As a well-oiled travel machine we were having breakfast at 6:30, boarding the city bus by 7:00, crossing the border at 7:30, and sitting comfortably in the bus to Guangzhou at 8 am (the latter with the help of Chi and his girlfriend, who kindly helped us to buy the tickets and find the right bus :)
Across the border from Macau is Zhuhai, a very pretty coastal city with a coastal drive that would be completely at home in Acapulco. Chi explained to us that this city was only 30 years old, and had been built as part of the special economic zone prepared to receive Hong Kong and Macau in 1996 and 1997.
We arrived to Guangzhou (aka Canton) around 10:30 am, and this time I had a chance to appreciate the vibrant modernism of this city. It reminds me of Los Angeles, with its freeways and skyscrapers. They are getting ready to host the 2010 Asia Games in November, so the city is in a fit of cleaning, repairing, and modernizing. The bus left us at the Landmark Hotel, and from there we took a taxi to our youth hostel. The taxi left us by the side of the Pearl River, in a street that seemed in the verge of being demolished. Apparently it had had a series of restaurants and night clubs, but everyone of them seemed now abandoned. We walked less than 200 meters when a mirage appeared in front of us. No, it couldn’t be. A big store front had the welcoming words “Youth Hostel” and the lobby looked like that of a hotel. Young travelers were scattered among comfortable sofas and a side desk with a couple of computers, while on the other side a friendly cafeteria was serving late breakfast or early lunch to a few more travelers. The front desk was attended by three young women who received us with a smile of recognition, as if we were old friends. Yes, they had our reservation, but alas, they were out of general dormitory beds, so instead they would lodge us in a two-bed room. We get to the room, and we find that not only we won’t have room mates, but the room has a TV, air conditioning, and its own bathroom! We have died and got to heaven :)
We spent an hour or so winding down, getting laundry done, and grabbing a bowl of noodles and wonton, but eventually we left the lap of luxury to go out into the world. At my suggestion we started with a trip to the zoo, which required us to learn to navigate the metro (piece of cake, we are getting to be pros at this). The zoo was a total success as far as people watching was concerned. The Cantonese are a happy, prosperous lot, who now how to amuse themselves with the family, and you would never guess their political regime is any different from ours. Gone are the times when everyone had to wear the same type of clothes, and now you see a fair mixture of tee shirts, hot pants, and designer clothes. We did frown at two things, however: people happily picking their nose in public (from guys to cute girls), and people tapping on the glass or mesh of the cages or throwing food at the animals (in spite of plenty of signs asking them not to).
From the standpoint of the animals I have to give this zoo a low mark. Unfortunately the wave of modernization has not reached far enough here, and many of the animals are housed in simple concrete boxes and bored to tears. I had to see the pandas, but it seems there is only one, and he was wedged somewhere between the lions and the monkeys. In my humble opinion, the zoo administration could reduce the number of animals in the collection so they could give them more space, and they could rearrange the collection so you could learn more about the animals of southeast Asia.
After the zoo we took the metro again, and stepped out at the riverside, intent on reaching a riverside park where my informant at the youth hostel had told me there were bikes for rental. It was in this leg of the trip that Luke learned some valuable lessons:
Make sure you know in which direction the metro is going! That means learning to read the metro maps, regardless of the language they are in.
Horacio has never been here before, so he really doesn’t know where he is going, or how far it is. He only looks like he knows.
Any “short distance” with Horacio could well turn out to be a death march. You should worry when you are using flip flops and he is wearing his hiking boots.
So we walked, and walked, and walked, came to the park, and found no bicycles for rent. Rats! Luke’s flip flops were looking the worst for wear, so we took a bus back to where we had started (another small triumph). I had spotted a restaurant at this end of the riverside avenue, so we decided to have dinner there (“we” is a euphemism here, because Luke has been “plugged” since we started, and he was considering skipping this meal).
We walk inside and of course everybody speaks Cantonese, so my cheerful “Ni hou” was received with giggles. Fortunately, a very professional-looking hostess kept her cool and with a smile brought us a picture menu, and one of her assistants set the table and brought us a pot of tea. So, I promptly served myself a cup of tea, which prompted another set of giggles. This people must have some sort of giggling disease. So, we order a plate of veggies, a plate of beef with veggies, a plate of squid with veggies, a Pepsi, and a beer. Looks of alarm as we are getting ready to take the fist swig from our respective drinks, but our hostess once again saved the day by bringing two glasses. Hmm, funny, the glasses are warm . . . then I look at a neighboring table and notice that the pot of tea was not meant to be a pot of tea, but an invitation to rinse the chopsticks, the cup, and the minuscule plate. Smiling at our hostess I signaled that I got the idea and started rinsing my chopsticks. With the exasperation of a mom dealing with a two year kid she firmly took the pot of tea from me, and demonstrated the whole rinsing procedure while everyone looked at us as if we were the village idiots. Live and learn!
Incidentally, Luke learned another valuable lesson:
When at the table, it is every man for himself, and if you are not fast Horacio may eat the whole thing.
You see, unlike what we are used to, where everyone takes into his or her plate the portion he/she intends to eat, thus establishing claim to a part of the feast, in China everyone eats directly from the serving plate, with no way to “reserve” the good pieces (this is why the plate you are given is minuscule, its only purpose being to give you a place to rest your chopsticks from time to time). So the faster you move your chopsticks, the more food you get (and I am pretty fast with chopsticks!)
We got back to the youth hostel at about 7:30 pm, with a full day behind us. But there was one more thing to do: About 50 paces from the hostel there is a peer, where a ferry moves people across the Pearl River, and where a boat makes a night cruise along the river. By 8:30 we were comfortably installed in the front of the boat, and off we went. It was fantabulous! Both sides of the river are lined with promenades, big buildings, and little buildings, and all of them are illuminated in one way or the other. So are the bridges and the boats that ply the waters of this vast river, so you get the impression to be inside an explosion of light and color. We thoroughly enjoyed the first leg of the trip, but on the way back tiredness took over, and we were quite content to stay inside the boat, dozing with the passing waves.
PS. I forgot to mention that the drab little street where the youth hostel is located turns into a veritable Xanadu when night falls. The “abandoned” restaurants and night clubs come to life, a kaleidoscope of lights illuminates the night, big cars with darkened windows disgorge glamorous women and new millionaires, and all manners of temptation lure the bypasser. Maybe this is why we saw so many hung over people in the living room of the youth hostel when we arrived. Don’t worry Sandy, I shall keep a close eye on Luke.
PS 2. I also forgot to mention that I have suffered a sad reminder of my approaching dead. We were in one of so many metro rides, when a young man sprung to his feet and offered me his seat. How funny, I thought, until I saw the looks of pity that he and his buddies casted my way. I had just been offered a seat as a senior citizen!