "mainstream" media is sci-fi in some way, so this is a very different perspective. How come science fiction fandom is no longer a thriving subculture in the United States, but ten thousand attendees came to Chengdu? One person mentions to me that we tend to see more science fiction in times of technological revolution and dramatic social change, and it’s easy to imagine that there’s a lot more of that in China than in the US right now. Or does it have to do with the mainstreamization of the genre in both places?


It may not be obvious but in the middle-back of this photo is a line of people. This line goes forward up a ramp and in to the convention hall through a winding maze of cordons to get autographs from Liu Cixin.

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There are a few vending machines around the venue. They all work on Alipay/WeChat — you scan a code with your phone and get a menu, and once you’ve selected something, you pay digitally — cash not accepted. By now I have Alipay set up so I am interested in giving it a shot. Some are wheeled and amble around their floors. (One keeps walking away when I try to make a purchase.) The kind in the second picture are near the food court. I order something suspiciously like a Fanta.

The only panel I try to attend on Friday is "Mini-game: Sci-fi Turtle Soup". I have no idea what that means. Unfortunately, I discover that this panel is going to only be in Chinese, and it doesn’t have translation. Some of the "wolf pack" have discovered that if you insist, the volunteers can call an interpreter for you, who will sit behind you and whisper to you what’s going on in the panel. This seems very intimate to me so I pass for now. It turns out that the other foreigners are also unable to attend the panels they want, either because they are full or because they are not translated. This is going to be a theme for the remainder of the convention. The bilingual-ness of the convention, which seemed so thoughtful before, is maybe turning out to be a little bit less complete than desired. Instead I head to the food court, where some people are hanging out and chatting. A friend of a friend there is named Annie, who works for Huawei and is promoting the panel she is organizing tomorrow morning. The title is "When Technology Meets Science Fiction" and Nnedi Okorafor will be there.


My stomach is still a bit uneasy and I spend a lot of time looking for a toilet. While there generally seem to be enough bathrooms, at least in terms of urinals, the toilets seem to be occupied. (I later learn that some people are using the toilet stalls to smoke, to try to get around the venue’s no-smoking policy.) Sometimes I find an empty stall only to find tha it’s a squat toilet — each bathroom has some of each, "Western" toilets and squat (a.k.a. "Turkish") toilets, with an icon on the stall door to tell you what you are about to find. They also all have the design where the latch mechanism connects to an indicator on the outside of the door showing red "occupied"/green "free". I am really hoping for a Western toilet at this point — while I would be willing to try a squat toilet, being at a convention venue and potentially with diarrhea is not that circumstance. I stalk from bathroom to bathroom, glancing at the doors in each for both the right icon and the green "free" marker until I find a stall where I can evacuate in peace.

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One vendor is in the business of constructing models, for example for television or movie production.


One of the displays in the main hall. "Forbidden trample" shows up here and there in the convention to discourage putting weight on electrical equipment.

There’s nothing special going on after the convention that evening. I am trying to get some people to come with me to Urbrew but it seems that people mostly want to go to bed or hang out at the hotel restaurant. Some of the foreigners are talking about taking a taxi back to the hotel, but instead they look confused and after a few minutes, convention staff summon a shuttle just for them. I decide that I want to see if I can find one of the Citibike-looking things I’ve seen around and get a little bicycling in. Unfortunately I can’t find one. (In the end, I don’t get to ride a bicycle in China at all.) Instead I opt to take the tram to save a little time.

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Some of the decor at the tram station.


I pass this striking sign after getting off the tram. For a moment I hesitate before taking a picture (is this going to get me thrown in Soviet prison?) but nobody seems that interested in it so I take a picture. I love propaganda! Google translates it as "Seek happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation!"


By the time I get back to the hotel, dinner has mostly been eaten. We have a fun conversation about Chinese sci-fi, about which Melissa is extremely knowledgeable — she’s a professor of some kind of Chinese literature at a university in California. (I take down more names for my reading list.) In an earlier conversation, some of these people took a "Can I just say? I don’t like Liu Cixin! I don’t like his work!" stance, but in this one, there’s a much more mellow "Well, he’s kind of the dean of Chinese sci-fi, and I don’t think he likes it any more than I do, but he’s doing his best to manage that fame". Melissa points out some interesting motifs of Three-Body Problem, such as the symmetry between the reference to "Silent Spring" in the early part of the book and a climactic scene at the end of the book featuring locusts. It’s a great conversation and very much the sort of reason I came.

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Unable to convince anyone to go to the brewery, I content myself with a couple of local beers from the convenience store downstairs. They have pop-tabs like a can of sardines. "Enjoy this fine tasting beer."

Saturday I am more or less back to normal. After another wholesome breakfast, I head down to the shuttle, and I just miss it, but this time I approach the convention staff and they radio in to the shuttle, which is only a half a block away. I, and another convention attendee who came down in the same elevator I did, run to catch up and are able to board. By now, everyone in the shuttle is an old friend, and I introduce everyone to the new person, who is from Shanghai.

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It’s sunny today and I joke that nobody knows what to do about it. It’s the first day, and maybe the only day of my trip, where the haze and fog clear.


I have no idea what this robot is.

By this point in the convention, it’s increasingly clear that the majority of panels will not be translated, and a lot of the really interesting ones in particular are not really available to us foreigners. The program guide doesn’t really indicate which panels might be understandable, so you have to guess. (One of the volunteers even suggests to me that I look at the panelists’ names — if they seem like Chinese names, the panel will probably be in Chinese.) The program guide itself is not as helpful as you might want — the titles aren’t always clear, for example I am baffled by "Follow one’s Dream as a Horse", which turns out to be a presentation of a group of high school students who have published their own science fiction magazine. The only additional context is the "Agenda Topics" for each panel, which are quite abstract indeed.

Since the panels I thought I was interested in turn out to be already full or not available in English, I have a lot of time on my hands. For lack of anything better to do, I decide to go to the panel Annie was talking about yesterday, because she explicitly said there would be translation. I find my way to a part of the venue I hadn’t been in before and was greeted at the door with a earpiece and a bottle of water. They invite me to sit in the front row, but then I would feel bad if I didn’t pay attention, so I choose a seat on the far right, one row back.

The panel is a strange one. The panelists seem to be Nnedi Okorafor and a bunch of people associated with Huawei. Each presenter, by turns, stands up and gives a brief presentation on "their" topic. The non-Okorafor presenters seem involved with some kind of AI topic — a new model that Huawei hed developed. It seems that there was some kind of competition where people tried to get the LLM to generate the most striking artwork by trying different prompts and this panel is also the presentation ceremony for the winners, who each come up on stage and are handed some kind of award. The winners are all men. There’s an "interview" section where the emcee asks presenters questions — Nnedi Okorafor in English about science fiction and Africafuturism, the other panelists about AI and LLMs. I can’t really follow the translated answers, or maybe they are content-free in their original languages as well. The cognitive whiplash continues through Q&A, where attendees stand up and either ask questions of the Huawei presenters that sound like recruiting sweet-talk, or Nnedi Okorafor about gender imbalances in science fiction. It’s almost like two panels got glued together by mistake, but on balance, it’s much more like a Huawei advertisement than a convention panel. Maybe Huawei supported the convention somehow and got to participate in a panel? Perhaps they are even responsible for Nnedi Okorafor’s attendance at the convention? I don’t get it. It’s a double-long panel but I tough it out as best I can.

Afterwards it’s lunch time. I decide to check out the "Energy Point for Sci-Fi Fans", since it’s not too far and the price seems convenient. It’s a bit of a strange arrangement, where the shrubbery blocks lines of sight so you don’t really know what you’re walking into until you find yourself on a patio in front of a restaurant. I am greeted at the front desk and the maitresse d’ takes me to the line — it’s more like a canteen than a restaurant — and busses my table past each station, offering me a little of each, to which I enthusiastically consent. The arrangement seems targeted at Chinese attendees — they don’t have any silverware besides chopsticks. Still, the food looks OK. I text the foreigners about it and a few minutes later Carli, who sat at the Huawei panel with me, sits down next to me, guided firmly by the same maitresse d’, who I assume concluded that the foreigners would be happy to have company. We have a far-reaching conversation about technology, colonialism, Chinese society — another fun conversation. Carli is Swiss but married a Chinese national and has spent a lot of time in China. Despite this, he is mostly a homebody and hasn’t travelled as much except for China. We have a laugh comparing attitudes about travel, since mine are much like his except that I feel as intimidated and overwhelmed about being in China as he does about being everywhere else.

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I order this "kiwi soda" on the way out. The bartender makes the drink with ice, which gives me a scare since I had read to try to avoid it, in case it was made with tap water, which is not typically safe to drink, but in the end it was fine. Of course, I have to finish it before I get back to the security check at the venue.


I notice some kiosks off to the side as you come in the venue. I check them out and they have this interesting lychee soda.


One outstanding problem is what to do with the rest of my time at the convention. The panels seem mostly like a bust, and I’ve walked past all the vendor tables and "exhibition hall" booths already. There’s no gaming room as there might be at another Worldcon, nor anything like a film room or con suite, and I’m unable to converse with most of the people around me. For a while, I try just standing in the venue’s "grand hall" near the entrance and to simply see what happens. Maybe someone will interview me or ask to take my picture? But it seems like we are late enough in the convention that nobody wants to talk to a foreigner any more. Still, there is some good people-watching, and it becomes a safe default action when I don’t know how to pass the time for the remainder of the convention.

There are a variety of groups here on what appears to be a school field trip. That’s crazy! Imagine going to a convention for a school trip!


There’s this Boston Robotics robot dog thing and it seems to be attracting a lot of attention especially from kids.


I entertain myself for a little while trying to get the perfect shot of the clever way the young lady is operating the device.

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Although there isn’t much in the way of cosplay — there wasn’t a Masquerade at all — there is the occasional act. In this case there are two acts. (Kylo is lending a lightsaber to Rick.) It gets a lot of attention, perhaps surprisingly given the very communalist vibe of Chinese society.


The person dressed as Kylo Ren is quick to shoo the children out of the frame so that everyone can take a picture in an orderly fashion.

I decide that I’m going to set my mind to enjoy this convention to the extent possible, and thing I can do is to look at the different pieces of art around the convention. On the top floor is quite a bit of art from what seem like nearby schools, and although I am looking at them at first out of boredom, I find a lot to appreciate about some of them.

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Some are simply wildly creative in the way that children’s work can be.

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Some is legitimately incredible.


I find a few pieces whose use of color is very interesting. This one gives me van Gogh vibes.

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I also pass a few other cultural encounters: garbled English on a garment, security staff chatting idly with one another, a giant model of the convention mascot which appears to serve as Instagram bait for fashionable young people and one that might be a model.

When I squeeze as much entertainment as I can out of the top floor, I wander the grounds again looking if there’s anything fun to do. I spot Tim and Sophia off in the food court area and I chat with them while they eat. Tim has just started a new job so they aren’t staying through the whole event — they are leaving tomorrow, Sunday. Back in Portland, they are very into board games and other recreational activities — Tim runs an event. It’s fascinating to hear about. I complain about the lack of a game room, but mention that I always carry Hanabi, and did they want to play? We find an area full of seating, a sort of "quiet zone" for attendees, and sit around a free table to play. We do pretty well for our first game. I am hopeful that someone will be interested in the game and come over and talk to us, but no such luck.

Then it’s time for the Hugo Awards.


They are using projectors to make this sculpture a little more interesting.

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It turns out that we sit next to Rick. (Thanks Sophia for taking this picture.)

The Hugo event is pretty good, but largely what you would expect. I’m sure there’s better coverage elsewhere. "Everything, Everywhere, All At Once" wins a Hugo. There’s a presentation, as there usually is during the Hugos, of all the names of fans we’ve lost over the last year, which is set to a sad acoustic song about leaving someone behind, and I tear up a little bit. However, none of the names are Chinese.

After the end of the show it’s very late and most restaurants seem likely to be closed. There’s a set of snacks for "Special Guests" of the convention, which technically shouldn’t include us, but nobody stops us when I grab one of everything. It’s nothing special, sandwiches and other mediocre snacks. As we walk out, Yi-Sheng and I wash up with a couple published authors and one of their translators. They seem to think they can get us into the "Hugo Lakeside Party", which seems to be reserved for very special people — I’m not sure, but I think there’s a tradition of a "Hugo Losers Party" and this might be the equivalent. But Yi-Sheng and I are distracted by saying good night to some of the "wolf pack" members who are going back to the hotel already, and when we turn back around, one person has already gone to the party and another has decided to go to some kind of room party, presumably even more exclusive, back at the hotel, and Yi-Sheng and I are out of luck. We fumble around the venue a little bit and try to smooth talk the guards into letting us go up, but it doesn’t work, and eventually we decide to give up and go back to the hotel.

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Back at the hotel, I stop at the local convenience store to see if I can get something else to eat. The gentleman behind the counter encourages me to try "drunkard’s peanuts", which are apparently a Chengdu specialty. Of course, if you have drunkard’s peanuts, then you need a drink too (not pictured).


I also find this fascinating product. It was in the freezer with things that were clearly ice cream. Feeling it through the package, it has a pebbled surface, like corn on the cob. Is this corn? ice cream? both? I purchase it for a few yuan just to see.

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It is corn ice cream! It has a sort of "cone" on the outside but also has a stick.


These two things don’t work well together because as you hold the stick, it drips out the "bottom" of the cone.


It even says "CORN" on it, in case you forget.

I have a pleasant if unbalanced meal and I go to bed.

Sunday I have another pleasant hotel breakfast and make a concerted effort to be on time for the shuttle at least once this convention. At the venue, I consider attending "Are all human codes in the dream world – ‘You are me, I am you, thank you’", but decide not to because there is no translation — I think it turned out to be a presentation about some kind of media, maybe a film or TV series, set in Hong Kong. Instead I attend "Science Fiction Imagination in Afrofuturism", because although I don’t really expect to learn a lot about Afrofuturism from this panel, it is after all part of how I got into this situation and still an interest of mine. It turns out that Wole Talabi is going to be there — I recommend his book Incomplete Solutions if you haven’t heard it — and I’m able to shake his hand after the panel and tell him how much I enjoyed his work. One of the other panelists, Emad El-Din Aysha, presents on science fiction in the Arab world, and I write a few recommendations down there too. [FIXME: what are they?]

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Afterwards I have a brief period to get a snack before the next panel I want to see. I get some snacks from one of the kiosks that’s sprung up inside the security cordon. Here I start to have a problem — when I try to use Alipay, it directs me to my credit card, which wants to send me a text message to verify that it’s me. This text is unfortunately going to go to my phone back in the US, and while I can ask Ashley to look at it, she’s likely to be asleep at this time. Getting the credit card to work is going to require coordinating a purchase with a text so I can type in the code from my bank. Without Alipay, it’s going to be much harder to transact. This is going to weigh on my mind until I get it resolved, but in the short term I still have a little cash, and that’s still accepted.

There’s a moment where the fact of it being Sunday hits me, and I start to feel a little nostalgic from the come-down that happens at the end of any convention. Tim and Sophia are already gone, of course, and pretty soon this whole event is going to end too. I still have several days left in China, which feels a bit strange — maybe it would have been better to be sad on the flight home. On the other hand, I still only know a handful of people here, and I’m interested to see more of the convention than hanging around this venue waiting for something to happen.

The next panel I attend is "Toward the Ninth Art: A New Journey of Chinese Science Fiction". This one is also not going to be translated, but I decide to ask for an interpreter, just so I can see what that’s like. I am a few minutes early, so I sit and wait. Yi-Sheng happens to walk in too and decides to sit and watch with me. Does he know what the term "ninth art" might refer to? He doesn’t, but he thinks there might be a classical Chinese idea of "eight classic art forms", and perhaps the presenter is alluding to this and suggesting that some new art form is emerging.

A few minutes later, a gentleman shows up. I ask him some questions about his attendance at the event; it seems he’s there on contract, along with a pool of other interpreters. He isn’t a science fiction fan, instead preferring historical dramas, but he seems nice enough. When the panel starts, he speaks to me in English quietly, although probably not so quietly that nearby people can’t hear. He speaks slower, and less, than the people on stage. At first I wonder if this is because of different semantic density in spoken Chinese versus English, but it’s hard to tell. I understand so little of the Chinese that I can’t really figure out what he’s saying and what he isn’t. The person onstage is associated with a video game company and seems very much in salesman mode. There are some other people seated on stage; one might be the financier behind the video game company, or an executive or something. They click through a slideshow explaining their game.

I presume my translator is translating word-for-word what the person on stage is saying, but then one slide comes up and he says "I honestly don’t get why there always has to be a slide with this kind of jibber-jabber. I’m not going to translate it all but so you get the overall effect, but they’re saying that this game supports society and the values that lead to a stronger Chinese culture and the proper development of local industry." At this point it becomes clear that it’s more like "interpretation" than "translation". It’s also clear that the panel is more of an advertisement for the company and their latest product, a licensed mobile game based on the media property The Wandering Earth (based on the books by Liu Cixin). The slides use the English abbreviation "IP" a lot (apparently it’s been borrowed into Chinese). It looks like a pretty ordinary real-time strategy game to me. It’s a disappointing panel, although I am happy I attended and had the opportunity to interact with the interpreter. At the end, I realize: "They never even said what the ninth art was, did they??" No, they didn’t, my interpreter agrees. I thank him for his help and we go our separate ways.


Chris Barkley is a friend of my parents’, and one convention a long time ago, I hung out with his daughter at a convention much like this one. This year he won the Hugo for Best Fan Writer, so I get a selfie. He doesn’t really remember me.


A fun promotional item that a fan gives me. (Especially helpful since Babylon 5 is better than both!)


I’m doing the rounds through one of the halls with tables in it and I see this. Apparently Kampala is bidding for the 2028 Worldcon. I would be extremely interested in seeing that!


This is the "time tunnel" — it leads from the main hall to the outdoors. It’s a little underwhelming. I wonder if it’s supposed to have some kind of exhibits in it or something?

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Before closing ceremonies, I am hanging out in the main hall when one of the volunteers comes over and asks for me to write a message in his notebook. He’s been collecting signatures, as though it were a yearbook. The volunteers are starting to let loose a little because their time at the convention is almost over too, and a handful of them come over and practice their English on me. They suggest a hot pot restaurant and a local product (a kind of yogurt).

Closing Ceremonies go smoothly and unremarkably. We see a fun video of Glasgow, who will be hosting in 2024, and receive confirmation that Seattle won the bid for 2025. It’s all fine. It ends early enough that we can look for food afterwards.

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Those of us who are still around go to the strip malls around the corner from the hotel, where I found the restaurant on my first night, and get these, including the yogurt drink the volunteers were recommending. (It’s pretty good.)


I guess Frog and Fish Lab is a chain because there’s another one nearby.

We sit and listen as James regales us with his experience at the WSFS business meeting. I’ve never been, and although he says he goes because there’s usually coffee he can drink to get over his hangover, it’s clear that he’s followed these meetings for a while and has a lot of insight into the goings-on, which he makes sound quite interesting. He talks about the maneuvering about the proposed rules that meant to ensure that Worldcon was more often held outside of the United States, who the factions are and their preferred solutions, and how he whimsically voted against the more establishment position. He explains that the Cairo bid, who had been bidding for 2026, reported that things were not looking good, especially with the recent situation in Israel and Gaza. He also explains about the announcement during Closing Ceremonies about the announcement of a "Worldcon Science Fiction Promotion Center" based here in Chengdu. "That’s Good," James says with a thumbs-up. The way it sounds is that this organization has been doing a lot of work to promote science fiction, and they just wanted permission to do it under the Worldcon branding. "So, WSFS just has to give their assent and they get a whole bunch of resources to promote science fiction for free?" That’s right, confirms James. Great, I guess?

This is probably a good opportunity to jot down some concluding thoughts about the convention itself, since at this point in the narrative, it’s definitively over. (Some of the "wolf pack", including me, are still around for a couple of days.)

First, while this wasn’t the best convention I’ve ever been to, I think it was a very credible attempt for a Worldcon. There were touches all over that made it feel very much like other Worldcons I’ve been to, from the ribbons and their collectors to the vendors selling books and other nerd products. It also felt unique, and Chinese, and different. Some changes weren’t really to my liking, but overall, I enjoyed my time.

That said:

  • I didn’t participate in any of the virtual parts of the event — there was no convenient way to attend those panels from the convention grounds. I think this is kind of a missed opportunity — I would have loved to see the panel "How Much Influence Did Taoism Have on the Works of Ursula K. Le Guin".
  • I also couldn’t figure out how parties worked — maybe that was something that was happening on Thursday? — so I didn’t get to attend any. No "dead dog" party.
  • I didn’t manage to set foot at all in the Sheraton or any of the event space there, even the "Hall of Jiaozi".

Beyond the implied feedback in some of those points, I’d also like to reiterate that I really would have liked there to be a board game room. One of the vendors in the "exhibition hall" had a board game, and was even doing demos, but there was just the one table, and it was in Chinese so I probably wouldn’t have followed along. I guess that raises questions about whether I would have been able to get an English-language board game going, but I didn’t even get to try.

I think that’s a manifestation of a theme that I saw in a few different places, but especially the panels — this convention wasn’t entirely a "family reunion for fans" like other Worldcons I’ve been to. There was a commercial edge to it, not exactly like a Comic-Con, a little weirder, with panels often being marketing. It felt like there was a tension between the conception of Worldcon as being an industry event, targeted at film execs or people who unironically use the word "IP", versus a fan event. One person remarked after the Hugos that he’s heard a lot of people, including government officials who are supporting the event, calling it a science fiction "conference" instead of a "convention", and that he had heard them doing it both in Chinese and English so it wasn’t a language difficulty. That’s an interesting perspective, and one that I wouldn’t have considered (what is the difference between a "conference" and a "convention" anyhow?) but I think it’s symbolic of the larger tension. And although that tension was there, that didn’t stop a bunch of young people, or school groups, or local "influencers", from coming to the event.

The impact the convention had on the locality was also interesting. I didn’t speak much to them, but apparently a lot of jobs in the area were produced, including construction of all the new buildings of course, but even including crossing guards, and everyone seemed very happy for the revitalization. It seems like the government is trying to position Chengdu to be a good home for "the sci-fi industry", which is an idea that hits a little strange, because how can a genre be an industry? But then, how is that different from, say, New Orleans being a good home to jazz? Surely there are some motifs, some techniques, and some practices that are unique to the genre, and maybe it’s believable for a city to be the Schelling point of all of them.

While I didn’t love being excluded from parts of the event because of language, the bilingual nature of the event is a tough problem for event organizing and I’m not sure I could have made any better suggestions. In a weird way, this may have been an advantage, because the English part of the Worldcon tended to have sci-fi fandom conversations like the ones I wanted to attend, and the "professional event" vibes were largely confined to the Chinese Worldcon. Someone told me that they had asked people who had been at the Worldcon in Yokohama and it was largely similar, sort of two Worldcons passing in the night, each with its own language.

Finally, one thing I found fascinating is the spirit of development and iteration. For example, the food kiosks sprouting around the venue on days three and four of the event — I don’t think I just missed the signs for those, I think they were brought in as a response to feedback.


Or, here’s a story that might illustrate the point better. On the grounds of the venue is this sort of rock garden made up of black and white rocks spelling out a message. On the first day of the convention, somebody tried to walk across the rocks and slipped and fell. Unfortunate, but these things happen, no big deal. I went out later that day to take a picture of the rocks and the message, and the convention had posted a volunteer to walk the perimeter of the rocks and to tell people they couldn’t cross them because of the risk of falling. The next day, a red cordon had been set up around the whole thing. Fast turnaround! When I consider how long it takes to get anything fixed in New York, it feels positively stupendous that an organization could be responsive to the public. Of course, it’s also interesting that the first solution is to throw people at the problem, which seems very typical of China. (There’s a platoon of cleaning staff who are constantly attending the bathrooms, and even walking to the venue you find people wearing uniforms sweeping the streets.) I told this parable to another attendee, who has been in China for a while, and they also said it’s very typical for potential problems to linger, with everyone simply working around them, until something happens, at which point it immediately gets fixed. I can’t speak to that, but I did feel like things did visibly improve even over just the few days I attended Worldcon, which was very cool to see.


Although the convention is over, some of the "wolf pack" are still around for a few more days. Monday I have been invited by a local who I met at the convention; his name is Martin, and he has offered to show me around a little bit. I cadge an invite for Yi-Sheng too. We take the subway out there.


It’s very similar in style to the MTR. There are the occasional cultural mark amidst the decor, but otherwise it’s very plain. The trains are open-gangway. The stations all have full security screenings, with an x-ray machine, like at the airport, in addition to the typical fare control. You can pay with Alipay (which I have mostly gotten working again) — tap on, tap off, and you get charged at the end of the day for all the transit you’ve used. The turnstiles are clearly marked as entrance or exit, I think according to where the security screenings happen. Station exits are lettered and numbered so you can pick the exit that is closest to where you are going, which is such a smart and commonsense technique that I constantly wonder why we don’t have in New York City.

The presence of security screenings all over is a little surprising. First off, there’s a question of logistics — the New York City subway will very occasionally have police officers stand at station entrances and randomly select passengers for bag screenings, but it feels like the system would screech to a halt if every passenger at rush hour were scanned. Then there’s a question of, like, risk — in theory anyone in America could be carrying a gun, but surely that isn’t true in China, so what is the threat to protect against? Finally there’s a question of manpower — I’ve mentioned that China will throw people at the problem, and this feels like that too. Is it because there’s a social need to provide everyone with a job? It’s hard to imagine what fraction of the population is involved in keeping everyone safe.


We end up in Financial City, which is where our friend lives.


Although black-and-white pandas have been visible all over Chengdu art, this is the first red one I’ve seen. This is my favorite kind of panda and the only reason I would have considered going to the Chengdu Panda Base. In the end, I don’t manage to go there, so this is as close as I get during my trip.


This is Global Center, the largest building in the world by floor area. I had heard about this from some of the other foreigners, some of whom had even visited. It seems like a large shopping mall but there may be residences inside too, for all I know. It’s huge, several city blocks to a side. Apparently there is even a beach inside (!).

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Apparently the characters say something like "Why worry? Life is long enough" (to deal with it later). Our hosts indicate that this is typical of the laid-back Chengdu vibe. "It’s Monday," they point out, "but look how many people are sitting here drinking tea. Why aren’t they at work?"

We spend a pleasant few hours in conversation here. Martin and his wife Juju are Christian, and their experience of being Christian in China is interesting. Christianity isn’t illegal, but the government regulates churches and holds councils indicating officially-endorsed topics and things to avoid talking about. As with any regulator, contravening this guidance will get you shut down. There are also "underground" churches that are not registered with the state and which operate in secret, but we are advised not to go to these, because they are dangerous. Our hosts laughingly contrast the Chinese government’s policy about Christianity ("which is a tool that the West has used to brainwash us") versus their policy about Buddhism and Taoism ("which we use to brainwash other people, so it’s fine").

I’m struck by how open they are in conversation in a public space. Is this because we are speaking in English, so nobody is likely to be eavesdropping? I’m not sure. When I did my interview with Yang, I told her about my trepidation in coming to China for fear that I would say the wrong thing and end up in prison, and she replied that in contrast, the taxi drivers in Beijing love to talk about their political opinions, like you can’t get them to shut up about it. As an American, I guess I thought of China as like the Soviet Union, but the facts on the ground are a little different. One conversation I had at the convention was about gay rights in China, and my interlocutor explained that homosexuality is not de jure illegal in China, and in fact the people who get arrested are not just people attending sex parties or things like that, but rather people who are agitating for civil rights. My conclusion about the whole thing is that China doesn’t really care what you say, especially as a private individual — what the Chinese government cares about are threats to the social order.

We also talk about a variety of other topics — my relationship to science fiction fandom, or what fandom even means to me; the word "nerd", and how it doesn’t seem to have an equivalent in other languages (no word, as Yi-Sheng points out, that has meanings of both "smart" but also "loser"); the situation in Hong Kong, which our hosts dismissively categorize as a "color revolution".


The green tea has a very fresh taste. This style of cup is apparently traditional in the area. You hold the saucer (for , manners) and use the lid (out of frame to the left) to sort of sweep the tea leaves out of the way, so you don’t have to swallow them when you’re drinking tea.


We also get snacks. Though we are hungry, it’s more snacks than we can eat.


Thanks to Juju for the picture!


The bathroom at the tea garden. I guess something is wrong with the plumbing. You can also see a cigarette butt in the urinal.


The pigeons here are a little different, a little redder.

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We get hot pot at a local restaurant. Like the other hot pot restaurant, we are issued protective equipment; the waitresses even provide bins to put your bags in so they don’t take on the smell of hot pot.

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This is a local drink, some kind of peanut milk, and is helpful when the hot pot gets too spicy.

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We get fish and frog. We toy with the idea of ordering rabbit, but are informed by the waitress that "frog and rabbit don’t play together". Frog tastes a lot like chicken, like the old saying goes, but the meat is softer, like fish in texture.

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The bathroom sink is nice but the urinal is kind of utilitarian.


The parking garage where our friends parked doubled as a bomb shelter. They take us to the subway station and we have a fond farewell. Yi-Sheng and I have more sights to see!


We go to some Taoist temple complex in downtown Chengdu. It’s named "Qingyang", "green ram", so-called because of the bronze statue of rams that turned green with time. I guess it’s pretty old. It’s fine. I tried not to take pictures of anything inside out of respect, but they all have big statues and places to burn offerings. One building had a bored-looking attendant ringing a gong solemnly while looking at her phone. China: the fusion of old and new, am I right?

While we are at this temple, we run into our friend Eloy. He has relocated from the hotel where we were staying on the outskirts of Pidu to another Holiday Inn closer to downtown. He has some of the same things on his list that we have so we wander together for the day.


Close-up on some of the temple details. There are faces on the ends of the roof struts, and… is that ice cream painted on the wall under the name of the temple?


This bat iconography is significant somehow but I forget how.

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We cross some rivers to get to where we are going. The last bridge is so picturesque that some other (Chinese) tourists are using it for their photo!

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Du Fu is a famous poet from the Tang dynasty. I don’t know much about him, but Yi-Sheng did. His Instagram post about it is pretty interesting. I couldn’t appreciate the poetry or even really the calligraphy, but they had some of his poems "done up" in the hands of different famous calligraphers.


These signs are at every urinal I saw in China, so much so that our Christian friends mentioned them. I think the literal meaning is something like "A small step forward (for you) (leads to) a big step forward for civilization". Although the Chinese is almost always the same, the English translation varies. At the sci-fi museum, they really missed an opportunity by not translating (back-translating?) it as "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".


Little bonsai trees outside a pavilion. Although I can’t appreciate the literary virtue of the site, it’s still pretty.

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The Chinese souvenir (if that’s what it is?) says "I [heart] my country".

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We watch a child try to hang out with some stray cats, and the parents react appropriately.

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Yi-Sheng says this scene gives him "Spirited Away" vibes.


We wander the place trying to find the exit. By now, dusk has fallen and it’s clear that we aren’t supposed to be here, but the entrances have started to close and we aren’t exactly sure how to get out. We walk past an exit that is closed and then past another one which we didn’t understand how to use before finally making our way out. Yi-Sheng and I take a taxi back to our hotel where we are able to meet up with the remainder of the "wolf pack", who are eating dinner at a noodle place in the same strip that we ate at the night before.

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More people will be leaving after this evening. I still haven’t been able to convince anyone to go to the brewery I saw, but I am able to purchase a local beer from a nearby convenience store. (The proprietor of the noodle shop opens it with chopsticks for me.)

Dujiangyan and environs

Tuesday is my last day in Chengdu. I have set aside to do the only tourist thing I actually really want to do while I’m in China, which is to see the dam at Dujiangyan. This is an ancient civil infrastructure project, which appeals to me for some reason. Wikivoyage recommends making it a day trip with Qingchengshan, an important site in the history of Taoism, which is in the same direction. Sean is still around this day and also interested in doing some stuff in this direction, including seeing an Instagrammable bookstore, so we travel together.

I am excited to travel by rail, which I understood (correctly) to be quite good in China. When travelling, I rely on Seat 61 for train travel advice, and his page on China is very helpful. We book our tickets using China Highlights. Each ticket has a $6 service fee, and the tickets are so cheap that it’s a substantial fraction of the price, but it’s also still so cheap that it’s hardly worth worrying about. (There may be some kind of "add to cart" function; I didn’t try very hard to economize.) We have a little trouble getting seats on one of the trains, getting "standing room only" tickets, but the trips are all pretty short so it doesn’t seem like a big problem. (Perhaps one day was not enough advance notice to reserve tickets.) One surprising thing is that tickets, well, aren’t — "travel is now ticketless", in the words of Seat 61 — instead the information is associated with your ID information.


Sean and I successfully take the subway to the rail station. I have no idea what this is an advertisement for.

Rail stations are like airports in China, with a security screening and X-ray machine at the entrance. (We had already done one to get on to the subway.) We are there fifteen or twenty minutes before the scheduled departure time. There is already an incredible line of people waiting, and we get at the back of it. There is something like a turnstile which is not active. We are hopeful that we are at the right gate but neither of us have enough Chinese to really be sure.

As the time ticks down further and further, Sean and I become increasingly alarmed. We study the signs more intensely and eventually piece together that the line we are at is the ticket check. That’s a good sign, but why aren’t they checking our tickets? The departure time for the train is getting closer and closer. Neither of us is brave enough to try to go to the front of the line and try to talk to someone, nor are we willing to ask someone if we’re on the right line, but there’s only one line so how could we not be? There are arrows on the floor indicating that certain lines are for certain kinds of people and we think we are in the "foreigner" line but we aren’t perfectly confident.

Finally, at about 7 minutes before departure, the gates activate and everyone starts to pass through. Each one is scanning their ID. We get to the line and try to scan our passports, but it doesn’t work. Now we are feeling really bad because we are not sure we are going to make our train AND we are blocking the line. Luckily there is a security person there, and he waves us over to his machine, where we scan again, and he confirms something on a screen before pressing a button and letting us through. We are sweating a little bit as we head for the stairs to the platform…

… but when we get there, the train hasn’t even arrived yet. We still have a few minutes.

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The train pulls in. We have already found the line to stand on because the platform is clearly marked for each carriage and door. The platform has doors, like the subway system, to prevent people from falling onto the tracks when there’s no train there, but the gap between the train and the platform is a little large.

It’s a pleasant ride. The very fastest-rated high speed rail lines mostly don’t come out this far west, but this little tourist spur from Chengdu up to Qingchengshan is plenty fast. We are there in no time. We have to scan our IDs to get out of the train station as well, including finding a security person to scan it for us — it’s a tap-on, tap-off system.


This is just outside the rail station in Qingchengshan. I have no idea what this is. The old train line? A metro system?

We try to find our way from the train station to where we are going. While we are milling around, we encounter another "foreigner", a pink-haired young woman who was on the same train we were. We start to talking — her name is Nana, and she lives in China, where she performs as a dancer, although she is originally Ukrainian. We decide to stick together.


Allegedly this is just a normal latte, but I have to take a picture. I also try to use my Alipay to try to trigger a text message to my American phone, but unfortunately the payment succeeds. Maybe because it’s such a small amount?

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There is a sort of shuttle bus that takes you from the station to the entrance to the historical site. You could also walk it, but it’s a 45 minute walk so we pony up. As with the train, there are no tickets; they are "in your passport".

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This is actually outside the entrance. I don’t know if these buildings are also part of the site or what.


I’m also very pleased to see these Chinese people on bikes.

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Qingchengshan is itself fairly beautiful. We walk uphill a ways. There are kiosks and souvenir shops at almost any place where you might stop to admire the scenery. Nana has been in China for a while and has a bunch of unflattering things to say about the Chinese.

We know there’s a cableway that will take you up closer to the top. In the interests of time, Sean and I decide that we want to take it, and Nana decides to go along with it. We try to buy tickets for it only to realize it’s just for a little boat that crosses a small lake. Eventually we get to the cableway.

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We keep walking and seeing interesting sights, and although they serve some kind of religious purpose, the religion is not one we understand well.


I’m not sure why there are peacocks here. Maybe to pay to take your picture with them?

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At a certain point we decide to turn around, both because Nana’s knees are hurting and because Sean and I want to make our next train. (Nana decides to book it too.) We are making good time so we decide to take the little boat back, only to discover that it’s actually being pulled on a chain. (Not pictured.)

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I sit here while my friends order a coffee from one of the stalls on the path. They are delighted that the coffee comes back hot, actually hot — apparently it’s more common for it to be served lukewarm.


We are still making good time by the time we exit the park, and we don’t want to spend the money for the silly little shuttle thing so we walk back. Walking back gives us more time to appreciate the scenery.

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This very ornate gate house thing straddles the road. It’s very pretty.


In some spots, the sidewalk is made of wood. It’s carefully cut to fit around the trees growing along the side of the road. Is this a uniquely Chinese attitude of respect for nature, or at least for natural scenery? Not sure.


The routine at the train station is now old hat for us. We look for the scanner that looks like it will accept passports, or the one manned by a security person, and we give it to them. The escalator up to the platfrom has this delightful translation.

We get to Dujiangyan. This is the location of a bookstore that Sean wants to go to, and since we started with my choice of tourist destination, it’s his turn. There’s a "tourist information" guy in the train station, probably affiliated with some kind of bus tour of the dam or something, but he has never heard of the bookstore. There’s a taxi rank outside the train station, but Nana has no patience for them, and when they quote her a price, she blows them off. "DiDi is cheaper," she says, and she turns out to be right by a factor of 3 or so. It’s still small potatoes, but I understand her need to not get ripped off just because she looks like a foreigner.

The taxi drops us off somewhere unremarkable. The bookstore we are looking for may be inside a shopping mall so we set out to find it.


There seems to be some kind of amusement park off to the side.


The shopping mall seems a little vacant. We wander for a while. Eventually we find the bookstore.

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It’s a cool place and for nerds like me and Sean, it’s nice to see a place that feels like it appreciates books. Still, the gimmick of the place wears off pretty quickly. Many of the bookshelves that aren’t reachable are just pictures of bookshelves, and although part of the store has a second story, most of the appearance of height is given by the mirror ceilings.


We look briefly for books in English and find literally zero. The only ones that come close are Chinese translations of books that were originally published in English.

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We do find these little diorama things, which are incredibly cute although I don’t know what I would do with them if I owned them.

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Here are some other children’s products. You, too, can explore the wonders of the Golddigger Tribe!

With that checked off, we decide to find some lunch. This being a shopping mall, we believe food is likely to be found, but we walk around a lot and don’t see anything that looks especially good. I veto hot pot (having already had it once), and Nana can’t eat spicy food.


We pass this bouncy-castle thing, which looks completely empty too. (You can see the attendant looking at their phone off to the side.)

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We eventually find our way to this restaurant. There are booths!

Thus refreshed, we go to the Dujiangyan historic site.

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There are many payment options in China.

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There’s a long promenade with statues of people who I don’t know. Some of them were probably involved in the construction of the dam or irrigation system. Mostly they look like they want to fight you.

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Although Wikivoyage says that there’s an electronic model that demonstrates how it works, this is the only one I see, and to be honest I still don’t really understand how it works. It sounds like there’s something special about how the channels are constructed such that as the water level rises, it blocks more and more of the water, so that only a fixed amount can enter the irrigation system.


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We walk around through a lot of the site. It’s all fine to look at but there isn’t much appeal after the first few hours. We cross some rope bridges that, though sturdy, are extremely jouncy, and these take us over to an island in the middle.

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We pass these "3d virtual experience" hot air balloon rides. We even see one person riding in one!

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We walk in a big circle — by now we have crossed back over to the side we started on.


There is a little statue along the path.

At a certain point Sean and I start to wonder if we are going to make it back to the train station in time. We start to walk a bit faster, though we don’t know how much further we have to go, having not walked through this part of the site already.


Eventually we find an exit that dumps us at the top of this "old town" strip. It’s really fascinating and beautiful, especially with the approaching dusk, but we don’t have time to spend. We trot through it quickly before making it back to the plaza that we started from. Nana’s train back to Chengdu is later, and she is staying in a different part of town than we are, so we say our farewells. We catch a taxi and make it back to the station in time to catch our train. I am on the platform behind some people wearing monk’s robes and speaking a language which isn’t Chinese. After a while they decide to talk to me and they all want to take pictures with me. I ask them what language they were speaking, but they demur. "Just some local language." Is it perhaps Tibetan, I wonder? Sean notices them too; when we get to the platform in Chengdu, he befriends one and takes a selfie with him, and then exchanges WeChat information with them. Showing me the name, which has a distinctive script in it, he says, "Yup. Tibetan." (Although, thinking about it now.. maybe it’s just something like a religious name for Buddhist monks?)

Interestingly, once we get off the train in Chengdu, the entrance to the subway doesn’t require us to go through another security screening, perhaps because we are already inside the security zone.

Back in Chengdu, nobody is left of the "wolf pack" except James. This is my last night in Chengdu, and I am determined to go to this brewery, and I’m confident that I can talk James into coming out to try some local beer. Sean doesn’t drink but he’s willing to go along and hang out. We go back to the hotel first to freshen up. The hotel warns us that due to some work on a gas line or something, the heat will be out in the evening and through the next morning, so I try to take advantage of the shower while I can. We take a taxi to the brewery.

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There are many beers and are generally quite good.

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I decide to wear my Peace Corps shirt. Seeing as Chengdu had been the location where Peace Corps used to have its offices in China, I think there’s a possibility that someone might recognize it and strike up a conversation, and that my chances are better in Chengdu than in Chongqing. Ideally I would have worn it on a day that I would be out and about just in Chengdu, but that didn’t really pan out… Maybe I’m fooling myself. How likely is it to randomly bump in to someone who may have interacted with the Peace Corps?

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James orders the "medium" size, which is 1.5 liters. It’s a lot of beer and I have to help him at the end (although I do try two "small" beers myself). We have a great conversation, mostly about James’s checkered romantic past. I really enjoy the vibe of the place — I haven’t been able to figure out the drinking culture in China at all, and this place suits me just fine.

While we are enjoying ourselves, a young man comes up to our table. "Excuse me," he says to me. "I recognize the logo on your shirt. Is that.. the Peace Corps?" Of course it is! I am excited to meet a former student. We make pleasant small talk for a short while, including me explaining that Peace Corps stopped operating in China although I’m not clear on why, but he seems to be there on a date and doesn’t stay long. "Enjoy your beers. This is the best bar, not just in Pidu, but in all of Chengdu," he tells us.

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Once we finish our beers, we decide to find food. It turns out we are close to the "snack street" that we walked down before, and we are able to find a restaurant that is still open, although by the time we finish, it’s clear that we kept the proprietor past closing. We take a taxi back to the hotel, where I have a brief rinse in tepid water.


A brief intermission to talk about WeChat. WeChat and Alipay are described a lot as "everything apps", especially in the context of whatever Elon Musk is doing to Twitter. Another way to look at them is as platforms or operating systems. What about Android, you ask? Android, a Google product, often relies on Google services, which aren’t available in China. So how do you build an app in China? Something like WeChat or Alipay can help to provide a stable base to build on.

From a functionality perspective, WeChat is perfectly serviceable and so is Alipay. In my opinion, there’s nothing really surprising or groundbreaking about it from that angle. One surprising thing about WeChat is that it’s very clearly intended to be used mainly by Chinese citizens. As an example, when you create a WeChat account, you have to provide your Chinese national ID number. You don’t have one of those? Well, you might be allowed to use WeChat, but only if you know someone who is using WeChat who will validate that you are really a human being. Long-time accountholders of WeChat get to verify one user like this each month. This meant that WeChat was something I couldn’t set up or test before I got to China, because I didn’t know anyone with an account. (Alipay was fine, though.)

Yang was kind enough to validate my humanity, which got me online. Everyone in China is on WeChat, so that’s how you make contacts and keep in touch with everyone you meet. (It’s how Martin invited me out on Monday.) Sometimes people would ask me if I intended to still use WeChat once I got back to the United States. Potentially? I need to do a little legwork to verify whether WeChat is secretly spyware or something, and I’m a little concerned that I won’t be able to log in without getting a text number to my Chinese number, which probably won’t work so well from the United States, but otherwise it could be a good way to keep in touch with people.

Unfortunately, after I get back to the hotel Tuesday, I try to send pictures of the day to Sean. Pretty much immediately I get a "security alert" informing me that my account has been placed in a restricted mode. I can no longer send any messages to anyone. The app tells me that I can unrestrict it by following a process involving submitting pictures of your face, but when I try, it asks for my identification document number, and it doesn’t accept my passport number. There’s another process involving requesting a friend to verify you. OK, no problem, I’ve done this once before, no big deal. The next morning I try asking the staff at the hotel, but they can’t help — they explain that WeChat is looking for someone who is already friends with you. But unfortunately, the convention is over now, and I have no way to meet up with any of my WeChat contacts, even assuming I could contact them, which I kind of can’t?

At this point I start to panic. I’ve made a few friends in China that I can only contact via WeChat. Indeed, some of these relationships have been the best part of my trip to China. Does this mean that I’ve lost them? Worse yet, what will they think when they try to contact me and I don’t write back? Will I look like some douchey tourist who loses interest in people as soon as they are no longer in the same country?

However, Yang gave me an email address. I used it to send a few articles after our interview. Maybe that still works? And I have Martin’s email address, so I haven’t lost that either. I don’t know if email in China is considered, as it is in the United States, an outdated medium for old people, but it’s worth a try — I write an email to both, explaining the situation and asking if they can help. They both respond, which is a huge relief — these are the two closest relationships I’ve made in China and the ones I would hate to lose the most, so knowing that I still have them is very reassuring.

The unrestriction process is clearly designed to be easy if you are next to the person — you type in their phone number, they go to a special place in the app, they see that you requested verification, and then they can click a thing to unrestrict you. Doing it over email with people who have day jobs is not really straightforward. Yang gives it a try, but the system won’t let her because she already used her one verification this month. With Martin, I go back and forth several times, in the end I’m not able to successfully go through the flow with him before I head back to New York. Yang goes above and beyond here, trying to call WeChat support, providing me links to try, and sending a message on my behalf to the "wolf pack" group chat to let them know what happened and to find me on WhatsApp or whatever instead.

Getting frozen out of WeChat was the most frustrating part of my trip, but all things considered it wasn’t so bad — it’s no Soviet prison, but it’s still a bit of a drag. I’m inclined to cut WeChat some slack here. I’ve been around enough to know that this sort of thing happens with every Internet company — I’ve seen people get frozen out of Instagram or Paypal and now I know just how desperate those people were. Still, I think there must be ways to mitigate it when it happens. How about a status that says "This person’s account was restricted"? How about a way to say "If you see this, email me instead"? How about a way to share one contact with another so that someone can explain what’s happening?


Although there is no gas Wednesday morning, there is still breakfast, and although it isn’t incredible, it works just fine.

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My objective is to check out and get to Chongqing. If it’s easy to stop at a post office, I’ll do that too, but it’s looking unlikely. I also need to figure out what I’m going to do with the brief time I have in Chongqing. Although I toyed with the idea of trying to visit the Fengdu Ghost City, specifically inspired by this blog post, my experience yesterday at the tourist attractions I went to is making me think that maybe I will be happier to just spend time in the city. Online travel advice mostly doesn’t speak too highly of Chongqing, but I’m more of a cities person than a nature person. There’s a bunch of museums I want to check out in Chongqing anyhow.

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It’s a different train station than the one I used yesterday to get to Qingchengshan — a bigger, newer one, more like an airport. Although Seat 61 says I can print a cool souvenir with my train ticket, I can’t get it to work. I fumble around a bit trying to find the gate I need to get to, but again I am able to board smoothly.

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It’s a pleasant ride. Towards the end, the flat plains give way to hills and valleys surrounding Chongqing. It’s beautiful.

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I pretty much fall in love with Chongqing right away. My hotel is close to downtown, which is a short trip on two subways. The station where I transfer is built on a bridge, and is exposed to the elements. There’s a great view of the skyline and the river.


There’s also a great view to the other line, which is a monorail (!!!!).


Although the train system is said to have a "distinctive Japanese aesthetic", from my point of view it looks very similar to the Chengdu system, or at least more similar then different.


The People’s Liberation Monument, which sounds very Communist and I guess it is because it used to be known as the Monument of Victory in the War of Resistance (because World War 2 is known there as the Chinese War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression), but there’s still billboards and fancy shops all around.

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The hotel where I am staying is one floor of a sort of office building. Each floor is its own thing. The ground floor looks very shiny.

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I ask for directions to the nearest post office so I can mail some postcards. It’s actually quite close, although the directions I get are kind of confusing. The post office itself is kind of beautiful — it’s a kind of retail space shared between the post office, a cafe, and an electronics vendor.


I’m able to successfully conduct business — a postcard costs 5 yuan to mail internationally, which is under $1. In addition to post officers who patiently listen to my terrible Chinese, and who can pack parcels for you, there are common-sense useful things like this phone charger.

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There’s also this "postal museum", a collection of communication artifacts from different times. On the ceiling is a reproduction of candarin stamps but apparently I didn’t take a picture of them.

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There’s also these stamp pads. I think collectors use them — I saw a few people stamping in their notebooks, I guess collecting cancellations from different places.


I don’t have a clear idea of what to do this evening. I figure I will just wander around downtown and try to get a sense of the place, maybe stop and get some souvenirs. A vendor at a counter is selling steamed buns and I buy a basket for 18 yuan. I eat all of them.

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A common description of Chongqing is that it’s a real "cyberpunk" city, so it’s good that I went, as a science fiction fan.

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The geography of Chongqing is also very interesting. The hills and valleys are part of what I just learned is a syncline. The effect is that there are dramatic changes of elevation. One person I spoke to in Chengdu described Chongqing as having "levels". This elevator is a form of public transportation between them. I pay 1 yuan to ride down to the lower level, because I’m a fan of public transportation, so of course I do. (You can bet your bottom dollar I spent a dollar to go to the bottom.)


This is another option.

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There’s alleys, paths, and walkways everywhere. One person at Worldcon I spoke to said that people from Chongqing know all kinds of tricks to get around, and that you can even sometimes see taxis driving on staircases. When I remarked that people online mostly discouraged traveling to Chongqing, my interlocutor explained that probably those people had gotten lost and didn’t like it.


Chongqing is an easy place to get lost in, but that suits me fine because I don’t have anywhere to be. It’s especially easy for me to get lost because I’m trying to get around using Google Maps and Open Street Map, neither of which implement the Mars coordinates systems that Chinese map data uses. In the area around my hotel in Chengdu, things were flat and relatively grid-oriented, so it wasn’t a problem, but in the twisty paths of Chongqing, it’s a real challenge. Like I mentioned above, there isn’t really a good option for maps in China if you aren’t literate in Chinese. Occasionally I will see a staircase and take it, hoping it will deliver me uphill and inland, only to discover that it leads to a residential building.

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I stop at a couple stores that look halfway between convenience stores and supermarkets to find some souvenirs and other local products — green tea for Ashley, snacks, alcohols. I find one in particular that seems to specialize in alcoholic beverages, although many of them are outside of my price range. I spend a little while annoying the woman behind the counter with my incessant and ignorant questions, while only understanding about 15% of what she says in reply. I learn the word běndì, "local", which I use to try to describe the kind of products I’m looking for. "Everything is běndì," she says. I don’t really understand at first, but looking through the fridge and finding not just beers but also yogurts, and looking through the shelves and finding not just whiskeys but also hot pot seasoning packets, I start to see what she means. I still don’t really know what these stores were called because the signs were in Chinese, but they were clearly set up to cater to tourists looking for something from Chongqing to bring back home. It occurs to me that while I’m used to places catering to foreign tourists, things in China are different. There’s a huge market of Chinese tourists — that is, tourists from other parts of China — and it’s obviously a lot easier for them to visit than people from abroad, not to mention that in sheer numbers, there are probably more Chinese tourists, being one of the most populous countries in the world. Of course the increasing prosperity and burgeoning middle class of China probably has something to do with it too, not to mention being able to do business more easily without a language barrier.

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I wander aimlessly, taking pictures all the time. Chongqing is incredibly photogenic to my eye.


Sincere Plaza.


This place might be some kind of bookstore or cafe. The sign advertises "Books, Drinks, Foods, Bliss", which sounds like a great combination to me.

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One objective I have is to figure out how the drinking culture works here. There was no alcohol sold at Worldcon at all that I could tell, and I don’t see a lot of neighborhood watering holes. Following some outdated recommendations online, I find myself in this underground arcade (which is an arcade in both senses). There is an advertisement for a place that seems like it sells craft beer, but looking inside, it gives club vibes, so I leave hurriedly. My literacy in Chinese is almost nil, but I know the character 酒 jiǔ, "alcohol", and I keep seeing it in other words and thinking I’ve found something, only to turn to my phone’s dictionary app and discover that actually I’m looking at 酒樓 jiǔlóu, which means "restaurant", kind of like you might call a place a "tavern" in America, or 酒店 jiǔdìan, which is used in the names of hotels. My brain keeps going "alcoho!.. tel". I pass one place that looks like a fancy whiskey bar, which reminds me of a time I spent an awkward evening at Butler Bar in Hong Kong, so I skip it, although I keep it in mind for later. I also pass something that appears to be some sort of teahouse, but I’m hesitant to have caffeine at this time.


Wantonly. Great name!


This is upstairs — we passed this plaza food court thing earlier. The vibes are incredible.

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I eat this and drink this. (I got the beer from the local products store.)


Chongqing is a little gritty, too, which adds to the charm in my opinion.


I keep moving. There’s a kiosk selling snacks. I get this weird wood thing that has rice inside it. It’s kind of expensive compared to the other products. I don’t really understand it. I eat it standing there chatting to the two girls, one behind the counter, the other perhaps chatting with her friend. They are bantering with me despite the poor level of my Chinese. I think they consider me an interesting curiosity, who doesn’t even know what this wood rice thing is or how to eat it. The one keeps asking me questions, and, when I don’t understand, dumbing them down until I do. "Do you think Chongqing people are pretty?" she says. I don’t think she’s flirting so much as looking for validation — even foreigners think we are a beautiful people. I disarm her by telling her that I think Chongqing is very beautiful and showing her the pictures I’ve been taking all night. I ask them where there might be bars around here. They don’t really know, probably because they’re in high school, but she did say there’s someplace that sounds like jiǔ jiē, "Ninth Street", so maybe that’s worth pursuing later.


Welcome to Lotus.

I wander back to the hotel and my room. Now that I have a little more time, I notice that some of the things around the room are not complimentary, as I had assumed, but have price tags on them.

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They are probably reasonable prices if you need them.

Thursday I wake up in time for the hotel breakfast. It’s not as good as the Holiday Inn Pidu, but it does the job. There are no forks — the chopsticks come from some kind of chopstick autoclave that periodically produces new clean ones.

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A cute "wet floor" sign at the hotel.


This is the view from my window. Actually, the room across is just another room in the hotel…

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… and the "natural light" is coming from panels in the ceiling. This room is on the inside of the building and doesn’t have exposure to the outside. There seems like there’s a weird sand Zen garden thing between the rooms but I don’t know if you’re allowed to go to it.

My main objective for today is to hit a bunch of the museums I had picked out. Chongqing is a very interesting place historically — it served as the wartime capital of the Republic of China, and was the base of a man named Joseph Stillwell, who commanded South East Asia Command. During World War 2, which took place during the Chinese civil war, the Communist and the Nationalist factions met here to agree to a truce so they could present a united front against the Japanese. From what I read on Chongqing in Wikivoyage, it also seems like there is something called the "Democratic Parties History Museum of China", "about the history of China’s minor political parties, three of which were founded in Chongqing". I think it would be fascinating to learn more about the history of government in modern China, especially as viewed through a Chinese lens rather than an American one.

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But I wander around a bit too. (Notice the "酒店" on the brown building center left.) One feature I’ve noticed is the background noise — stores use megaphones replaying a recorded message as a sort of simple advertising method, with the message listing every variety of product they carry. Sometimes the different sets of marketing combine.

[FIXME: fix video]

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I go back to this building, technically a "suite of eight buildings", whose name is officially Raffles City. because this is where you can go to see the confluence of the two rivers at Chaotianmen Square.


It’s also the site of the China-Singapore etc. I love a name that is long and bureaucratic, so I have to take a picture of this one.

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The inside, at least the levels that I go to, are also a fairly ordinary shopping mall.


You can also take an elevator to the skybridge, which is named the Crystal.

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There are restaurants and bars at the top, seemingly way more upscale than I am looking for. If this is what it takes to understand Chinese drinking culture, I’m not interested.

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It turns out Chaotianmen Square is closed for renovation. You can see a sort of temporary pier that they have set up for cruise ships to dock at.

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It’s still an interesting skyline.


I am obviously obsessed with the monorail. As a passenger, you basically wouldn’t notice that it’s a monorail, but it is still awesome.

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I get off at the train station near where the Democratic Parties History Museum is supposed to be. It’s not obvious how to get to it — it’s raining and the sidewalks are being repaved, so it’s muddy. I follow a staircase up to a path that leads around several buildings and then down. I realize afterwards that I’ve gone past it and double back.

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These signs are really interesting. It’s almost like, from the perspective of China, the Communist Party is not mutually exclusive with terms like "progressive" and "democratic", although I think most Americans would say they are.

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In the alley that leads to where I’m going there are lots of signs like this. It’s raining too much for me to use my phone to translate them all, so I just take pictures of them. (Reading them now, they’re mostly personal anecdotes about this guy Xian Ying, at whose mansion the site is.)


A public restroom. Clean and convenient. Why can’t we have nice things in America?


When I go in, I am surprised to discover there’s no entrance. Indeed, as I proceed further I realize.. there’s no anything. The Democratic Parties History Museum is closed permanently and some people are working on converting the space into something like a community center. A little ominous… maybe, like a lot of businesses, they didn’t make it through COVID?

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Wandering around I also discover this other house. It’s got something like a museum exhibition inside but to be honest it doesn’t really resonate for me. It’s lots of stuff about the Nationalists and the Communists resisting the Japanese, and especially about how the Communists always had the moral high ground. Meh.

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My next objective is to get to the Flying Tigers museum and the Joseph Stillwell museum.


I pass this place but don’t try to go inside.

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It’s the war that is anti-Japanese, not the park.

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[FIXME: fix video]

Monorail! It changes elevation here right by this little park. (This isn’t the War Ruins park, this is just some random place.)

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The Flying Tigers Exhibition Hall is pleasant enough. Apparently I didn’t take any pictures of the inside. It’s nice to be confident that the exhibition will have an English-language component. The Flying Tigers were like a regiment of American volunteer pilots who flew over China to defend it against the Japanese. Some of the war stuff is not that interesting — routes they flew and so forth — but I find the idea that Americans and Chinese can work together for the greater good kind of beautiful and inspiring. One interesting thing I remember from the museum that I remember is that the American pilots would wear a jacket with a patch sewn to the back that read, in Chinese, something like "This person is a friend. All good Chinese citizens will render him shelter, food, and medical assistance and see that he gets to where he is going", so that if they were shot down, even if they didn’t speak any Chinese or weren’t conscious, it was clear which side they were on and that they had the backing of the Chinese government.

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Across the street is the Stillwell Museum. "Remember our shared struggle for peace." It’s a nice message.

Apparently I didn’t take any pictures of the inside here either. It’s nice enough — it’s done to resemble what it must have been like when he was using it as an official residence, and there are explanations of how he used it and what else he did in the war. There’s also a photo exhibition talking about his personal story. He seems like he was a good officer — he became fluent in Chinese, and he was not shy about jumping in to situations with his men when the situation called for it.

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The last stop on my agenda is the Hongyan Village. This is a cluster of museums and facilities with conference hall vibes. It’s dedicated to the Revolution and more broadly the Chinese Communist Party. I take the bus for variety’s sake, and it’s very much like every other bus I’ve ever taken in a city, but I miss my stop and have to double back. I get here shortly before closing and when I get through security, I ask if there are any English in the exhibits, only to get a definitive "No". The cards are stacked against me but I’m hopeful to get a glimpse of the Chinese perspective on Communism. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I think, to see an explanation along the lines of "We considered the following things when deciding about our government, and we knew there were these possible drawbacks, but in the end, we chose Communism because these advantages were worth it to us"? This is all I ever really want from anyone when they make a decision — clear reasoning behind it. Or, how about "Here’s how Communism works in practice and why it’s actually great." Or, how about "Communism has had these problems but here are some things we’ve tried or are trying as we continuously strive to serve the people". I just feel like there’s a lot you could talk about if you were going to talk about the Chinese Communist Party and how great it is.

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I’m pretty disappointed. The museum reads almost entirely like propaganda, mostly of the form "This Communist-affiliated group did this-and-that thing and it was good." Sometimes even the positive consequences aren’t very clear. Maybe I was in the wrong building.. I only had a little time to spend, so maybe the good stuff is somewhere else.

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Google translates this as "The first batch of great spirits in the spiritual pedigree of Chinese Communists". It’s just a litany of different Such-and-Such Spirit names, some sounding a little jingoistic. The average "spirit" sounds somewhere between a rallying cry and something promoted by a high school student body.


On the top floor is an exhibiiton about Xi Jinping thought [not pictured]. I don’t even think I get to it and certainly I don’t understand it before the lights go out in the room where I am. I guess this is the hint that it’s closing time. I use my phone’s flashlight to head back to the main hall, where the lights are still on.


This translation uses a classic English phrase with the same meaning.

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I take another bus to Shapingba, where I hope to find dinner and some kind of nightlife to speak of.


I get a hot tea with some kind of cream or cheese on the surface.


Me Time. Beir Time. Some kind of bakery??


I find a restaurant advertising Chongqing-style hot pot (supposedly different somehow from Chengdu-style hot pot) and I decide to dine there.

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The vibes are pretty solid.


I am able to sample some local beers.


I am able to communicate with the staff using the translation on our phones. I order some things I am sure I will like plus some things listed as specials. The upper left is of course beef rumen, a kind of tripe. I learned how to cook this back in Chengdu, but I struggle to cut it into smaller pieces. The waitress writes something into her phone and then shows me the translation: "Fur bellies are eaten in one bite." Fair enough!


Although I ask for "not too hot", it’s quite hot. They see that I’m struggling and bring me some sweet dishes to try to counterbalance it.

After dinner I ask for some guidance finding a bar, once again mediated by my phone. The waitstaff I ask about it doesn’t seem to know any nearby bars. Then, three women who were about to exit stop and ask me in English, "Is everything OK?" They seem very nice. I explain that I’m just looking for a bar, and there’s a lot of discussion but eventually they suggest I go to Jiu Jie, Ninth Street, like the high school student told me the night before. The easiest way to get there is the taxi. One of them walks me to the street where I can pick up the taxi. She works for the government somehow although I am not sure how exactly.

The taxi drops me off in front of what looks like some kind of shopping mall.

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It looks like practically everything is a bar. At first I am just walking around and trying to suss out the vibe — I see one quiet place with a neon sign that says "alcoholic drink", but before I can get a picture a young man walks up to me. He asks if I need help. He doesn’t seem as nice as the ladies from the restaurant. Through the translation on our phones, he explains that he’s somehow affiliated with one of the establishments here and he offers to show it to me. Why not.


I hate it immediately. It’s more like a club than a bar. They try to put me in a private room and sell me a "package" which includes a local girl who will come and hang out with you. Fortunately, all the prices are clearly marked and it’s more than I want to spend — thousands of yuan — not to mention that I am not confident that I will be able to successfully pay with my phone. I tell them that I have a girlfriend and I don’t want a girl. I just want a quiet place to hang out and have a beer, but even having a single beer at a table costs like 60 yuan. On the other hand, a package of 12 beers is 200 yuan and includes sitting at a table. Fine, I guess we’ll do that? Sure enough, Alipay wants me to validate with my bank again, who wants to send me a text message. I spend almost all the remainder of my cash.

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They will put ice in your cup and pour your beer into it if that’s how you like it. (It isn’t — I’m still a little worried about the ice — but I try it.) The beers are pretty light but I have no desire to drink 12 of them. I offer some to the young man who escorted me here. My hope is to drink as many as I can so that I can move on, but while I am continuing to talk with the young man, he says that actually all the bars in the building are part of the same company. Also, apparently the "alcoholic drink" place is a break room for staff. So, that’s pretty disappointing. I make friends with another young person. I offer him beers too, but he doesn’t drink — allergic to alcohol, he says.

It’s loud so it’s hard to talk to anyone, but that’s OK — I’m writing English into my phone and showing the translation to the person next to me, and the person two seats away I am texting with. Maybe that’s what everyone else is doing, because I see that most people are on their phones. There are people sitting here and there playing some kind of game with dice — I ask one of my new friends how it works and apparently it’s like you both roll five dice and whoever gets the lower roll has to drink or something like that. In other words, basically the stupidest drinking game imaginable.

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I try to record the vibes discreetly but I have mixed success. There are some moments when everyone seems to get up and into the song, whatever it is.

[FIXME: upload videos]


A sign on the way to the bathroom. Put Your Hands Up, Hack The System, Ants Me, I’m Famous, Go with us, Feel it, Create it.

The first young man tells me that one of his friends wants to meet the foreigner and is that OK. I assent and a young lady joins our table. We shake hands and I offer her a beer. She is chewing gum while she drinks it. I try to be friendly and make conversation but she doesn’t seem very interested. The only interaction I have with her is that from time to time, she raises her bottle to me, we cheers, and then we both drink. "Sorry," the young man says to me, "she’s a bit of an introvert."

Finally the beers are done and I want to get out of here. I tell my "host" that I am leaving — there’s no point in going to another bar if they’re all run by the same company, and it’s already too late to take the subway, which was my original plan, so I’ll have to take a taxi back to my hotel. He walks me to the street and ensures that I successfully call the taxi using the app before bidding me farewell.

The taxi takes a long time to arrive. In fact, it takes so long that the app offers me the opportunity to cancel it and order another one. I do, but then I think for a second. I’m free — the young man is gone. Why not take a little while and see what else is around? I have no special need to go to sleep at a reasonable hour — I fly back tomorrow and the 12-hour time difference is going to be difficult no matter what — so why not stay up later? I cancel the second taxi — I might have to pay some amount of money for that, but as long as my credit card is still working then it’s worth it.

I’m at the corner with the entrance to the shopping mall. I go down one street a few hundred meters — not very far — and stick my head into a place that looks promising. It’s quiet — most of the people there look like couples. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place I’m looking for, but a waiter comes up and asks in English if he can help. I ask if they serve local beers and he says no. Even so, I ask how much it would cost to have a beer there. He says "Maybe 45 yuan." I decide I’m going to keep looking so I thank him and leave.

I go back to the corner and decide to try the other way. Literally the first storefront I pass is this:


Well, I have to check that out, don’t I? There’s a variety of breweries, seemingly mostly American, some I’ve even heard of like Sierra Nevada.


I find one beer that’s "mung bean" flavored for 20 yuan. Overall I’m pretty impressed with the place but it seems a bit strange to have a beer store here in the bar strip. Is this the kind of country where I can drink in public? I’m not sure so I ask at the counter — there’s a young lady there and a well-put-together young man. Using my phone I communicate that it’s cool that they have all this interesting beer but what if I want to drink outside of my hotel room?


They indicate the chairs sitting nearby. This is perfect — I can just enjoy a beverage and watch the world go by.


I’m quite taken with the place. It’s got a cool, punk vibe that’s somehow international. The two young people are lovely. We strike up a conversation. His name is Yangxi and her name is Xiao Su, "Little" Su. Only she is actually working here; he is just a friend who is hanging out for a little while before going to work himself. They ask if I have WeChat, and when I explain that it’s broken (about which more later), they take it upon themselves to try to fix it. They work on it for like an hour without success. Instead we exchange email.


I’m still a little worried about my Alipay not working so I try to buy Yangxi a beer. Unfortunately he is faster than me and buys me a beer instead. When I explain the reason I want to buy him a beer, he allows me to purchase one.


We have a surprisingly deep conversation for the short time that we are there. When Su tells me that she wants to go to the United States, I mentally prepare myself — a Cameroonian saying this is always about to say something about the standard of living — but instead Su explains that she is looking for love. I explain that in New York, I don’t know any single guys, but lots of single women, and advise her to check San Francisco instead.


The beer store even has a few taps and I am able to try some of the draft beers too. (I don’t try the Brooklyn Brewery one, obviously.)

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I’m there long enough that the place closes down. Su locks everything up while patrons from nearby bars pass by, staggering and trying visibly to retain consciousness. She’s about to go to a "pub" to meet some friends and do I want to go? I’ve never been to a "pub" in China — I am wondering if maybe the word "bar" that I have been using means something different in this context — so I’m an obvious yes. It’s raining slightly; Yangxi looks cold, so I give him my thin plastic jacket that I bought on Amazon and probably came from China originally which is a little too small for me. I share an umbrella with Su. We continue communicating via translation app. Su asks if all foreign guys are tall — in her experience Chinese guys are "hollow", whatever that means.

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We arrive at a place called Cyber2077. Su explains that it’s quite popular now because they just put up Halloween decorations. (Any time Halloween is a thing outside of the US, I’m surprised.) Su’s friends are already there; there’s a couple of guys and a couple of girls. Su explains to me that the guy who is her friend is "naughty" because he has several girlfriends, and I guess one of them is at the table with us.

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The table already has these cases of some kind of sweet alcoholic drink, maybe "cider" is the right word. The guys are drinking and chain-smoking. The girls are making decent headway on the drinks, as though their goal was to get as much free alcohol as possible. They are playing a drinking game where both participants do a rock-paper-scissors thing and stick out some fingers, and the goal is to guess the total number of fingers being held. If you guess correctly, the other person drinks.

Su tells me that it’s a dangerous place (does she mean that literally, or metaphorically?) because if you get drunk there, you’ll get really messed up. She suggests that it would be smart for both of us to not spend too long there. I take her advice and we head out. I’m successfully able to call a taxi, and she waits for it with me. While we are waiting, some people in uniforms show up yelling and surround another patron, detaining him and eventually leading him away. Su explains with her app that it’s because he "ran riot" with a knife, whatever that means. But don’t be alarmed, she continues — China takes law and order very seriously.

I take my taxi back to the room — Alipay works fine after all. It’s a bit after 4 AM. I try to wind down as best as I can and I go to sleep. I’m still not sure I understand the drinking culture in China, but I’m happy with my progress.

Friday is relatively uneventful. I take the subway to the airport — I’m there in about an hour. I try to find a place to have an airport beer without much success — while there are a variety of shops, none seems like a bar per se. I walk past "The Habit", a California burger chain that for some reason has an outpost in the Chongqing airport, but it seems kind of upscale and I’m not sure if they serve alcohol.

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Check out this cool mimicry typeface.

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I walk basically the length of the airport before finally getting a beer at a noodle place at the far end of the terminal.

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Beijing Airport, on the other hand, is dead. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s late in the day or because I’m in the International section or what but there’s basically nothing open besides a Starbucks. There are some vending machines but mostly they don’t work and the ones that don’t work only serve non-alcoholic drinks. I wait soberly for my flight. Once I’ve boarded, I try to stay awake as long as I can, to overcome the time zone difference, but it’s no use — I fall asleep several times. I’m flying with Air China, and although it’s not as nice as Cathay Pacific, the food isn’t bad and I make it through OK.

I disembark at JFK. It’s true that it’s late — almost midnight — but getting home is a hassle. The Airtrain is undergoing construction so I have to take a shuttle to another terminal and from there take the Airtrain (which, remember, costs almost $9). I take it, perhaps foolishly, to Jamaica hoping to catch the LIRR, but it isn’t running to Brooklyn. Instead I have to take the subway. On the platform, a panhandler gives me a card about how they’re deaf and they’re selling something to make money. No thanks. Although this is an E station, for some reason the F train is running on the E line so I’m able to take that instead. As I look out the window at the relatively underdeveloped area around the airport, I am struck that this is the first time in my life that I’ve felt like New York City was provincial. By comparison, the level of service on the public transportation I took in China was all great. To be fair, a lot of the Chinese infrastructure (not counting the dam in Chengdu) is much newer — they don’t have to bear the cost of retrofitting antiquated technology — but I think there’s something social and cultural about it too. Look at the DC Metro for an example of new construction that still kinda sucks, for example.

Parting thoughts

OK, this sucker has gone on long enough. Let’s wind it up.

Overall my trip to China was great. I like to say that the convention itself was only so-so, but the travel experience was fantastic. I’m really happy I went.

One of my main concerns was being able to get around without mastery of the language, especially since China doesn’t have a reputation for widespread English fluency. The convention was very helpful in this regard, because they did a lot to support those of us coming from abroad. But in the end I needn’t have worried. Lots of people are comfortable using their smartphones to access translation apps, and once I had mobile data, I got into the habit of it too. These translation apps are surprisingly effective — it’s enough to make you wonder if the days of learning another language are over forever. However, I did find it frustrating to communicate like this sometimes. As a learner, sometimes you want to pick up a specific word, or you want to be able to repeat the word back to someone to make sure you understand what it means, or to respond in kind. You completely lose that when you communicate through a translation app. Just because it turned a specific Chinese word into an English word, doesn’t mean that it will turn the English word back into the same Chinese word.

My overall impressions of China were these:

  • Lots of earnest young people doing their best to really achieve something amidst the confusion of a huge, dynamic country.
  • Despite the "chaos", there’s a clear sense of something that I will describe as "order". This isn’t just like social order — nobody wearing cosplay, and no obviously queer people in sight — but even stuff like the trains working effectively and being at the platform exactly in time for people to board, with cars and doors being numbered right on the platform. Us Americans are individualists, but is that really why we can’t have well-labeled platforms? It sometimes feels a little bit like America has collectively resigned itself to mediocrity.

I’d absolutely go back. There’s so much I haven’t seen!


Souq or shuk (part 2) (Saturday, 2019 February 13)

May 20, 2019

Whew! I started writing this in February but (as of this writing) it’s already May and I still haven’t finished it. I started a few months after the last post because I still had things I wanted to say about our Middle East trip, and quickly wrote up a series of vignettes about our trip, but ran out of steam before I finished. I’m going to try to tie this off, let’s see how far I get.

Somewhere over the Atlantic

We fly on WOW Air, which is a low-cost Icelandic carrier, out of EWR with a layover at Keflavik, which is a pleasant-enough airport. We disembark directly onto the tarmac on a staircase, which is always charming. On the first flight, some woman overhears us talking either about Hebrew or about Israel and strikes up a conversation. She’s Israeli and we try to get as much information about what we’re getting ourselves into as possible. We tell her we’re going to a friend’s wedding and she says it’s good that we get to see an Israeli wedding. We tell her that Yaya told us it would be a small wedding, and she laughs. "To Israelis, a ‘small wedding’ means 200 people." We’re doubtful, but who knows. We learn that although the extremely Orthodox don’t climb the Temple Mount, we’re unlikely to fall into that category, since, after all, we’re flying on a Friday. Great.

We have a beer in Keflavik during our layover. Everything is expensive. Surprisingly, both the moms and Rita are all selected for additional security screenings. We manage to board our flight on time.


Ben Gurion International Airport (outside Tel Aviv)

Immigration takes forever. We are waiting in line in a giant hall. About a half-hour passes and we make not much progress. Suddenly there’s a loud commotion, including some shouting, and for a second I panic, wondering if I need to duck and cover or what. But no, it’s just an audience reacting to the World Cup games being broadcast on a television in the corner.

We continue to stand in line and after a while, Rita and I are the last two of our group to talk to a surly immigration officer. He wants to know if I’m Jewish, to which I respond "My father", which for me is a shorthand that explains a lot. I wonder if it will mean the same things to him. He wants to know if we’ve arranged meetings with any revolutionary or terrorist organizations. No, of course not. How about Arab or Muslim organizations? Well, we’re going to Wadi Rum to stay in the desert with some Bedouins. We’ll be going with those four women that have already gone through customs. Does that count? He’s nonplussed, to which we try to be friendly and helpful. He flips through our passport pages, looking for anything suspicious. "Here, it says you were in… Doola. Where’s that?" Doola? "Do you mean ‘Douala’? That’s in Cameroon." Rita and I exchange glances. We reach an unspoken agreement not to follow up with "You know where Cameroon is, right? In Africa?", lest we give offense. Eventually he concludes that we’re harmless if ignorant tourists and off we go.

We take the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I had expected the entire Middle East to be essentially sand dunes and dust storms, and the area on the road to Jerusalem isn’t like this. We drive through hills and valleys filled with scrub. Jerusalem at first glance looks much like a typical European city, although it is mostly shut down for the Sabbath. We pass Ethiopian restaurants and apartment buildings.

We’re staying in the old city, which is much like other old cities, in an Airbnb that bills itself as a "Palestinian home". Really it’s something like a basement, but there’s hot water and it’s hot outside, so having a clammy dungeon to come back to is not so bad.

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I really wanted to visit Ramallah, the "de-facto capital of the West Bank", and out of fear that some kind of civil unrest could spring up at any time, we decide to head there first.

I really like Ramallah. It feels friendly and inexpensive in a way that is familiar. Yaya later comments that the West Bank provokes in her a feeling not dissimilar to being in Cameroon. I’m not sure what exactly provokes this feeling, but I agree with her. Maybe it’s because people walk around selling stuff. For example, people dressed in what I assume is traditional Palestinian dress pour some beverage (tea? carob juice?) for passersby. (I thought I took a picture of one, but I don’t seem to have it any more, so here’s one from this person’s blog.)


It could also be the markets. Some stalls are built in concrete structures that reminded me distinctly of markets in some Cameroonian city (although I can’t quite put my finger on which one). Others are under roofs but felt similar to an open-air market that you might find in village (pictured in the last post).


More interesting merchants in Ramallah.


Eating arab gum ice cream in Ramallah.


The outskirts of Ramallah on the bus ride back.


One the list of things I absolutely have to do on this trip is going to the Western Wall. I have been given a small note by my father to try to put into the cracks between the bricks and I don’t want to miss my chance. We head there the next day, first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. Personally, I find it more interesting from an archaeological and sociological perspective than for any religious one. There are so many people, many working through their individual rituals, including a tour group from Nigeria (who we see throughout the day around Jerusalem).

I pick my way through the crowds of mostly Orthodox Jews with sprinkling of a few others and place my father’s note in a space among other notes. Everywhere around me, others are praying sincerely, and I feel I ought to try, as long as I’m there anyhow, although (as I have admitted before) I don’t really have a clear idea of how. I start by looking within myself, trying to find any sensation of divine presence. I don’t find one, even with my eyes closed.

I look around again, trying to see what everyone else is doing, maybe hoping for a bit of advice from a stranger. Some are some distance away, singing and chanting and reading from books. Others are close-in to the shade of the wall, as though in a conversation with an interlocutor. I try touching the stones of the wall, and with my hand there, pray again. It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m praying to a wall. I rifle mentally through the things in my life that I’m unhappy with — there aren’t that many — and politely request that they be fixed. Eventually I do feel a sort of calm or peace come over me, perhaps as a response, but it’s hard to tell if it’s the divine presence and not just, say, the wall itself, answering with the everyday presence that a cool stone wall has. I turn to leave, passing one other gentleman who had found a peace that was indistinguishable from having fallen asleep in the hot sun.

From there we go to the Temple Mount. Immediately upon setting foot on the area, I feel a holiness and sacredity that had been missing from the Wall, though in hindsight maybe that was just because there were no hysterical Orthodox carrying on. I think, then, about how the Jewish tradition was that some aspect of divine presence is still on-site. Maybe so, but it’s also simply a wide, quiet plaza, with not too many visitors and beautiful architecture, and it feels easy to mistake one for the other. We spend some time here taking pictures. The Dome of the Rock is stunning. In terms of the beauty of their sacred sites, the Muslims are really thrashing the Jews.


The plaza in front of the Western Wall/some of the men’s side.


The Western Wall (women’s side).


The plaza at the top of the mount.

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The Dome of the Rock.


We didn’t try "The Bible Experience" virtual reality attraction.


Overlooking Jerusalem from the south side of the Old City.


We travel north somewhat to Haifa. Haifa is the site of Israel’s first underground transit system (the Haifa funicular) and we are determined to see it. Unfortunately, we discover when we get there that it’s closed down. There was a fire and it’s still being repaired. Other than that, there’s not a lot going on in Haifa — if Tel Aviv is Manhattan, Haifa is Jersey City or maybe Newark. (I’m not sure what Jerusalem corresponds to in this analogy. Maybe a reverse Atlantic City.) Beyond that, our plan is to use our location in Haifa as a jumping-off point to see the Galilee. In hindsight, maybe we oughtn’t have bothered. When we told Yaya of this part of our plan, she asked our traveling companions, "Are you Christian?", the implication being that if you weren’t, you could probably find a better use for your time in the Holy Land.

On the day we arrive, we are too late to go much of anywhere, so we wander the streets. We see the outside of the Bahá’í gardens, which are impressive; a bit of industrial waterfront; eventually we wander our way over to a bit of beach. We sit at a table outside a beachfront refreshments stand; adjacent, there is another table, at which are seated some salty-looking Israelis drinking and smoking. Eventually one of them makes eye contact with me and says something in Hebrew. I indicate that I don’t understand Hebrew and he becomes embarrassed, maybe even saying "Sorry" in English while gesticulating something like an apology. He and his friends have a laugh. He points out one of his friends to me and says something else in Hebrew that I don’t understand, to which the friend replies in English "Don’t believe anything he says. He’s drunk!"


The view from our balcony.


These "Danger of Death!" signs around Haifa amused the ladies.

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Bahá’í gardens.

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Sunset on the beach.


A playground on the beach.

The next day we go to Tiberias, more or less at random but because it’s adjacent to the Sea itself. It’s underwhelming. Everything is hot and bright, and the sea is hazy with evaporation. We go to the national park, where we briefly dip our feet in the hot springs. Within the park is also a reconstructed synagogue dating from the 4th century CE; it has a mosaic floor depicting a mix of Jewish symbols, Greek writing, and the signs of the Zodiac. It’s a reminder of how deeply intertangled the overlapping histories of religion are in the Holy Land, which, as you probably already realize, is a major theme of the trip.

We spend the rest of the afternoon across the street in a "resort" (kind of like a pool/gym), swimming and hanging out, before heading back.


Mosaic floor.


Sea of Galilee. It looks beautiful here rather than humid and miserable.


Al Amari Mosque, now disused and in need of repair, in what I think used to be the town square.

Tel Aviv

We see a little bit of Tel Aviv, in particular the beaches, which are populated with the most beautiful people by far we see on the trip. We see a little bit of the rest of the city, walking through another open-air market, but mostly we don’t have a lot of time because we need to get ready for the wedding.


I ate a sandwich out of a bus station vending machine between buses.


A "frame" set up by some tourism authority to inspire you to take a photo of the scenic beauty. Hashtag trying too hard.

And what a wedding it is, dear reader. Just as the woman predicted on the plane, there are 200 attendees. There is also an open bar, of which liberal use will be made later. There are five or six "stations" each serving a different food. One is serving falafel and hummus — by this point in the trip I have gotten so used to the "xh" sound in "xhummus" that when I ask about the bread, I mistakenly call it "xhole wheat". Embarrassing!

The ceremony is beautiful. Most of the speakers graciously speak in English, and generally everyone appears happy to converse in English (Rita and I never manage more than a few words of Hebrew). The remarks are wonderful — I’ve forgotten most of them, but I remember Amit’s brother, who addressed Yaya’s family regarding their joy at Amit being newly added to their family: "I get it. He’s a hot doctor." Similarly, to Yaya, how happy that he was that she was joining theirs: "Not only are you beautiful and intelligent, but you have the ability to Shut. Amit. Down. Which is much appreciated."

After the ceremony, a screen is set up and a video is played. It’s a "life and times of Amit" that have been put together by some of Amit’s friends as well as his family. It shows Amit’s mom talking on the phone (this part is subtitled in English) about her son and how proud she is that he’s decided in high school to major in Arabic but that she’s uncertain that the school is really set up for it. Later it shows Amit (depicted by a friend wearing a printed photo of Amit as a mask) deciding what unit of the armed forces to join. Each unit he considers is portrayed as a stereotype — the marines are all doing push-ups and bicep curls, the infantry are all marching and standing at attention, but finally when Amit considers the signals unit (i.e. the one he really joined), it’s portrayed as a bunch of flamboyantly dressed weirdos. In the next scene, Amit is portrayed meeting Yaya (portrayed again by someone wearing a printout of Yaya’s face) — she’s throwing a frisbee (a shout-out to her ultimate frisbee career). Suddenly the manner of the video changes to a nature documentary, with a British voiceover talking through Amit’s prowling manner as he attempts to close in on his prey, with silence being his only chance. Suddenly, he passes gas, startling her. She turns to look at him. "Uhh… ni hao ma?" he tries. She replies, "I’m from Detroit, motherfucker!"

After the video, there is some commotion as a clearing is produced. Out of nowhere, a skit is performed — all of Amit’s friends have put together a show in addition to the video! The skit is in Hebrew and I can’t follow all of it, but it largely takes the form of Amit interviewing with someone about his time in the armed forces. Someone playing Amit sits opposite a woman who is asking him questions. Occasionally other friends will jump in behind/around him to enact "flashbacks". For example, one question that transcended the language barrier was about Amit’s drinking habits: does he drink too much? No, he replies, as one of his friends crawls along the floor and passes out in front of him. Eventually the skit ends on the question: who is his favorite Johnny? "Depp," replies Amit. "Depp?" "Depp." And with that…

… the dancing begins. There is a lot of dancing. And drinking. At one point a table is lifted by several partygoers and the newlyweds are hoisted onto it to dance atop it. Or maybe that was after they were lifted into the air and crowdsurfed over to the open bar, whereupon the bartenders poured alcohol directly into their mouths. I seem to recall the parents also getting lifted onto the table, or maybe it was only Yaya’s father. It is, to put it mildly, a wild party. Us Americans stick together. Yaya’s father and I were already fast friends at the first wedding when he bought a bottle of moutai and I drank most of it. The rest of her family is also awesome. The drinking and dancing continue. At some point the party clears out and we board a bus to go back to Tel Aviv. Someone throws up on the bus. However, the contents of my stomach remain where they are. Somehow we stagger back to the hostel and pass out, and not a moment too soon because the next day we are making the overland crossing to Jordan and have to get moving as early as possible.

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A video of the dancing.


It’s really blurry, but you can see some of the printouts on sticks in the background to serve as masks.

Yitzhak Rabin Border Crossing

Getting moving as early as possible turns out to be difficult because of the aftereffects of the party. Somehow we manage to get to the bus station a bit earlier than we need for the 12 o’clock bus. We’re doing the overland crossing both for the practical reason that there are no direct flights from Israel to Jordan or Egypt and also because philosophically it should be more interesting. We have committed to being at Wadi Rum in time for dinner but that seems increasingly difficult. We are going to take a bus towards Eilat but stop before entering the city and instead go to the border crossing. Shirley (the cool mom) is coming back from the bathroom when the bus pulls in to the bus station. Julie (the less cool mom) suddenly realizes that she, too, would like to go to the bathroom, and hurries off to do that while we’re loading our luggage onto the bus. A few minutes later she comes back — the bathrooms are coin-operated and she doesn’t have the right coin. JC gives her the coins and off she goes again. We’re getting pretty close to the scheduled departure time now… The driver starts the motor. "Can you wait for JC’s mom?" we ask. "No — I’m leaving now," he replies. "Shit," says JC. In the heat of the moment, we make a foolish decision: we decide to split up. JC removes her luggage and her mom’s from the bus. They’ll meet us there somehow. Of course, JC hasn’t read the documents I have meticulously prepared and doesn’t know where exactly to go. I tell her to tell the driver "Yitzhak Rabin", but by the way she repeats it back to me I know there’s no chance she’ll get it. But no problem! There’s wifi on the bus. I’ll text her what she needs to know and when she boards the next bus (an hour later…) she’ll be able to get the instructions and behave accordingly. So thinking, the bus leaves.

I’m still hung over so I nap. When I wake up, I haven’t received any response from JC. This is bad. More time passes as we drive through the desert and I’m becoming increasingly anxious. I decide that we will have to use a bit of finesse: we will have to wait for them at the bus stop, flag down every bus they could conceivably be on, and then board just to look for them. This feels risky in a number of ways — they could not have boarded the bus at all, they could have boarded a different bus than they were supposed to, the bus could take a detour for any of a number of reasons — but we’re supposed to be at Wadi Rum that night and I don’t have a better idea.

We descend at the correct stop and unload all our luggage. We are now in the desert, the Negev just north of Eilat. It is warmer than one would like. Cabs and vans come and go, probably driving people from Eilat back to the border crossing. We are rationing our water, just in case. Buses with other numbers go by, but our eagle-eyed team pays them no mind because there is only one number they could have taken. The bus stop lends a little shelter against the sun, but not much.

Eventually the whole hour goes by and we spot the bus in question. We flag it down and lo and behold, JC and her mom are there, completely oblivious! I signal to them and they get off and retrieve their luggage. "We thought we were going to take this bus to the end of the line," JC tells me. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to be super late to Wadi Rum. We start walking to the border crossing; unfortunately there are no more cabs to be had on this side of the border. The border crossing is essentially pleasant — the Israeli side is crisp, efficient, almost European; the Jordanian side is casual, almost disorganized. We somehow make it through OK and find two taxis. Wonder of wonders, they agree to reasonable prices to take us to Wadi Rum. We eventually make it — we are the last ones to arrive, and they have been holding back dinner for us. Everyone is reasonably good-spirited about it.


Border crossing.


Zarb being extracted from the sands.


Successful zarb.

Wadi Rum

We stay with Rum Stars, which is where Jenny stayed on her trip to Jordan. Being in Wadi Rum in the summer has its advantages — the camp is almost empty, and it’s warm enough even in the evenings that you can sleep outdoors. In Cameroon I wouldn’t, because of the risk of mosquitoes, but there doesn’t seem to be enough standing water for them here. Besides, the Bedouins who run the camp do it all the time. Wadi Rum is vast and dry and empty, and at night you can see stars upon stars. (It looks like the recent XKCD. We assume that the lighter patches we see are the Milky Way, but honestly we have no idea.)

We spend a pleasant day and a half here. We ride camels. After you mount them, they lurch terrifyingly up on their hind legs before standing up on their front legs. It is startling and not entirely pleasant. The ride is itself uncomfortable, and some of our camels seem interested in flirting/picking fights with the other camels. Afterwards we drive around a lot and look at rocks and go hiking, with plenty of stops at different Bedouin tents where we are offered tea and the opportunity to purchase tourist goods. We pay prices that we later learn are dramatically inflated, but we are tourists so what do you expect.

I have two beers that I had in my bag when we left Israel. I am somewhat uncomfortable about carrying them due to the strained diplomatic relationship between Israel and Jordan, but equally unsure about the protocol about drinking them in a Muslim country. I share them with an American woman who is working for Rum Stars. She seems unbelievably grateful — it is the first beer she has had in months.


Camel spider in the camp. Harmless but enormous.


Camels at sunrise.


The desert.

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A certain amount of climbing and scrabbling occurred, which led to some great shots.

Wadi Musa/Petra

We have arranged travel with the same taxi drivers who brought us from the border crossing. They stop at a gas station on the way and buy us soft drinks. It’s a nice gesture that makes us feel a bit welcome. Middle Eastern hospitality is definitely a thing.

Wadi Musa is basically a nothing town that exists only to house people visiting Petra. The site of Petra has been slightly developed, with turnstiles and pamphlets. The downside is that there are no shortage of vendors trying to sell you more souvenirs as well as trying to get you to ride their horses, donkeys, or camels. Received wisdom on this is to not take any animals; their hooves aren’t good for Petra and the humans don’t treat the animals well. Because it is still the low season, there are much fewer tourists and it feels like everyone is just a little more desperate, and it’s incessant and more than a little exhausting.


I bought one of these bottle openers.


One thing that stands out is how the vendors call you. In Cameroon, a vendor in the market may try to get your attention by shouting "Oh, le blanc, vient acheter quelque chose, non?" ("Oh, white guy, come buy something, no?"). In Cameroon, it isn’t considered rude, but to an American’s ears it can be quite grating and aggressive. The Jordanians, by contrast, will address you with: "Welcome!", followed perhaps by a suggestion that it will cost you nothing to look at their wares. It goes a lot further towards engendering goodwill. Of course, the haggling is just as bloodthirsty as in Cameroon, and as the tourist you are still just as much at a disadvantage, but the experience is more pleasant. Overall, the impression you get is that a Jordanian may try to cheat you, but he will never try to rob you.

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Petra itself is remarkable. "A rose-red city half as old as time" indeed. Just find some pictures online if you don’t believe me. The pictures are in my opinion every bit as good as going yourself, or maybe better. The color of the stone doesn’t stand out until you are no longer surrounded by it. It’s also fascinating as a ruin of a city, the capital city of the Nabateans, about which we seem to still know very little. In particular, signboards and blurbs indicate that the functions of those rock-cut facade structures is yet unknown. (Or maybe it’s just that I know very little. Wikipedia tells me that the Treasury, the best-known part of Petra, is actually a mausoleum.) The Monastery, some 800 steps up a hill, remains disputed, with it serving perhaps as a family tomb or perhaps a meeting place for members of a cult. And (again, typically), the place just oozes a long and complicated history. Some structures (including the Monastery, thus its name) were clearly repurposed at one time or another as Christian churches. The Colonnaded Street tell of its time as a Roman colony. Even the name Petra is itself Greek, named for the stone the city was carved out of. (Wadi Musa, the name of the nearest town to Petra, translates as "the Valley of Moses", since in the Muslim tradition, it’s where Moses struck a rock to produce a spring.)

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It’s quite a spread-out site — UNESCO Heritage or no, I think it could do with a bit of funicular — and in the summer heat, quite exhausting to walk around. Did I mention how hot it is? At the top of the hill with the Monastery, there’s a little cafe with a few stray cats. (JC and Rita have dozens of pictures of stray cats all over the Levant, and indeed any animal of any kind that we saw anywhere on our trip.) It’s so hot that the stray cats would come up and beg — not for food, but for water, which we would pour into the little bottle caps of our water bottles, from which they would drink gratefully.

I’d encourage you to know what you want to see ahead of time. There’s no shortage of sights and once you get off the beaten path it’s easy to find yourself trekking down some underdefined path towards a sight that, while interesting, was perhaps not the best use of your valuable time in Jordan. On the other hand, Little Petra, unless for some reason you have an excess of time in Wadi Musa and literally nothing else to do, I’d recommend skipping. It’s not as developed as Petra itself, and suffers more from the pushy vendors as a result. It’s essentially just one long alley, with structures that are similar in style, although perhaps it’s a tiny bit easier to scramble up and down the rock and imagine how this alley may have functioned thousands of years ago.

Dead Sea / Madaba

We take our stuff to Amman via the adventure related in the last post and we hire the same driver to take us to the Dead Sea the following day. From reading Jenny’s travel report I know that it will be wise to also stop in Madaba and possibly somewhere else such as Mount Nebo. JC’s mom ensures we get a late start.

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We stop at Madaba first. It’s a cute little town. We wander around the "archaelogical park" looking at the mosaics. Madaba has mosaics galore — the archaelogical park contains mosaics that were recovered from private residences, which had re-used the mosaics that had been built on top of previous earlier mosaics, as flooring. Some of the mosaics on display in walls had been defaced in antiquity for depicting living things, which is of course against Islamic practice. We also stop in at the Orthodox Basilica of St. George, which is marvelous. Not only does it have the famous map of the Holy Land, but there are dozens of other mosaics on the walls.

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This one is my favorite. The combination of the halo and the Arabic are another reminder of the rich, confusing history of this part of the world.

If, like me, you are American, the Dead Sea probably has a mystique, with its mud ascribed powerful healing and beautifying properties. You may also consider it a "fun" place to go, where you can float on the water even without being able to swim. And when we actually enter the water, we do begin bobbing like corks, even with all our limbs out of the water. However, the idea of fun is quickly qualified by signs warning us not to enter the water face down, because we can be borne off our feet and unable to get our faces out of the water and quickly drown. Not only that, the whole valley is blanketed with a dense haze even thicker than the one over the Sea of Galilee — as Earth’s lowest point on land, it’s very hot, and the distance between where the infrastructure ends and the sea starts speaks to a lot of evaporation. (Indeed, the Dead Sea is dropping by about 1m per year.)


A pleasant suggestion along the shore of the Dead Sea.

The water is so salty that you can’t stay in it too long. It sets every opening on your body to burning. JC didn’t think things through and regrets shaving the night before. Jenny Wang described it in her blog post as "caustic", which is apt. Another thing we didn’t anticipate is the smell. Rita describes it as being like burnt tires. It’s enough to remind you why this place is called "the Dead Sea", not just "the Really Salty Sea at the Bottom of a Valley". Nothing can live here. It’s hard to imagine wanting to try.


It looks better than it smells.

We try to leave the mud on us for as long as we can manage but it’s rough going. We try to wash as much off as we can, but the smell follows us in the car back to Amman. [Editor’s note: while doing research for this piece, I discovered that "Currently, only sewage and effluent from fish ponds run in the river’s channel." I wonder if that’s the source of the smell?]


We spend a couple days in Amman. We stay at the Jordan Tower Hotel, which is where Jenny Wang reported staying, and find that not only are the price and the location are unbeatable, but the staff is quite friendly, even forbearing of Julie. (One morning, Julie comes down to the lobby with a scarf over her head, perhaps to protect from the sun. She jokingly tells the man behind the desk, "I’m a Muslim today!" The rest of us are of course horrified by the reductive and regressive attitude and rush to explain that we’re sorry, she doesn’t know better, etc. but what’s worse is that with her accent, it sounds like she’s saying she’s a "mushroom", so before we can even apologize we have to translate what she’s saying to the baffled gentleman, who (luckily) finds the whole thing amusing and even asks Julie on future mornings if she is a mushroom today.)

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We are also quite close to Pizza Roma Cafe/Amman Pasha Hotel, which has a lot of things going for it: a rooftop terrace overlooking the Roman theater; waiters who will bring you beer for decent-ish prices (considering); a collection of animals, because apparently the owner likes to take in strays. I think http://www.ammanpashahotel.com/pizza-roma-cafe/ their website does a pretty good job selling the story.


Clearly some previous visitors were French.

Although beer is not 100% readily available, we are quick to discover a replacement beverage in the form of sugar cane juice, which is available from stalls everywhere for quite cheap (less than one dinar, usually). A pleasant diversion, and one that we embrace for the rest of our trip.

Of course we see the Roman theater, which is interesting enough. We also see the Citadel, which has its own dramatic Roman ruins. Amman is a city of seven hills, and the Citadel is on top of one of them. The afternoon prayer time arrives while we are there, and the call unwinds from several mosques all around the city and echo throughout, mixing into an unearthly although beautiful sound, the sound of a city muttering to itself. I try to record it with my phone and don’t get great quality, but if you turn your volume up, perhaps you will get the idea.

Uploaded: SoundRecord-2018-07-11-12-42-57.wav (RIFF (little-endian) data, WAVE audio, Microsoft PCM, 16 bit, mono 44100 Hz, 8.0 MiB)


Julie is bored to tears by the Citadel and on subsequent days, JC cuts her loose with some money and instructions not to get into trouble. After that day, when we find her back at the hotel, she is visibly brimming with excitement. She apparently took a cab to the posh part of town and found, wonder of wonders, a Burger King. "Ice cream is only 79 cents!" she exclaims.


A perfume shop. This was lots of fun!

FDR and her mom have to cut their trip short after Jordan, but Rita and I will be continuing with JC and her mom to Egypt. We take a taxi to Queen Alia International. We are stopped at a checkpoint. After a spirited discussion with the soldiers there, the taxi driver turns to me. "China, right?" What? "You’re going to China?" No, we’re going to Egypt. The taxi driver relays this information to the soldiers, and they wave us through.


We land in Aswan, which is a small regional airport, comparable in nature to the Yaoundé airport. We have no Egyptian pounds and it is not clear how we are going to get any before taking a taxi to our hotel. We spend a while waiting by the baggage carousel for our suitcases. They don’t arrive. I’m on high alert, feeling quite vulnerable without local currency or our suitcases. JC asks politely of a white-uniformed policeman if there are more suitcases. While I am distracted, he requests JC and Rita come with him. I eventually notice that they’ve gone and start to get anxious, but before I can get very far, they are back with our suitcases. (Apparently the suitcases had gotten flagged for some random screening or whatever.) We ask if there is an ATM, and the policeman instructs me and me alone to follow him. We walk through the airport to an ATM and I am able to extract a sufficiency of money. I’m off balance — is this a bribery situation? Some kind of airport security thing? But before I can figure out what’s going on, they politely escort us out the front door.

We easily procure a taxi. "Welcome to Alaska," the driver says, referring to the oppressive arid heat. We haggle a bit just for the practice but the taxi drivers are firm in their price and honestly we don’t really care that much, because the taxi fare is still cheaper than the price that the hostel quoted us to meet us in a shuttle. The drive is pleasant enough; we see a little bit of the village and before we know it, we are at the place. We are the only guests.


The host is a pleasant man of Nubian heritage who has traveled relatively widely. He is happy to arrange "excursions", in particular he can take us to the Nubian village, where we sightsee and hold a crocodile, and he can arrange for a Nubian dinner prepared by Nubians. Not only that, he says, but one thing he sometimes likes to do in the summer is to take people down by the first cataract, where there’s something of a little beach, and you can take a little swim in the Nile and cool down. JC is immediately excited about this. My initial reaction, like any good RPCV, is to remember that back in Cameroon, we had been warned not to swim in any fresh water for fear of getting schistosomiasis. But I catch myself before I say anything — certainly this is not like Cameroon, and our host wouldn’t have suggested it if it weren’t safe, right?

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From a felucca ride.

The hostel doesn’t have Internet access the first night, which is a bit of a hardship. "Sorry about that!" he says, "But it’s a little bit Africa here, you know?" I do know. Still, we have enough information to go out and see a little bit of the town, and especially so we can book travel to Abu Simbel.

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We go to Philae Temple, which is inconvenient and only accessible via extortionate boat people. All Egyptian monuments are beset with intrusive Egyptian "hosts" who try to show you things you can already see, prevent you from taking pictures, permit you to take pictures, take pictures with you, etc. in exchange for a little money. It makes the experience quite a bit less pleasant. Still, Philae Temple is beautiful and the heiroglyphics are intricate.


Still at Philae Temple. This cross "graffito" is a relic of when Philae Temple was repurposed much later as a Christian church.


I am startled to find that unlike e.g. Cameroon, where by dark everyone is inside for the night, and despite my preconceptions of the Middle East as strict and repressive, in Aswan we find that people are still out and about, the souq is still active, etc. fairly late, with a decent gender mix, at least until 10 or 11. This pattern holds true in all the Egyptian cities we visit. Perhaps it’s because the height of the day is unbearably hot.


More refreshing sugar cane juice!


Aswan at night.

We also see Abu Simbel, which (while impressive) is an enormous pain in the ass to get to and may not be worth it. (If you do go, I echo the recommendations of the editors on Wikivoyage who encourage you to read up about the site before you get there.)


Obligatory Abu Simbel photo.

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We got to visit the traditional Nubian village where they still raise crocodiles in the traditional manner. They are heavy!


Camels rushing through the Nubian village.


This is the dinner arranged by our host. I guess this is Nubian food! (It was delicious, whatever it was.)

The Internet isn’t available on the second night either, but after coming back from our splash in the Nile, we do finally get some access. Just out of curiosity, I look up schistosomiasis; Wikipedia helpfully informs me that "Schistosomiasis is endemic in Egypt, exacerbated by the country’s dam and irrigation projects along the Nile." (Rita and I try to get checked out back in the States. We test negative and we are asymptomatic, for whatever that’s worth.)


We take the train to Luxor. (In case it isn’t clear, I lean into overland travel vs. air travel for within-vacation stuff, since it’s usually more pleasant if not cheaper and easier.)

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While we are in Luxor, we make sure to partake in the traditional Ancient Egyptian hot air balloon ride. (Luxor is also a great place to learn to walk like an Egyptian.)

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We see the Valley of Kings, the Ramesseum, etc. but by this point we’ve seen more than enough ancient Egyptian ruins to last us for a good while and in particular the ladies are over it. Medinet Habu is pretty interesting, especially because of the mystery of the Sea Peoples. (These are shots of Medinet Habu.)


The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

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From Deir el-Medina.

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While at Karnak Temple.

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At Luxor Temple. The first is from the avenue between Luxor and Karnak temples. The last is from a collection of Egyptian monument fragments reassembled and ordered by period, which let you see the deep conservatism of Egyptian art and the subtle influences over different historical periods (such as when the Greeks and Romans showed up).

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We also go shopping. Through perseverence, I am eventually able to purchase a Stella Beer t-shirt (motto: "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger"). We end up in a multi-level souvenir store which according to my credit card statement was called "George Bazaar". JC spends some time buying jewelry, and in particular silver. The store seems to be operated by Coptic Christians. (Interestingly, the word "Coptic" is a corruption of a word which was itself the corruption of a word which was itself a borrowing of the Greek Aigýptios.) When I am back in the States, I ask a family friend, a naturalized Egyptian, what religion he is and whether he is a Coptic Christian. "Let me tell you something," he says, smiling. "If you look at the history, all of that stuff," meaning religion, "that all happened in Egypt. We invented the whole thing."


We saw some of these little water-fountain kinds of things, which I thought were fascinating (a far cry from the wells we had in Cameroon), but never got close enough to really interact with.

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We engaged a local entrepreneur to drive us around on motos for a little while. Here the ladies are posing ferociously. (Well, I think Rita just looks ferocious by accident while she tries to untie her hair.)

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Murals in Egypt were quite charming. (The first is in Aswan, the others in Luxor.)

We take a sleeper train overnight from Luxor to Cairo. Next to the Luxor train station is a liquor store (Drinkies) and I am able to purchase a few beers for the trip.


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Cairo is a nice enough city. (I find time to take the subway, which is pleasant.)

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The view from our balcony.

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Another carob juice vendor (or whatever it is). I’ll drink anything!

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Although we are completely sick of ancient structures, we take the time to go to see the Pyramids. We have a terrible time. First, we try to go with someone we met on the train, but he flakes out on us, costing us valuable time and making us look stupid. Second, when we finally arrive at the site, we are pressured into riding animals (we accept out of fear of being hassled too much while inside the pyramid complex, and also because of misunderstanding of just how large the site is — it’s only about 1km a side), for which we pay too much. Third, after all the intricate carvings we’ve seen at all the different temple, the pyramids themselves are underwhelming — just giant piles of blocks. Wikivoyage describes the Sphinx as "a frankly mangy-looking lion" and they’re not wrong.

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However, our "handlers" (from whom we rented the animals) encourage us to take the time to stage several ridiculous photos.


Behind the scenes of the shots.

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The photos are so ridiculous that looking at them after they are taken is enough to reduce the ladies to hysterics.

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We also visit Saqqara, which has some slightly-more-interesting monuments. (We come within sighting range of the Pyramid of Djoser and the Pyramid of Userkaf.)

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We see the Citadel and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which is rich and stunning.

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We see Old Cairo, which is fascinating and beautiful.

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We also visit Al Azhar Park, which is an upscale paid-admission park. While we are eating ice cream, some people come up to us and ask to take photos with us. It’s not unlike in Cameroon. Operating under the doctrine of "once a PCV, always a PCV" I pose dutifully with many different Egyptians. However, Julie loves the attention and has a great time being photographed. The taxi back to the hostel overcharges us.

Thus ends our trip. Even the baggage handlers at Cairo airport who hoist your luggage through the scanning equipment ask for tips. Although this could be considered a nice example of local flavor, I feel that this is a violation of the international monoculture/cultural imperialism of airports and give them nothing. While shopping in the duty-free store to kill time, Rita and I buy a bottle of Egyptian rosé (Obelisk brand) for $6.


Our planning efforts were aided by Jenny Wang’s heroic blog posts: Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Additionally, this site on the overland crossings from Israel to Jordan was pretty helpful.


Souq or shuk (part 1??) (Saturday, 2018 August 25)

September 10, 2018

This is a long-overdue travel report from our time in the Middle East, which happened in July and I have put off writing about until just now.

Some backstory is required first. You should know by now that our girl and queen of the photobombs Yaya met an Israeli boy after her service. When you COS, you’re given a plane ticket home (meaning, the States). If instead you want to take advantage of your current location, you can instead take what’s called "cash in lieu", where they take the amount of money they would have spent on that plane ticket and give it to you straight. Lots of Volunteers use this to travel around a bit before coming home — I went to Europe, and I happen to know Peter, Allison, and I think Jenny Wang went to see the Middle East, and it turns out Yaya bounced around East Africa for a while. While there, she happened to bump into a group of young Israelis who had finished their tour with the IDF, and apparently have a similar tradition of post-service travel. The rest of the story is super juicy but largely predictable. Anyhow, Yaya and Amit tied the knot this year. For legal reasons that I don’t really understand, they did their legal marriage here in NYC, Capital of the World, which of course we attended. After which, they mentioned offhandedly that they would be doing a follow-up in Israel too, and that we were free to come if we wanted. Well, how often do you get a chance like that?

Of course, if you’re going to Israel already, then it seems a shame not to also go to Jordan. And if you’re going to Israel and Jordan, then Egypt seems like a natural addition as well.

I realize now that I haven’t written here about our major trips in the last couple years, but here’s a capsule summary. In 2016 we went back to Cameroon for a trip, and knowing that the effort in planning such a trip doesn’t really grow if you add another person, I invited my co-worker Matt, who was happy to come along and whose fresh eyes added a new perspective on our trip. In 2017 we went on a sailing trip in France, and knowing that we would have a better experience with an 8-person boat rather than a 4-person boat, we invited Rita’s friend Lisa and a few others, all of whom were lovely even through the seasickness and occasional moments of terror. So when Rita’s friends JC and FDR mentioned how they loved to travel and didn’t have any travel plans lined up, we thought, why not?

The thing about traveling with friends is that it isn’t the same as normal friendship. Things are turned up to an intensity that you may not expect. You’re attached in a way — you can’t just say "OK cool I’ll text you sometime". You have to negotiate the terms of your vacation together. It’s like the difference between liking someone as a friend and liking them as a roommate. Some people are fun to have as friends but no fun to travel with, and vice versa. Getting both at the same time isn’t impossible — I’d say we’re batting better than .500 given our history so far — but every time you travel with someone new, you’re rolling the dice.

Our first bad sign was when JC texted Rita, "Hey, can I bring my mom?" I guess JC had done the same calculus we had, and figured that adding one more person didn’t add too much workload to the trip. OK, cool, but you really want to travel with your friends AND your mom? To the Middle East? Do you bring her to the nightclub too? Aren’t you afraid of subjecting her to the danger or, even worse, the fun, of the Middle East? Apparently not, because a few hours later FDR texted us something like "Oh I’m so glad Jen said that because I would also like to bring my mom!"

OK, cool, so our fun me-and-Rita trip is now a six-person elder hostel. No big deal. There were other red flags having to do with how difficult it was to coordinate with everyone — JC would often text Rita something, who would relay it to me verbally, to which I would respond "Why didn’t she read the Google Doc I sent out via email three weeks ago, which certainly covers this already?" which I assume Rita modulated somewhat before delivering as a response via text back to JC. But basically whatever, people are different and everything is fine.

FDR’s mom (Shirley) is a lovely person, sweet and classy. JC’s mom (Julie) is by contrast what we would call in Cameroon villageois, which literally means "villager" but is usually used to mean "from the village", i.e. a hayseed or country bumpkin, unsophisticated, the opposite of worldly. She was also, well, Chinese, rude and culturally insensitive to an extent that even I as an American found embarrassing. In particular, before we had left Jerusalem (in whose Old City we had stayed), she had already announced that she was not interested in looking at any more "old stuff" and was only interested in new and fancy things. Like, are you sure you’re on the right vacation, lady? Every time JC stopped somewhere to buy souvenirs, Julie complained loudly that she was wasting her money on junk, that the products available here were equally available at any 99-cent store in America, that she was paying too much for everything, etc. We tired of hearing her litany of remarks and cut her loose for the day in Amman while we visited the Roman amphitheater, and when we caught up with her afterwards we discovered that she had taken a taxi to where all the four-star hotels were and found a Burger King and was very pleased because she had had ice cream and it only cost 69 cents!

The thing that especially bothered me was essentially that for Julie, every conversation was a form of parallel play — she would say the next thing in "her" conversation regardless of what you say. It goes without saying that she wouldn’t always pay attention to anything that didn’t involve her clearly and directly.

One exciting situation developed in Wadi Musa, which is the town outside Petra. Our second morning there, we were planning our day, which was going to involve spending all day in Petra and then heading to Amman that evening. One option was to take the JETT bus (Jordanian equivalent of Greyhound), but I got stopped by one of the many taxi people who wander the streets and who could get us transportation, even though we were six, by hired car. The price he quoted wasn’t much worse than the cost to take the bus for six people and so I agreed that we would meet his driver at 6pm. Then, before we cut Julie loose for the day and headed back in to Petra, I explicitly told Julie to meet at 5pm, knowing already that I could not rely on her to be punctual.

Of course, regrouping at the hotel a little bit before 6, everyone was still scattered throughout — some finishing up a meal at a restaurant, another getting some water, and Julie somewhere on the mean streets of Wadi Musa, probably in heels, nowhere to be found. "Don’t worry," says Shirley, the cool mom. "I told her that everyone was going to meet here at 6pm." Oh no. You didn’t. "I told her in Chinese so I’m sure she understood." I appreciate your effort but understanding wasn’t the thing I was worried about..

So sure enough Julie rolls in at 6:45ish when the van is completely loaded and we’re all very anxious. No sooner is she in the minivan then (I’m proud to report) Shirley lets loose with both barrels, demanding why she was so late. The argument switched into Cantonese very quickly so I didn’t get the full effect but they really went at it for quite some time, to the point that both JC and FDR got exasperated and tried to shout down their moms to get the argument to stop, but this only had the effect that the moms started shouting at each other in louder Cantonese so that they could make their points heard over the petulant complaints of the daughters. Apparently the dispute centered on what Shirley told Julie (Shirley says 6pm; Julie says she was told 7pm), but branched off rapidly into Julie’s performance as a mother, the way she treated her daughter, Shirley’s honesty, and probably other topics that escape my memory. Shirley, switching into English, told me "Apparently I need to record every conversation I have with her to prove what I said!" I apologized to our driver Ali, but he laughed and said it was OK. Around this time, FDR shouted that maybe Ali could put some music on? Which he proceeded to do, and so it was that we proceeded up the Kings Highway to the strains of the Arabic radio and a Cantonese shouting match.

Eventually the two women gave up in the face of the persistent mechanical song, and eventually we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. During this time I tried to express my appreciation for Shirley’s efforts. I was impressed that Shirley had really given Julie her best efforts. Personally I had already given up on trying to change Julie — I had clearly already given up on her, concluding she was the kind of person you can’t fix, but at most contain. Shirley displayed excellence in the way she dealt fairly with someone who was beyond fairness.

[Edit: argh I just remembered I forgot the best part! Which is the next paragraph:]

Both women stayed civil for the rest of the ride, until we dropped off FDR and Shirley first at their fancy hotel in Amman. But then on the ride to the hostel where we were staying, Julie started to complain again. "Stupid woman! She thinks she is better than me because she is staying in a more expensive hotel!" Wait, what? "Fucking her," she seethed.

In the end, we tipped Ali generously, and we engaged his services the next day to drive us to the Dead Sea, which went well enough.

Morals of the story:

  • Travel with friends, or travel with parents, but never both at once, and certainly never with friends’ parents.
  • Never travel with more than can fit in a cab (i.e. 4 usually).
  • Your entire travel group should share one language, and especially that means that if something is said to the group in this language, everybody is responsible for understanding it.

Today’s word is "souq" (Arabic) or "shuk" (Hebrew), meaning marché, marketplace. Different souqs are different — the one in Jerusalem is fancy, with parts more like a Parisian gallery, and serves as a tourist destination, whereas the one we saw in Ramallah was more like a Cameroonian one (specifically it reminded me of the one in Bazou), with some vendors selling out of concrete buildings and others selling in a covered plaza.

Here are some random photos.


Me, Rita, and Julie. I think this is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


Some refreshing beverages. Taybeh Beer is made in the West Bank (we’re at a bar in Ramallah). Personally, I’d say it’s the best beer in the Levant.


Some clothing in a random stall in Jerusalem. Note the "Pika-Jew", which got a lot of laughs.


Another similar article of clothing.


Fresh produce in Ramallah.


Olives at the shuk in Jerusalem.


One of several spice merchants scattered throughout Jerusalem.


A restaurant we ate at on our first night in Jerusalem’s Old City.


A Bedouin tent in Wadi Rum, complete with some articles for sale.


The shuk in Jerusalem. JC is on the right, FDR is center and her mom between them.


Of course, there are also normal sorts of markets in Jerusalem. Here’s one of the several products we found at a "bodega".


Here’s another shot of FDR and Shirley at a bar in Amman.


Alternance codique (Wednesday, 2017 February 8)

February 9, 2017

I was briefly in Europe for FOSDEM and to see some of my French coworkers. We flew into Charles de Gaulle and drove up to Brussels, where FOSDEM is, and then drove back for a few days in Paris. I’m on the flight back now.

I’ve been working now for Mozilla for 9 or 10 months. It’s an interesting place, and it has some similarities to being a Volunteer. The first, of course, is that it’s a company with a public mission and a global scope. There’s also the fact that some 40% of its employees are "remote", meaning not working in an office but rather embedded in some community, and working for its good in a way that feels subversive. In Cameroon, my post was in Batié, but now it’s in New York. When it doesn’t feel like being a Volunteer, it feels like joining a secret society, one with a proud history and rich traditions. Looking at me, you’d think I’m just some guy working on a laptop, but actually I’m part of a global network of operatives, communicating over the Internet on a frequency that nobody hears, even though anyone can listen to it.

Being in Europe brings out a lot of the same interesting linguistic situations that I was familiar with from my time as a Volunteer. The choice of language felt itself like a logistical concern. Most Cameroonians are Francophone, of course, but the Anglophones feel like an oppressed minority, and so speaking French to one could be seen as an insult. Sometimes people would want to speak English with me because they wanted to practice English, or to show off, and I didn’t mind either. When with Americans, we’d normally speak English, but we might drop into French if it was the only language that all participants could understand. Over time I tended to keep my mouth shut until someone addressed me, and then follow them in whatever language they were using. I began to sense a power in that first moment, when the first word comes out. Until you spoke, you might be Dutch, British, French, American. Afterwards, all possibilities were removed but one. I often tried to delay that revelation as long as possible using expedients like non-verbal noises, or the use of brand names (which were the same in both languages).

Belgium at a tech conference is even more complicated, linguistically, than being in Cameroon. Belgium’s official languages are Dutch (and/or Flemish), French, and German in some parts. Brussels, being the capital, is a linguistic no-man’s-land. But English is the language of tech, and thus of FOSDEM. Still, I found myself switching into a Volunteer "natives speak French, friends speak English" mindset when I ordered at the cafeteria, even though it was staffed by FOSDEM. At the restaurant in Paris where we ate last night, one server overheard our mixed group talking English (the only language everyone supported) and would address us in English, while the other one hadn’t noticed and continued to address us in French. In case it wasn’t obvious, the title of this blog post is alternance codique, which means "code switching".

FOSDEM itself was a pretty good conference. It’s interesting in a lot of ways — it’s free, and registration isn’t required; you just show up. It’s held on a college campus and staffed entirely by volunteers (with a little v). One thing that makes FOSDEM unusual for a tech conference is that they set up "bars" on campus which sell a variety of Belgian beers. Of course I tried almost all of them during the weekend. If I had to select a favorite, I think it might be the cherry lambic that I had, the Kriek.

Brussels is relatively affordable for Europe. Belgian beers in most places were only a few Euro. Like everywhere else in Europe, tax is included in all listed prices, and there’s no such thing as a tip. Buses have displays showing the next few stops, and there’s also a tram system, and I think a subway as well. Everything is cute and everyone we met was polite.

By contrast, Paris was not what I was expecting from Europe at all. If Brussels is a pleasant but stiff bureaucrat who maintains a formal distance, Paris is an old lady who lives in a corner house and chain-smokes aggressively. She can be mean, but she’s had a rich and colorful life and if she invites you to dinner, it’s always fascinating. The City of Lights is full of gilding and filigrees and beautiful historical buildings. The place we were staying dates from 1725 or so, but locks on the front door were much more modern and quite substantial, apparently because Paris had a serious burglary problem for a while. While we were waiting for one of our group to pick up a few things in the supermarket, someone shoplifted and the guard chased him down the street. Nothing violent happened per se, but it definitely felt less safe than Brussels.

Apart from a couple bad apples, the Parisians have been lovely. I had a charming if somewhat challenging conversation in French with the check-in counter for Air France about why I didn’t have long hair any more like in my passport. (I had been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to understand the accents of the people in Europe, but I was gratified to find that I have largely been able to get by.) The food has been quite good when I’ve been able to get it without milk. Paris is nice, but in the (admittedly short) time I spent there, I didn’t really see how people can fall in love with the place, unless you’re already powerfully in love with the idea of France or the French.

Some photos:


The place where we stayed in Brussels had some cool nerd junk.




Beer list. For a conference, this is quite a selection!


The PostgreSQL elephant was in attendance. Can MySQL do this??


Vending machine waffle. There were fresh ones being made too, but these were only 0.50€ and didn’t have milk.




One of the passages/galleries in Paris. These are actually pretty cool; they’re not exactly closed to the outdoors, and they have a skylight, so you can feel like you’re getting some fresh air, but at the same time it’s enclosed enough to be pleasant, even during the winter.


Notre Dame de Lorette, a fancy church in Paris. Also depicted are my teammate Rémy and our intern Mansimar.


My intern Gabi and the adorable Firefox stuffed animal at the Paris office.


Airplane cognac. Only on Air France…


Accueil (Thursday, 2015 November 26)

November 29, 2015

Starting about a month or so ago, I got a series of increasingly frantic emails, texts, and phone calls from Julie, one of the returned Volunteers that still lives in NYC. Apparently one of her friends from village, a young lady named Annette, won the Diversity Visa lottery and was coming here, to New York, and Julie had no idea what to do with her. What kind of paperwork was going to be necessary? Where was she going to sleep? What kind of work could she do?

Although the government issues visas, those visas aren’t backstopped by programs, services, or resources, even for fundamentals like learning English. You’re on your own for all of the above. Hopefully you have family or friends who know the lay of the land and can help you along. And if those friends or family are, like Julie, in the middle of moving house, then things become a bit more difficult. Julie apparently spoke to some of her "civilian" friends, and they discouraged her from all of this — she’ll take advantage of you, they said, or she’ll never leave. Maybe so. But we’re still Volunteers, and this is some prime Goal 3 kind of work. And if you think about it, Annette is kind of a Volunteer now too for some reverse-bizarro nega-Organization that lets people into the States. That means she’s family. We have to take care of her.

A plan has slowly coalesced around some of the returned Volunteers in the New York area. Julie (or maybe it was someone else?) found a Cameroonian woman who lives in the Bronx who came over just a few years ago with nobody here to help her but some other returned Volunteers. She now lives in an apartment with enough room to take in a few other Cameroonians. Julie’s trying to arrange for Annette to move there as of December 1st. In the meantime, she’s staying with us, sleeping on our couch and borrowing Rita’s old computer.

It’s been a weird experience so far having Annette — sort of like inheriting a slightly clueless 23-year-old daughter. I picked her up at the airport on Friday and it was the first time she’d ever been on an airplane. We’ve had to explain everything to her — how to ride the subway, how to buy vegetables at the supermarket, even how to flush the toilet. She’s an intelligent enough girl — she finished lycée and got her Bac, and even has a couple years of university under her belt — but is missing a lot of context. And then there is the occasional unfortunate incident like her not remembering how to work the intercom to let someone into the apartment, so going downstairs to let them in and thereby locking herself out.

It’s almost like she’s doing a reverse stage, and we’re (all of us in NYC) her famille d’accueil, her host family. (Accueillir means to welcome.) One fascinating thing has been to watch people come out of the woodwork — in just a week in America, Annette has had more guests at her parties than I have had at mine. Between this, and the above observation that she’s a reverse Volunteer, I keep leaping to conclusions that aren’t 100% correct. The main one recently has been about her maturity. Volunteers are always college graduates; Annette, though 23, hasn’t finished any degree. Indeed, I think of her as a good kid, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of us, who are generally hot messes. Nevertheless she’s seemed pretty cool for a Cameroonian, young and idealistic and essentially open to new ideas in a way that I can’t remember even in myself. (About homosexuality, which is illegal in Cameroon, she just said "Well, it’s up to them to manage their lives, and it’s up to me to manage mine.")

There’s a lot more to say about her stay with us, or indeed about the last year or two, but I’ll leave it at that for now.


Cyclone (Tuesday, 2014 June 17)

June 18, 2014

Last year Timothy came to visit me because his girlfriend was in the Mermaid Parade down on Coney Island. I am thinking now of standing on the fire escape here at Woodcrest and him telling me that I had quite an appetite for strong drink. Then, maybe the next day, we’re all standing outside in the sun and heat, running out of nigori sake or whatever we were drinking that morning, and watching the parade go by. In particular there’s a parade of muscle cars, some of which are fancy-looking antiques and one of which is just a loud car driven by the kind of person who knows how to make his tires squeal. After that car drives by, revving the engine like a beast only to stop short behind the next car, a guy in front of us says "Ha, and they have New Jersey plates, that’s perfect." Timothy, if you’re reading this, you asked if I "heard banjos" when I was in Brighton Beach. To answer your question, Brighton Beach is still civilization. For banjos, you have to go to Jersey, or at least Staten Island.

I’m getting off topic. Not too long after the cars go by, the parade starts, and before Jackie gets to go, the Brooklyn Cyclones mascot goes by. (He looks like a baseball with a duckbill and a baseball cap.) Timothy’s from out of town, so I’m explaining to him, "The Cyclones aren’t major league. They’re just below major leagues. Is there a name for that?" And the guy who made the quip about Jersey turns around and says "Triple A." So maybe the Cyclones are Triple A. (Although now that I’m looking it up, it seems like they’re Class A — Short Season.)

They don’t play at Barclay’s Stadium, in downtown Brooklyn, named after a major bank — they play at MCU Park, named after the Municipal Credit Union, open to all former employees of the City of New York. The park is in Coney Island, which, while once the gold standard for American amusement parks, is now one of the seediest neighborhoods in New York. So it’s a triple-A team playing at a triple-A stadium in a triple-A neighborhood. And when they sent me an email saying that they were observing Peace Corps Day with special seating available for anyone who used the discount code PEACE, I knew I had to go. Finally I would be able to relate to my father and his sister talking about the team’s dancing girls, the Beach Bums, walking around and shaking their bottoms. Best of all, I’d be able to heckle the Hudson Valley Renegades (?) while getting sufficiently drunk and being surrounded by other Volunteers.

We rolled up late, having had a chili dog and a Coney Island Lager at nearby Nathan’s, but as soon as I got there I knew I had made the right decision. The whole place reeked of Brooklyn spirit. Instead of ads for companies best described as "brands", the place was festooned with decorations for places like Astoria Federal Savings, New York Methodist Hospital, Midwood Ambulance Service, and Peter’s personal favorite, Send In The Clowns Entertainment Corp. A trained eye could look at the Beach Bums and easily discern the swarthy attitude of Canarsie, the tawny pride of Flatbush, or the self-important swagger of Midwood. There was a table for Peace Corps where they gave Volunteers a t-shirt with the Peace Corps logo on the front so you could broadcast your affiliation to the larger community, and it was easy to spot the section where your ticket was, even if you didn’t know exactly where to sit. Of course, PCVs don’t hurry right over to their assigned seats — instead we stood around the table and gossiped with the other (more experienced) Volunteers manning the table.

Apparently they’ve recently changed the application process? What used to take 8 hours to fill out now only takes 1, and instead of expressing a vague preference about where you want to go, you get to apply to an individual country. ("How can they do that?" Peter asked. "That’s not — they can’t do that! That’s not what Peace Corps is about! It’s about the cold hand of bureaucracy telling you what to do, and you doing it. With a smile.") Apparently if your application for a particular country isn’t competitive enough, they tell you to apply again when your application is more competitive.

To be honest, I’m with Peter on this one — if you know enough about a country or about Peace Corps to know where you want to go, you’re losing out on an opportunity for some serious cultural exchange. I had essentially no idea about anything about Cameroon before I landed there. My country selection process was almost exactly like my college selection process — random and undirected, just the way I like it. For some reason I think that worked out really well for me, although all evidence does seem to point to the contrary. It certainly does seem, though, like you’ll just get a bunch of people aiming for Beach Corps/Posh Corps posts like Jamaica or Ethiopia. But maybe it’ll sort itself out the way college seems to for so many Americans, or maybe they’ll recoup those frustrated failed volunteers and send them to slightly less posh places like Haiti and Mongolia.

The game itself was pretty forgettable, although we did beat the Renegades 5-1. More important were all the other bread and circuses that seem to surround a baseball game, even a triple-A one. For example, towards the middle of the game, a woman wearing what looked like business-casual went out and sang God Bless America, and then a little girl went out and sang Take Me Out To the Ball Game. They had a race with three hot dogs, Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish, and Ketchup won but only by playing dirty (he pushed Mustard over). The scoreboard was lit up with numbers (most of them zeroes), but I wasn’t wearing my glasses and really had no idea what most of them meant. Periodically the announcer would mention that such-and-such an event was sponsored by Kings Plaza Shopping Center, and then play a sound which was presumably meant to be some kind of theme music for Kings Plaza but was actually the Law and Order sound. Everything was chaotic and ridiculous but essentially harmless.

Everyone there seemed really cool and I had a really great time. I did not have a great $7 beer in the stadium. Instead I planned ahead and had an even better flask of Absolut Vodka (this is not a product endorsement — it’s just what I had in the house). Afterwards, there was a fireworks show (which, like the man says, wipes my brain slate clean — it strikes me silent), and then we got to run the bases. And the best part was that it was only 20 minutes from home. Go Cyclones!


Véhiculé (Saturday, 2013 August 10)

August 10, 2013

Greetings from scenic Albany, where I find myself for a friend’s wedding. I went to college not too far from here and hated it. I figured Cameroon would soften my disgust for the place, because at least here there is running water and reliable power/Internet. It remains to be seen how I feel about it long-term, but when I got off the MegaBus and found my way to the once-hourly local bus, it seemed sufficiently fine.

Aside: When I was back in Bafia, having just received our bicycles, my host brother Hyacenthe remarked, "Woah, Ethan, you’re already vehiculated (véhiculé)?" The CDTA bus is what you take when you are not vehiculated. I guess I wasn’t in a great position to evaluate them when I was going to school, because there was only one or two such buses that I ever took, but this time I got on a bus at 10 PM and it was pretty much on time. I think they renumbered some or all of the routes, which is encouraging — it suggests someone at CDTA headquarters is thinking.

The bus dropped me off at Walmart Plaza. Walmart was still open, but the liquor store wasn’t. The hotel was a half hour or so away by foot. This part of the country isn’t designed so much for pedestrians. Sidewalks are often absent, and overall the whole place is a lumpy, rustic place, blue collar in ways that New York isn’t.

This morning I splashed around a little bit in the hotel pool (which is just large enough for me to traverse in five strokes), and tried some of the complementary breakfast — the scrambled eggs had butter, but I had some bacon, and they had hardboiled eggs, but no piment. Still, running water, right?


Rêve (Monday, 2013 June 17)

June 18, 2013

I had a dream last night that I was getting ready to start the school year all over again. Now that I’d sucked as a volunteer/teacher for two years, I was ready to buckle down and I was going to magically be better at it. I was going to concentrate on the things that mattered to me and I was going to do a good job. Most of all, I was convinced that now that the Terminale students had bombed the Bac last year, they were also going to be way more serious and interested in the things I was trying to get into their heads. I was excited, the same sort of excited optimism that I had at the beginning of my second year.

I woke up almost a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to be teaching again. But then I started to think about it and all the other more plausible disappointments came trickling back in…

Peace Corps volunteers have become a major linchpin in my life lately. Yaya blew through a couple months ago, and Charmayne a couple months before that. One is coming to visit this week, and Jenny "Spaghetti Omelette" Wang is coming to NY in July and we’re going to take a road trip to visit some others in Middle America. Maybe that’s why I had a Cameroonian dream. It’s not the first time — I had a confusing one with a Cameroonian saying something like "Pardon monsieur pour ne pas te donner du food" and me correcting him that "food" in French is "la nourriture" — and I’ve given up on trying to make sense of them. My life here has its own challenges, but at least it makes sense.


Continuer (Sunday, 2013 March 17)

March 17, 2013

A few months passed. Late October my parents started remodeling the bathroom. At first I was like, "Finally! I can show off my bucket bathing skills, since we won’t have a shower." But then I realized our backyard doesn’t have any place where you can bathe without being seen (no outdoor latrine), and that I had no desire to shower outside in NYC in late October. Just goes to show, even the "roughing it" skills we learn in Peace Corps don’t always translate well to a culture where the infrastructure doesn’t support them.

Around the same time, I was due to start my job, so I really wanted to have regular access to a shower for the week or so that my parents were due to not have a bathroom. Accordingly, I started putting in motion the move to a new apartment. I thought I had timed everything correctly, with me moving in at the beginning of November, and the management company telling me I could pick up the keys a few days early, but hadn’t counted on the super needing more time to change the locks. Oh, and then there was Hurricane Sandy. We lost power (and therefore heat, which has an electric ignition) at my parents’ house for a couple of days (long enough to run out of charge on all my electronics), which I definitely hadn’t expected to happen in the First World. Me and Rita played cards by candlelight. My first day of work, our new office was still nonfunctional, so our office manager had people over in her apartment and we worked there. Subway service was inoperative, and buses were swamped. Flatbush Avenue has this longstanding phenomenon of "dollar vans", which are sort of analagous to taxis in Cameroon. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to take them. They were doing a brisk business. I decided to walk it, which was tiring but not unreasonable. Thenceforth I took my bike.

And then things settled down, slowly but surely. Mass transit started working again normally. The subtle terror of lines at gas stations and what that might portend faded gradually as gas started flowing back into Greater New York. I started a job that I’m good at. Eventually I went on isoniazid for my tuberculosis, then off it again when there was a national shortage, but now I’m back on it. There’s the occasional oddity here in "White Man Country" (to use the Anglophone phrase), like discovering that traffic buttons don’t really do anything and neither do elevator "door close" buttons in normal operation, but by and large I am living the good life. I eat a lot of meat — in Cameroonian terms, I’ve become even more "healthy" — and I drink a fair amount of delicious things (at least, when I’m not on my isoniazid). I play board games (of which I now have almost 100) and I see my friends and even other Volunteers like Peter Paskowsky pretty regularly.

I always strive to be not like other people, but of course (as previously) I’m not too far off from Volunteer-normal. I’ve had to struggle to understand and accept that things that don’t matter to me are nevertheless taken quite seriously by people I care about, and that I need to respect that. A good example is wearing shoes — it feels like most everyone I know has a standing policy that you take your shoes off immediately as soon as you have one foot inside the door, despite the fact that nobody’s gonna track any mud in from their apartment building corridor. It isn’t rainy season, after all! I guess I’ve made a peace with it because I know I’ve got my own quirky neuroses too (like the occasional French word or "When I was in Africa…" story), and I figure if people can put up with mine, I ought to put up with theirs too. None of us are really objectively right — we’re all just screwed up in slightly different ways.

Lately I’ve read The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which I enjoyed, but not as much as the original The Magicians, partly because of some of the deeply disturbing scenes at the end, Bone Dance by Emma Bull, which I loved, and Redshirts by John Scalzi which was also quite enjoyable.


Suite (Wednesday, 2012 September 18)

September 19, 2012

[This one goes out to all the UPS drivers out there that are not delivering my computers. It’d be nice if you guys could, you know, deliver them. Sure, it’s an unreal wish-fulfillment fantasy, but hey! Speaking of unreal wish-fulfillment fantasies, here’s the last installment of the fiction.]

I know I didn’t talk much about the Mission’s evacuation program but I really don’t know much about how it worked. They had picked us up and now we were heading back to Capital City in a wheeled ground transport that I didn’t know the Sumi name for. It was squat but high up, and wide and long like someone had put couches on stilts and wheels. I was sitting in the back on one side of two Missionaries. They looked shell-shocked, like I did. One was crying. Utkeu’s laser pistol was stowed — the drivers hadn’t asked about personal armaments so I wasn’t saying anything.

As far as I could tell from the curt answers the Zhenae drivers gave me, the revolution started in a city near Sunken Grace (one of the major economic centers of Zhen). Word had gotten out that Planetary Counsel had written their report on the election results, which the local population found objectionable on the grounds that the votes hadn’t been counted. These townsfolk proceeded to their local Town Counsel to express their disappointment. Local authorities, including the local branch of the Arms, rebutted their views with rigor and force. Of the townsfolk who survived, some were wearing black armbands. Riots spread from there to the equatorial regions, and by personal communication to the Plateau and the Outer Islands. All government establishments were at risk. Most Missionaries worked at government establishments. You get the idea.

I had a lot of time, because our transport was taking us all the way back to the Mission in Capital City. This let me start to process what I’d seen happen to Utkeu, one of my closest friends on Zhen. I know he had been disappointed in me. In a sense, I’d killed him. He’d given me the benefit of his wisdom, tried to dissuade me from the course I’d already been on, and I’d blown him off. My hubris had gotten him killed. I’d made a mistake. He’d paid for it. I had survived, through no fault of my own. He was gone and he was never coming back.

What about everyone else? I didn’t know what had happened to my friend who had tried to seduce me at the club. Was she OK? I’m glad she hadn’t been there with me when I’d had to leave. She would have been on her own.

As for Jamie, I hadn’t heard from her, but I was willing to bet that she was someplace safe, maybe even already at the Mission, or even off-planet already after finding a way to get out early. I worried, in a completely platonic way, about Morgan.

We trickled in over the next day or so. The last Missionaries pulled into the secure compound in the early afternoon, and we all shuffled to the biggest conference room we could find for a debriefing. The logistics were pretty straightforward; we were going to private shuttle to the Starport in groups and from there lift off back home. Anyone could ask for a transfer to a different planet, but me, Jamie, and Morgan, making eye contact in the back, would not be exercising that option. Our possessions would eventually be dug out of our residences and sent to us.

Missionaries who were evacuated were considered to have finished their service, like an honorable discharge. We’d gotten, therefore, the best of both worlds. We’d finished our service, but without having to actually finish our service. It was all playing out like Jamie had planned. We’d hit the jackpot.

We weren’t allowed out of the compound to go drinking; some Missionaries were staying at the hotel next door, but they were only allowed to go in groups of four. I was alone in a corner behind one of the administrative buildings when Morgan found me.

"We did it," she said.

"Yeah, we’re regular heroes."

She smiled vaguely, choosing not to be drawn in. Instead she sat next to me.

"I wanted," I said. And then I had to stop for a second. "I’m having buyer’s regret. I’m not sure this is the right revolution."

She gave a quiet laugh, almost a sigh. "We did our best. I think time will tell."

"Did they attack your school?"

"No, things are different on the Islands… a little more respect for teachers or something. They just took the Arms House and more or less left us alone."

"That’s good."

"Where are you gonna go next?"

"Not sure yet. You?"

"Back to school, I think. Maybe I’ll really learn how to teach."

"Listen," I said. "I guess I’m still learning how to grow up, how to put other people’s feelings into consideration. I’m sorry about everything."

"It’s fine. Now I can finally get away from you." She smiled and stood up, stretched. "Maybe I’ll see you on Earth."

"Maybe," I said. But as she walked away, I thought, maybe not.

A plan was already forming in my head. I’d gotten this whole planet into a mess because I wanted to go home. I’d thought I knew what God had wanted, and one of my closest friends was dead because of it. Maybe I could turn this around, try to act selflessly for once.

My bag was already packed. I left a note, then climbed over the wall.