I left the beautiful sanctuary of Viroth's Hotel and Cambodia at midnight on Wednesday, June 8, 2016 local Cambodian time. I arrived in Shanghai at 4:30am Shanghai time with 20 hours of layover ahead of me. I arrived with a plan, but I was tired and there were a lot of words written in Chinese characters and absolutely no way for me to pretend that I had any idea what was going on. I was a sitting duck.
Straight out of customs, which was less than clear but I made it without much to do, I was accosted by a fellow wearing a very official "I am here to rip off tourists" lanyard. I tried to get by him, but he followed me like a piece of wet toilet paper sticks to your shoe in a very bad bathroom as I tried to find an ATM. He was tall, and thus blocked most of my views for the ATM or the signs that would have directed me to the real airport hotel. I eventually gave-up and said "I just need an ATM and The Airport Hotel." His eyes grew bright just like he hooked a fish on his lure. "Yes, yes, of course this way to The Airport Hotel." He motioned to a kiosk to the left. "I really need and ATM." His face grew dark and confused as if to say "What is this thing she keeps repeating?" Tired, cranky and really just wanting to ditch the guy I walked to the kiosk.
"I would like to find an ATM and The Airport Hotel, the one that is actually in this airport." I said, flat out. I was immediately presented a series of brochures and broken English explaining all of the good things to eat awaiting me for just 860 Yuan. My stomach gurgled something unpleasant-like and I pulled out my calculator, divided 860 by 6 and said "$150 US dollars! I just want to go to hotel in this airport for a nap. Please stop trying to sell me something. Where is the ATM?" The woman behind the counter would not be stopped. "The ATM is broken. We will shuttle you for free, and take all credit cards." Little did I know at this time, how much I needed cash, because Chinese businesses take only Chinese versions of the credit cards you know and trust…what happened to credit being universal. I digress.
Eventually I was broken down. I do not know why I didn't just walk away and wander about the equivalent of a block to find my giant airport hotel sign and an ATM. I'll never know because that is not what I did. I let myself get pressured into a bargaining match with the woman behind the counter, believing, or perhaps wishing, I was bargaining for the lovely Motel 6 level room in the hotel attached to the airport. At the end of it all she took my credit card and I spent $60 US dollars (allegedly) and I got a free shuttle to The Airport Hotel, where the ATM was just right there in the lobby. I was herded to a tiny van where about 15 Indian persons got out of it before I was abruptly pushed in. This was my last warning to run that I did not heed. The van initially looked like it was driving to the hotel I saw in the pictures of the Pudang airport – then it passed it right by, leaving it behind in the dust and went directly out of the grounds of the airport. Then it kept going, and going, and going, and going for what felt like 20 minutes, it could have been longer or shorter, but it was a really long time when you are tired, thirsty, have no local cash and don't speak the language. I was officially being Shanghaied – and I could no longer ignore that I had a stomach virus. This was not good.
I eventually arrived at my unplanned destination and was greeted by a hand reaching for my little blue slip. I gave her the blue slip and she said "You leave 8pm?" and I said, "No I leave as soon as I take a shower and a nap. When is the next shuttle?" Blank stare. "I would like to go back to the airport as soon as possible." Blanker stare, followed by a blink, blink and a series of guttural sounding things in Chinese to her colleague, along with what sounded like an annoyed yell, followed by a dismissive hand motion and "You sit there!" She pointed to the couch next to the still lit abandoned cigarette emanating a wretched acrid cigarette smoke smell throughout the lobby. Its owner was no where to be seen. I sat for lack of any other option and observed my circumstances. I practiced my breathing and didn't panic. A nice-ish looking lady came from down the hall and motioned for me to follow her, so I did. She took me up a flight of stairs and down a hallway that had a smorgasboard of rooms on either side. One had a purple half moon shaped bed, and another had simple sleeping mats on the floor. It was officially strange. I wondered if I was in a brothel. The room I was lead to resembled a normal hotel room, except it smelled like stale cigarettes and it had a tea kettle. I walked in and she pulled the door closed behind me. I locked it then ran to the bathroom where my stomach of steel failed me miserably and I had absolutely no drinking water left.
Welcome to China world traveler. Fuck. This is officially an all-time low. I took stalk of the room and decided to make the best of it. I put some water in the tea kettle and set it to boil while I took a shower. After my shower I examined the bed, drapes and determined that if there were bed bugs the chemically acrid smell of stale smoke must have killed them. I left Jimbo to rest on the desk anyway to ensure he didn't bring home any more bugs than were already traveling home in my stomach from Cambodia. I went to bed and closed my eyes – a nap would do me good.
Then the beeping in the hallway began, and the crashing out in the parking lot, and the random screaming and yelling in Chinese, and the text from my friend telling me my significant other had packed all of his things and was moving out, and the stomach evacuation that just would not stop. My all-time low got lower. But is was so bad I really couldn't even cry because that would be just silly in a situation this bad. I got up, I went to bathroom for the 15th time, I took another shower, I changed clothes and I pulled myself together. I had an itinerary from a lovely person who I trusted, and what little bit of internet I could access on my iPhone had a list of places I should go that were not here. I needed to get the hell out of this little piece of Shanghai purgatory, stomach problem or not. I found a granola bar my friend gave me before I left Seattle in a pocket of my carry-on bag. I ate it because I was that hungry and hoped it would stop the stomach discomfort. I took another careful sip of the poison chemical well-boiled water and wondered if I had just concentrated all the industrial pollutants. I didn't care, hoping they would kill the stomach disease I contracted and I was just that thirsty. I went downstairs with all my things and demanded an ATM and a cab.
Completely blank stare. Followed by long conversation in Chinese with person sitting next to her that resulted in yet another long blank stare. Followed by a hand motion to the couch again and a "shuttle later." I stood my ground. "I need a cab and and ATM. I need to leave." A young man spoke in careful English behind me. " This place is very remote, there is no ATM, there is one at the airport. Next shuttle is at 11am, let us wait, you will be OK, you want the free shuttle." I turned around to look at the young man and said, "Are you sure the shuttle is coming?" He said, "Yes, yes, come, let us sit down." His voice was calm so I listened. "Have you had something to eat?" he asked looking concerned at my probably extremely pale face. "No, I have no money." I said, then backtracked out of pride and clarified, "Well, I have money but I only have 2 US dollars on me right now. I'm kind of in trouble if I can't get any cash." He said. "I'll buy you breakfast, follow me." I followed, not exactly sure what I was going to get but this was better than stewing in the smoke filled lobby.
It turns out his name was something I could not pronounce, but I could call him Li. He had just gotten his MBA from University of California Fresno and had returned to China because the job prospects in America were just not up to his standards as a well-off child of a well-off Chinese family. "Did I have any children?" He asked as soon as he had explained his situation and we were waiting for my breakfast. I didn't even blink, I had played this personal information game before in a place called India. I responded with a little bit of fiction. I told him "No, I have no children. I chose a career instead of children. And I'm currently in the process of a divorce." Then I almost started crying as I imagined the reality of my significant other, who I had thought was my life partner, packing-up all of his things and sneaking out of my house while I was abroad. Li took my word divorce, I think, as a signal of a sensitive subject and proceeded to talk more about himself instead of asking more personal questions. Then the food arrived. A big steaming bowl of noodles with egg and vegetables. As I had recently begun to find eggs appalling this was probably the worst choice of food ever – but I decided I could eat around the eggs and take in some noodles. Then our shuttle arrived.
We got onto the shuttle and were followed by a whole bunch of other people including two white, English speaking males. I expected the van to retrace its steps immediately to the airport – instead we took a scenic route moving excessively slowly through local streets to pick-up people who appeared to be employees of the airlines or airport. Meanwhile, I started to eavesdrop on the other English speakers in the van as the Chinese speakers began to prattle on with each other in Chinese. The white guy in the back seat said to the other, "You speak Chinese?" The other said, "Yes, I took some lessons but I regret it." Pause, then a surprised "Why?" Followed by the fellow saying "It is better if you do not understand what they are saying. Understanding what they are saying only means you get driven insane, because they are constantly talking about nothing or complete bullshit." No one in the car was phased by this statement as they continued with their conversations in Chinese.
Meanwhile, while this listening was occurring the van had come to a complete stop awkwardly in the middle of an intersection. Our driver decided to park us in the middle of the bike/motorbike lane – he looked nervously out the window about ten times before he proceeded to make two calls on his cell phone in a row where he yelled a bunch of things at someone each time then abruptly hung up then proceeded to look around nervously again and park us further in the middle of everything.
The white fellow in the back seat continued his diatribe "See here, we are completely full, there is no room for another person in this van, but yet this guy has parked us in an intersection, while we wait for an individual who is in the wrong place to come and join us, as if we had room for him anyway. And listen to him, yelling at this person as if we could actually fit him in the van and take him to the airport! The futility. This is what it means to understand what they are saying – it is to hear futility, all around you, all the time. It is better if you just do not understand." As if this man had not said anything profound his fellow countered – "So what do you do in China?" The depressed white man Chinese speaker replied "I work and move around." As if this was an answer. The van finally pulled away from the awkward intersection and made its way back to the airport.
I got off the shuttle, I found my ATM, I said goodbye to Li, I bought two large bottles of water, and I made my way to the train.