Monday, February 28, 2011

72 hours with no showers.

Prologue: On my flight to China, I watched the film 127 hours. You could say I was inspired by it. This is my jet-lagged attempt to describe my adventure, or rather misadventure, in Shanghai. It's a lengthy account, but it's a full one. So if you're up for a novella, read on, friend. For those short on time, I've included a Clif's Notes at the end, so scroll on down.

Chapter 1 -- The sweaty skies and a sinus infection

The morning of my flight, I woke up with only a little bit of butterflies aflutter in my stomach. Despite my calm demeanor, things started going awry rather quickly. 

Things that went awry:
The weather: there was a blizzard. 
The highway: it was strangely packed and full of accidents for 6 am. 
My health: I haven't had a cold in years, and when I was home in Manitoba, my throat started to hurt. I was totally in denial about it and just blamed the weather in Manitoba. But by the time I got to the airport, my nose was running like a leaky faucet and I was croaking like a frog.
Checking in: one of my bags was overweight, so I had to open it, spilling all of it's contents on the ground in my mad scramble to start throwing things away out of it and ending up still having to pay the overweight fee. 
Making it to the plane: I heard the last call for boarding while I was going through security. I soaked through my jacket running across the airport to make the plane. I did, however, manage to make two quick stops for a bottled water and to change 100 CAN to 520 RMB. 

I collapsed onto my seat and poured the water bottle down my throat. I managed to shove one of my bags (definitely more than the maximum limit of ten pounds) into a cramped overhead compartment. I spent a significant portion of the flight watching that compartment because my bag forced the door to stick out on an angle and I had serious fear that it would fly open at the hint of turbulence and knock out the elderly lady sitting directly beneath it. The other bag I shoved under the seat, only after my seat mate had moved his jacket out from under the seat in front of him.  Five-ish hours later, we landed in Vancouver and I hit the ground running again. I literally had to elbow my way out of the plane because we were forty minutes late and my connecting flight was supposed to leave in five minutes from when the first flight touched down. Naturally, this connecting flight was in the other terminal building, at the opposite end of the airport. So I strapped my bags on again and got my sweat seriously on again by racing over there and making it onto the flight that they held for me. Once again, I collapsed into my seat, this time without water but at least with my deodorant in one of my overpacked bags (which I promptly applied so as not to offend my fellow travellers). I slept for about an hour, total, on this 12 hour flight. Mostly I caught up on my movies and checked out a new tv show or two. However, life seemed pretty glorious, because I had two seats to myself and they served me the most delicious tofu dishes and served me all the water I wanted. Plus I had a package of kleenex and zinc lozenges to fix my increasingly dramatic sinus issues.

Chapter 2 -- First impressions and famous last words

I couldn't see the city for the longest time after we started our descent. The air was so thick with clouds it was hard to believe we were anywhere near land. When I finally set eyes on China for the first time, I was surprised at how unsurprising it all was. We could have been landing in Winnipeg or Toronto. There was no snow, mostly just brown grass where there wasn't apartment buildings and skyscrapers, complete with lots of streets and expressways. We landed, went through customs without a hitch and I gathered my many possessions. The school had emailed to say they would send someone to meet me. I almost missed that someone - I had to do several passes to find who I thought it might be, because instead of having my name or the school's name on a placard, they had the name of the textbook company that supplied the school. The young man meeting me looked to be about 18 years old, and was pleasant enough, except for the fact that he spent our entire seventy minute drive to where I was to stay on his cellphone in Chinese. I tried to engage this young man and the driver in the front seat, but to no avail. I peered out the tinted windows instead, trying to see the sights, but the freeway was walled for the majority of our trip. We bypassed the city centre and headed into something like a suburb. This is where I began noticing the differences between Canada and China.

Interesting differences between China and Canada:
1) Traffic. Lights and road lines are mere suggestions. If you've ever been in bad traffic in a North American city, you might scoff and think nothing of this, but you have no idea. There are bikes and mopeds and people all over the road. The honking is so constant and persistent that I actually stopped being able to hear it after a couple of minutes. Honking is used instead of signaling and instead of traffic lines.
2) Population. Everywhere I looked there was people, shoulder-to-shoulder, front-to-back, all over. It was like the sidewalks and the road and the street vendors and shopped performed this undulating sea of humanity.
3) Language. I had the really interesting sensation of being a child again. Had I have had anyone to question, I think I would have constantly been asking what the signs on all of the buildings said. It was a really cool experience not being able to read anything at all, but seeing readable material everywhere.
4) Laundry and food everywhere. Really, if I had been walking, I don't think I could have gone a meter in any direction without running into a food stand of some sort or making a mess of someone's low-hanging laundry.

By the time I reached my final destination, it totally dark out and I couldn't see much of anything anymore. We pulled into a darkened back alley, and I was unloaded into a darkened, nondescript building. I had been expecting a Holiday Inn Express or even a motel, so I was a little surprised, to be sure. But I kept a smile pasted on, thinking it could only improve from my first impression. The young man who picked me up helped me take my bags inside, handed me a banana, a card for the bus and a card for the phone. He also wrote the address of a building I was supposed to appear at on Monday at ten am down on a scrap of paper, then beat a hasty retreat. I was suddenly very much alone.

Some things you should know about the room and the "hotel": my room was on the fifth floor. The elevator stopped and I was stuck inside for 20 minutes until it was called back to the bottom floor, by lucky coincidence, by a man who looked like he was there doing maintenance. I elected to walk up the stairs, but by the second floor, it was pitch black, so I went back downstairs and tried the elevator again. I made it to my room, which was down a darkened hallway. Inside the room was two beds, a desk and an old tv. Pretty standard. I tried to take a shower, but the water didn't work. I tried to have a sponge bath, but the water came out only in spurts and was orange and contained flakes of some unknowable material. I sat down on the bed and tried to think calmly. I tried to use the phone card, but the phone in my room didn't work. I went downstairs and looked for someone I could talk to. There was no one at the desk at the front and it was dark. There was no restaurant and no other people anywhere in sight. I peered out into the alley. No people in sight. I was hungry; I looked for a vending machine. None in sight. I went back to the room, sat on the bed and cried. 

Some things you should know about my impressions about the contract: I was told there would be other teachers - there were none. I was told there would be food, at least on the first night - there was none. I was told there would be an immediate orientation - but I wasn't to have contact with anyone from the school at all for approximately 56 hours. They just left me in this unnamed place by myself with nothing. I was told that they were going to take us on outings to see the city - but all I would see was this hotel room, the freeway and some smog. I was told this room would be free - but I had to sign a piece of paper that looked like they were going to dock my first month's salary for it. I thought that they were going to help me find an apartment before the week was over - but the young man who dropped me off said that "might" occur, if it was "necessary". I felt like the terms of my contract had been broken, and even more, I felt like I had no support.

I pulled out my phone from home and dialed the number for a friend of a friend of a friend that I'd never met, but who had offered to help me if I got into trouble in Shanghai. No answer. I called back until the phone was answered. Enter the hero of this story: H. Despite a bit of a language barrier, I was able to explain to H that I was in some trouble. I hadn't eaten for hours and I actually didn't have any idea where I was. I eventually found a pamphlet for the place I was in inside one of the drawers of the desk. H came to where I was and came into my room (after having the similar experience of getting stuck in the elevator). She called the contact number I had for the school and spoke angrily into the phone. Next, she gave me her spare phone and explained how I could use it. She took me out of the room and into her car and we drove to a hot pot restaurant. She ordered for us, and I devoured some delicious green beans, rice and other assorted vegetables. It was the middle of the night, so she took me immediately back to the room. But not after giving me a small bag of apples, red bean bread and bottled water. She said she would call me tomorrow. I agreed, and said everything would be better in the morning.

I did not sleep, because I kept the lights on to ward of the bugs that I had seen and heard coming out whenever I shut them off for a moment, and also because I was still on my Canadian schedule. So I turned on some Chinese tv, played gameboy and read. There was no internet. So mostly I just waited. 

I also used photobooth to capture my increasingly 
loony hours of waiting and variations in my mood,
along with the things I had and did to amuse myself.

Chapter 3 -- Day two and giving it a fair shot

When I could see the sun, I did some p90x kenpo (one of my favorite fun workouts) to get my spirits up and my heart pumping in a healthy way. I tried the shower and taps again. I had a sponge bath with the icy orange tap water. I felt dirty, but I laughed it off as part of the experience and figured eventually it would be resolved. Things did seem better in the morning after all. I sent some texts to fam and the bff with H's phone. I opened up my computer and wrote the first of what would be several pro-con lists. I looked out the window at the buildings around me. I thought I could see a park and I resolved to try to find it eventually. I waited some more for H's call. I ate some apples and red bean bread. We connected just before noon, and she invited me to find a taxi and come over for lunch. So I did, and that was mostly uneventful because she had written down her address the evening prior so I was able to simply hand it to the taxi driver.

Her home was beautiful, and her family provided a beautiful meal. Lots of veggies, even tofu! Plus, I was able to go on the internet and send 'hi I'm safe messages' to my family and 'omg is this really what I signed on for?' msgs to the course instructor and my Canadian contact for the school. I was pretty calm, but I was still not sure about my situation. Commenced with another pro/con list. As terrific as H was, I wasn't able to communicate my concerns to her as well as I would have liked. Plus, she was extremely busy with work and couldn't hold my hand. Not that I wanted my hand held, what I really wanted was to talk to another teacher and for the school to provide me with a decent orientation, as I believed they would. I was not in panic mode, I was still open to my experience, still willing to keep trying and hoping things would improve.

Shortly after our meal, H dropped me off at the place I was staying (I can't call it a hotel because it had no sign, no front desk staff and no amenities - nor a hostel because it didn't seem to have any other people aside from myself) on her way to work (ish - she was working but the place was about 40 minutes from the city proper and longer from where she lives). She warned me not to spend too much time walking the streets around there because people might try to take advantage of my obvious foreignness. I actually felt comatose tired at this point, so I climbed into the bed, fully clothed, and had a nap.

When I woke up, I was disoriented. It was dark. The phone H gave me had completely stopped working. I couldn't charge it, so I couldn't text or call anyone. The hotel phone still refused to work. I grabbed my iPhone, and saw that it's battery was very close to dying. I rummaged through my bags, only to discover that I left the cord that I could use to charge it at home. I sent off a msg to the bff and H explaining the situation. H said we could deal with it in the morning. When the phone died, I went downstairs to try to find someone at the front desk so I could maybe make a call to someone at the school for help or maybe just a rant. It was pitch black and there seemed to be someone sleeping on the floor in the corner. To be honest, I was too scared to investigate further, because I had no way of knowing who this person was, if they spoke English,  or how they would react to being woken up. Remembering H's warning, I was wary about going outside. So I went back to my room (after a couple of false starts in the elevator) and ate the rest of the apples and bread. I spent another sleepless night. I passed the time eating the m and m's I had packed, writing pro-con lists, watching Chinese tv and reading. My nintendo system was also out of power. I left the lights on. I  started rambling stream of consciousness to myself. I walked around my room. I tried the taps. I tried finding a wireless connection. I tried sleeping. I did not meet with any success.

Chapter 4 -- Elation and despair and decision making

When the sun rose, I went downstairs and found someone at the front. With the use of a picture of a computer on a safety card I found in the desk, I asked for the internet. Half an hour later, still nothing. But suddenly, a young girl came in to talk to the woman at the front. She explained that under the desk or somewhere in the room there might be a cord which I could plug into the wall and into my computer. Not in so many words of course. But I was thrilled. I literally squeaked and ran up the stairs to my room. I got on my hands and knees, bugs be damned, and started searching for this cable. I found it under the cart that housed the tv. I plugged it in and hopped on gmail chat faster than a speeding bullet. I could not have been happier about my newfound internet access. I chatted a little bit and was feeling really good. But the time difference meant the chatting was pretty short-lived. But it gave me the mood boost I needed. I decided to try to make an adventure for myself. If the school wasn't going to provide me with a tour, I would do it myself. 

A quick assessment of my finances made me realize I could only afford to do a tour on foot of the nearby area unless I could find a bank machine (I had spent nearly all my RMB on the taxi ride to H's on the previous day). I did not find a bank machine, so I was not able to take a cab to the touristy areas of the city. But I thought, what the heck, and set out for a hyper-local adventure.

During this adventure, I saw someone riding a bicycle in the street get run over and killed. At close range. Not caught in the blood-spray range close, but close enough. A man with only a few remaining teeth grabbed his crotch at me, and when I turned and continued walking, ran up behind me and thrust himself against me. With surprising strength and pushing me up against the wall of a building he grabbed at me until I pushed, clawed and kicked my way out and raced down the alley. At the end of street, I could see the entrance way to the park, so after a few moments to calm and collect myself, I continued onwards into the park. I had my jacket zipped over my camera, and I had high hopes of maybe taking some neat pictures. Pushing through a mass of people, I realized one of my pockets was unzipped. Thankfully not the pocket that contained my passport and visa - sheer luck that only my remaining RMB was on the other side. Gone. 

Inside the park, there was a lot of neat stuff going on. After watching to make sure pictures were allowed, I pulled out my camera to capture some of it.

The river in the park. 

For 8 RMB, you could go in one of these tubes
and float on the river.

People were largely just hanging out on benches 
near the river, enjoying the (admittedly somewhat 
smoggy) view of the city.

Interesting plants!

This apparently was a school.

I checked out this path....

...which led up a hill to this view.

Kites were a big thing in the park.

As was music. There were so many people playing
brass instruments around the river it was a cacophony.

Folks fishing.

At this point I almost lost the pictures because someone came up behind me and tried to grab my camera as I was taking a picture of another kite. Due to the way I had strapped the camera onto myself, he didn't succeed, but it was my second struggle of the day and I was kind of panicked about the whole thing. I hightailed it out of the park at this point, breathing heavily and feeling upset. But I wasn't upset with the country in general - every place has bad people and good people. Anywhere you go you could get mugged or molested. And considering, I felt like I'd gotten away relatively unscathed.

I couldn't get into the building housing my room when I got back for about an hour. When I finally did get inside and went into my room, someone was already there. A woman with her hands in my bag of dirty clothing in the bathroom. It was at this moment, standing in the doorway of the washroom that didn't work clutching my camera to my chest, sniffling away and agahst, that I realized that I was leaving.

Chapter 5 -- "The best follies are the shortest-lived" (Alexandre Dumas)

I tossed my possessions into my bags quickly, haphazardly. I checked to see that I still had my degrees and my computer and since I did, I was satisfied. After I was packed, I sat on the bed and tried to figure out a plan for H's phone. It was at that moment that she happened to call the room and by some miracle, must have got through to someone at the front, because the call rang through to me. I answered and told her that I was leaving and she instructed me to take the phone and said she would pick it up from Canada (she travels back and forth a great deal for her work). I piled my bags one on top of the other, and slowly, walking backwards, lugged all 120 pounds of them onto the elevator and downstairs. I stopped at the front and handed the key to the woman sitting there. She didn't say anything to me, but immediately got on the phone to what I presume was the contact at the school. As for me, I heaved my luggage out of the alley and into the street, where I hailed a cab and set off for the airport. An hour later, I was there. Two hours after that, I was on a plane coming home. Twelve hours, and I was back in Canada. Two more hours in the car and I was in my home, sleepily inhaling a bowl of cheerios before having the best shower of my life, then subsequently having a complete coma.


What did I learn from this adventure? Invaluable life lessons. 
1) I learned about trusting my gut - when something seems sketchy in Canada (not being told what hotel no matter how many times you ask, the wrong dates on the contract that the school claims is just an error, not being given the contact information for other teachers on the ground, etc.).
2) I learned about what I like about traveling. I like being super busy, I like doing really active adventures, I enjoy the touristy spots, I like having the comforts of home when I get back at the end of my day of active adventures. I thought what I wanted was to live in a new place and another culture. And maybe I still would, under the right circumstances. For instance, with a friend (new or old, but someone I could talk to and share experience with). I'm independent, but spending 48 hours alone is not fun at all, especially alone in a hotel room. Also, with access to a gym and the internet (and if I can be really greedy, maybe a Starbucks occasionally). I'm open to new experiences, but there are some things that I love and truly cannot live without. Even then, I could live sans gym and internet if I knew beforehand that I wouldn't have access and I had enough adventures to fill my time. But at least for now, I think I'd rather have a backpacking journey through Europe with my sister or spend a well-planned week in the elephant sanctuary or sign up for another destination marathon.
3) I also got perspective on what I love about home. I'd been feeling so awful about my circumstances for so long that I didn't appreciate what I did have. Some of that includes the above, like gym and internet. But I also really appreciate the people and the opportunities in my life here in Canada. When I was writing my pro and con lists, I kept getting really excited about the thought of getting to run in Big Sur like I planned to and finally get my driver's license. LIke, really excited, even joyful. I didn't ever feel homesick, because I genuinely do like to have my own adventures and I've done so before. But I realized how much I love being home and being with the people closest to me. Before I signed the contract, my idea of a perfect life was getting a dog, working up to an ultra this summer and doing longer triathlons, doing destination marathons once or twice a year. When this opportunity arose, I thought maybe this teaching abroad thing could be a ten-month part of that perfect life. I had wanted to try this since I was 16.  And now I have. And I really feel like I have it figured out.

Going to China was not a mistake. I learned and experienced so much. I feel like it set me on the right track.

Clif's Notes Version

I went to China and spent 72 hours in hotel room by myself with no sleep and no showers and very little food. I wrote pro/con lists, contacted a family friend who was able to help me when I was absolutely desperate, and tried to stay positive and make rational decisions. However, the fact that I saw nothing, did nothing, had no support and was staying in the sketchiest circumstances available eventually convinced me that I needed to leave. I had a tough time and I really tried to make it work. But it did not work. Not for me, not there and not this time. So I'm home and I'm okay and I'm excited for what comes next.

And what is up next: I'll tell you tomorrow.


  1. Oh Carrie! I'm so glad you're okay. Yours is a story I remember being warned about when I did my ESL cert. I'm so glad you're alright and in good spirits.

    There is another adventure on your horizon.

  2. I just found your blog and that is the most incredible story. That sounds horrible, and you definitely made the right decision. What a scary situation!!!

  3. You are safe and that is the most important thing...I cannot wait to hear what you are doing next!

  4. Wow! What an experience. I'm so glad to hear that you are ok.

  5. I'm so glad you're safe Carrie! Crazy crazy story.

    Just read to my mum and she was in just as much shock as I was.

    You deserve Starbucks, pronto. We must go soon. :)

  6. Sorry to hear that the experience was a bust, but glad to hear that you made it out unscathed!

  7. Wow. That was a whole lot of sketchiness in a small amount of time! I'm sorry that your adventure didn't turn out like you imagined.