Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Some Favorites of the Comedic Variety

I interrupt these posts on Thailand to bring you a non sequitur. But hey, you should know I love movies and writing about them, so here's a quick ditty on some of my favorite comedies:

1. Wayne's World (1992) Perhaps because of its fictional close proximity to my hometown, but more likely because of its great writing, cast, and quoteability, this one I'll always cherish and endlessly re-watch. Though pretty much all of these I'll re-watch until I die.

2. The Big Lewboski (1998) I'm not the biggest Coen Brothers fan in the world, but this film is truly a stroke of genius. Its chapter-based plot and the array of characters encountered by the Dude make it one of the best comedies ever, if not best films ever.

3. Dumb and Dumber (1994) A 'fart' comedy and slapstick for sure, but this buddy comedy features Jim Carrey at the height of his powers, along with a rare perfect foil for Carrey in Jeff Daniels.

4. Young Frankenstein (1974) One-liners galore and Gene Wilder at the helm. A perfect comedic take on the timeless Frankenstein story.

5. Zoolander (2001) My favorite Ben Stiller movie by far (well, except for maybe "Zero Effect"), I could watch thisese movie again and again for its excellent satire of fame and narcissism, hilarious supporting players, and pretty decent story arch.

Monday, November 28, 2011

18 Meters Below the Surface... (Thailand Continued)

Over two weeks ago now, I returned from a trip to the majestic Chinese province of Yunnan. But while that blog post is forthcoming, I thought I should better finish off Thailand in fine detail, so here's the first day in Koh Tao:

Despite its frugality and time saving advantages, taking overnight transportation, especially buses with regular, upright seats, can wear on you and take something, be it time, energy, or the like, out of you. In other words, you can save money and time by taking the overnight transport, but it usually leaves you tired and a touch burnt out the next stay so you'll have to take the time to rest and recharge the next day, or risk getting sick or just not enjoying yourself because you're too damn tired. Luckily for me, I was in good conversation stride with dear Greg, who with his middle-class, Midwestern upbringing so similar to mine, I had plenty to talk about. He's extremely well traveled, and does it for a living as one of the net's most popular Asia travel bloggers. You can check him out here: http://goasia.about.com/bio/Greg-Rodgers-96811.htm

But the ride was not to be as pleasant as the conversation. After drifting off into an iPod-induced sleep, those of us going to Koh Tao were awoken at 3am and told to get off in the smaller town of Chumphon. We waited in the dark of night for a while, until an open-topped truck pulled up, and we were all loaded into the back. I wasn't as chipper as I usually am, but I made it through fine, while some people were basically sleep-walking and others were cracking jokes with us strangers. You won't be surprised to hear the dynamic is weird when you're driving through a Thailand forest in the middle of the night with strangers from all around the world.

Once we made it to the ferry dock, at about 3:45am, we had to wait until the first day's ferry arrived at around 7am. I shot the shit more with Craig, listened to the iPod, and tried to catch a few winks in the barren "sleep room". A storm swept through at about 6am, and when it cleared the sun was up. We all got on the ferry, and set into the blue clean.

The island of Koh Tao is the type of place every traveler seeks: a small, tropical island with beautiful views of green palm trees on sandy beaches, some short cliff faces with green foliage, and all of it set against blue skies and the infinite blue horizon of the Pacific. It only has a few roads with a few cars, and the only taxis are pick-up trucks that you sit in the back of with a bunch of people. It's secluded and quiet, for the most part, but also a well-traveled road, being clearly an economy that depends on tourism, and particularly scuba diving. It's main beaches are lined with diving schools, restaurants, travel shops to book your tickets home or to another island, and internet cafes, not to mention a few shops, bars, and a lady-boy showcase. We'll get to that eventually.

Being the responsible guy that I am, I already had my class booked at one of the best scuba schools on the island, or so I had read, called Big Blue. I would not be disappointed with the place's professionalism and know how, but somehow in the end, I felt like I didn't really fit in with the western staff there. Probably because most of them were from the UK, but more on that later.

My class was to begin in the evening with an introduction and video, but I had time to kill until then, and though I'd only had about three hours of poor sleep the prior evening, I decided I had to go exploring until it was time for an afternoon nap. So put on the old swimming suit, and whipped out the guns, and hit the beach with my pasty, office-flabby body for all to see.

Once I approached the water, I already saw a familiar face, a German who had been in my hostel in Bangkok named Volker. Not that I haven't encountered the same traveler in multiple cities before, but it was low season (my favorite time to travel, actually), and there weren't too many people around. He was on the prowl with another young German named Andre (there were a lot Germans there, yes). We started walking up and down the beach, admiring the water, though Andre complained of it being dirty, and it truly was a little a bit, and searched for the perfect place to dive in for a dip.

So we made our way up and down the beach, and finally found what we decided was the perfect place to take a dip. As we began swimming, I asked the others if one could open their eyes in saltwater, and acting like I had had a tremendous epiphany when I first tried it for myself and it worked, the others laughed. What can I say? I've swum in freshwater for most of my life, and I'm still getting to know the Pacific. Anyway, as we were in the water, exploring the blue (now with our eyes open), the weather quickly changed. The wind picked up, the sun was blackened by the thunderheads coming from the ocean. A tropical cloud-burst was fast approaching. The beaches emptied and the beachside bars and restaurants packed up everything. But me, Andre, and Volker quickly made a pact: we were going to live out this storm in its entirety, in the water. We would swim through a tropical rainstorm. And we did, despite the pelting rain, only to be escaped by submerging oneself deep beneath the water's surface. I've never felt so alive, screaming into the rain soaked air, then diving deep to find the peace and tranquility the marine world enjoys. But of course, we didn't make it through the whole storm, and about halfway through, I walked home to take a shower, get warm in my bed, and take a nap.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Yes, I just got back from Thailand. No, I don't have HIV now. (Part 1)

Thailand, one of the most notorious destinations on the East-Asian backpacker's trail, is now in the books for me. And as a romantic, one who lives for the experience, adventure, and promise that new locations and their preceding reputations offer, I must say the place didn't quite live up to the hype. Bangkok did not, anyway, though not that there is any real way that it could have. Tales of its endearing seediness are over-hyped, and though its reputation for loose morals and openness to sexual tourism will catch the attention of any young male, those things too are seemingly not what they once were, not that they were ever good reason to visit somewhere in the first place. No, I at least, got the sense that the place is not the sinful paradise that it once was. It has been largely cleaned up, as families casually shop in markets outside Go-Go bars and stale sex shows, and backpackers can find a cheap place to stay and party, and if they like, take home a prostitute (though one can do that just about anywhere). Bangkok is, these days anyway, to be praised as a quintessential Asian capital, heavily trafficked by travelers of all sorts (though many from Germany, it would seem), with cheap prices for food, shopping, and lodgings, some scenic destinations, good weather, great food, and some tame seediness that won't spook any level-headed enough traveler. Perhaps it was off the beaten path at one point decades ago, though I can safely say now a path has definitely been etched in the sand.

So, having read some Wiki-Travel (a damn good site for free travel info, I highly recommend it), I decided to stay in the backpack mecca of the East: Khao San Road, home to hundreds of hostels, some night life, cheap souvenir stands, and massage parlors. My cheap flight was late, and I only arrived at my destination at about 1am, having let my hostel know in advance I'd be arriving in the after hours. OK, so I just got done saying that Bangkok won't really spook anyway with some decent travel sense, but having never been to Khao San Road before, being alone, having a bewildered look on my face, and having tons of people hassle me about staying in their shitty hostels, for about ten minutes I was a bit overwhelmed. But, I quickly found the location I had booked (Charoendee Hostel, I also recommend if you're going to choose Khao San) and found it to be pretty nice and quiet, despite the loud music thumping I could still hear faintly from my room. I also found the pad-lock doors on the rooms a bit dubious, but hey, I was only paying about 10 dollars a night for the place. You get what you pay for.

For the next 48 hours I stumbled around Bangkok. Again, I read that people will often try to scam you on the streets in Bangkok, telling you various museums are closed when they are obviously not, and trying to take you to other destinations, so I was prepped and ready to do battle with the Tuk-Tuk drivers and gregarious random Thai people who despite their smiling faces no doubt approach you with an ulterior motive. But there were so many, especially at Khao San Road, that it quickly became exhausting. I thought to myself if I stay here, I'll never trust a Thai person ever again in my life. I fought through it for the most part, aided by befriending a European couple, half Italian (the dude, Marcello) and half Spanish, the chick (Latistia from Barcelona). They were friendly enough as travel companions, and we did a tour on the dirty river together in a boat. I hadn' t really planned to do that on that day, but I figured what the Hell. We then hit some of the major temples together like Wat Arun and Wat Pho, then called it a day. Such friends were nice enough, though later I think they ended up falling for some of the Bangkok highjinks, and I wasn't about to stand around and baby-sit them as I watched them over pay for Tuk-Tuk rides and some cheap goods.

My second day I made it to the Grand Palace in the morning, by myself, though arriving at the Palace I did bump into the European couple again. I sort of tagged along with them at times, but eventually drifted off, not wanting to go at their speed. They invited me to have lunch with them, but I declined in favor of exploring a Thai market and its eats by myself. Before that, while gazing upon the ornate beauty of the Grand Palace I got a bit pensive, and began philosophizing on the meaning of such a place and why I was there. It's as good a question a travelaire could ask himself as any, I suppose. I thought to myself why does man build such great structures to honor ethereal, god-like beings in so many cultures? What really drives us to exert ourselves in such a way? Do we really want to honor these beings we can only imagine and not see, or are we really honoring the greater aspects of our own nature, projecting our greatest traits onto gods? Anyway, just a quiet reflection while gazing on the Emerald Buddha, the most revered Buddha in Thailand.

By the end of this second day of sweaty temple-hopping and market-trotting, I longed to be far away from Bangkok and in the islands, the real focus of my journey. So I went back to the hostel, took a short nap in the common area (having already checked out) and then boarded the backpackers' night bus for the islands. I couldn't wait to see Koh Tao and just hang out on the beach. And try scuba diving. It was all in the cards, and I wasn't to be disappointed. I sat down next to an American, the only other one on the bus, named Greg from Kentucky, and we began to hit it off. By morning, I'd be on the tropical island of Koh Tao. Not bad at all.

To be continued in Part 2 of this post...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An arty movie saved us all... Well, me at least.

There's a lot to be depressed about these days, as a young person. The economic news continues to be poor, and I think just waiting for it to get better, as if it's a given, is the wrong way to think of it. It seems things are stuck this way for the long haul, so get used to it. And it was mostly caused by assholes in the financial sector, who have gotten away with it Scot-free, and continue to wreck things even now.

I don't mean to sound like a downer and lose the few regular readers of this blog that I have. I just mean to tell what I believe to be the truth. Republican-tea-party-loyalist-far-right assholes seem to have a firm grip on the wrench that is jammed into the gears of Washington. Washington is broken, everyone knows that. But they just held our country ransom so the rich in America could continue to pay low taxes. I don't blame the rich for wanting to pay lower taxes, as most of them have worked hard and earned their money honestly. But that's the price they pay for the tremendous inequalities we have in our stable democracy. They should accept the obvious fact that it's in their best interest to level things out, if only making things slightly more level, and move on. But they don't because they have too much clout in a Wall Street dictated government.

It's no big secret why I'm an expat right now. And though it may sound brash and egotistical, but I believe I'm one of the better examples of American youth: bright, brave, and well-educated. The US shouldn't want to lose a guy like me, but they have, to a totalitarian regime, a government my girlfriend, who's Chinese, referred to as "the biggest mafia in the world". But even they seem like a portrait of stability compared to the wrecked state of Washington. My mom put it this way: "You're the one who goes and lives with the Communists". Damn right, I do. It seems the Communists have opportunities to provide, unlike the US.

Young people like me can expect to make less than my parents' generation did. Social Security and Medicare for us seem like myths; only an idiot would take faith that they will safely pay off for us when we reach our Autumn years. And though crazy, right-wing assholes are mostly to blame for it all, the media seems incapable of putting the blame where the blame is due. Speaking of blame, Obama is without his share of it. The man shows common sense to deal with his political opponents. Sadly, in Washington that will get you nowhere these days, as those on the right insist upon one thing: if Obama loses, no matter the consequence, they win. Obama should never have treated them as if they were rational beings. They were willing to sacrifice our whole financial system so the rich wouldn't pay higher taxes, and I believe they would do it again.

But how has all this affected pop art? For one, movie studios have, and have for a few years now, relied on safe-bet films that will make a profit regardless of their artistic achievement. Maybe this has always been the case, but I've at times become depressed with movies like "Transformers" being the highest grossing movies of their year. At least films like Avatar had some sustenance. And even previous high-grossing films 'Titanic', The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and 'Toy Story' had some, if not plenty of artistic life in them. But these days it seems as if there are only two kinds of movies that get made: sequels and comic book movies (sometimes they are one in the same). Jesus Christ, am I so fucking sick of comic book movies. Except for Batman.

There was a movie, however, made recently, that's shear existence has restored my faith in humanity, art, and the medium of films: The Tree of Life. As I explained to a dear friend of mine recently, The Tree of Life is in a popular art medium, long-subject film, but it is not pop art. The fact that it has been shown in mainstream movie theaters is a triumph. And though a bunch of small-minded assholes may walk out on its slow pace and nonlinear plot, they will truly be missing something rare and fantastic. The film is ambitious as I believe a movie can possibly be: it attempts to tell the story of the beginning of life on earth and the creation of the universe, and put one life of one individual into the context of the cosmic dance, the life of an American growing up in Texas. And as best as a film possibly can succeed at this amazing task, it succeeds. It shows the beauty and elegance of life at all stages of existence, and asks the greatest questions the world knows: What is life? What is existence? What is time? Is there a God-like entity watching over us? Does that even matter if we have faith in God, creating our own reality? What is the Father? The Mother? The son?

There are no concrete answers to such questions. They can only be asked, examined, and opinions shared. Malick, the film's director, doesn't force anything on us, but merely presents us with the universal story that we all share. Hopefully, if nothing else, at the film's end you will not feel alone, but in the same cosmic state of ethos as the rest of us. But the trip will be wonderfully beautiful; with every image in the film capable of being paused and hung on your wall in a picture frame, as one critic put it. So Malick is truly master of his craft, in more ways than one.

So I was relieved, to say the least, that such a momentous work of art could be made at this point in history. And it reminded me that art will go on, of course always connected to the political, but nonetheless, always go on, no matter how dire things may seem.

Other films at Cannes this year also have me excited for the state of things. Namely "The Artist" by Michel Hazanavicius and "Midnight in Paris" by the great Woody Allen.

Movies are in the end pop art. Perhaps I should be championing the starving artist and his ill-attended gallery instead of famous moviemakers. But the fact that they appear in the mainstream, and dictate some of our culture, some of our collective consciousness, is important. If a film like 'The Tree of Life' can get made these days, and enough people can appreciate it, well, then I'm still happy to be alive, no matter the politics. And my faith in humanity, when tested, can at least be strengthened by humanity's best attribute, and that is art.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Let's just say I'm trying to get a gig as a film critic...

... and this was my sample review. Enjoy.

Much like it's two predecessors, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is heavy on computer generated effects and violence, light on plot and common sensibility. And yet it's viewers will not feel unfulfilled at it's end as they've probably come to expect nothing less from the franchise built by Michael Bay. Of course, he will deliver what common entertainment fans are probably after. But they may even be presently surprised this time around by the film's sometimes clever and engaging, though ultimately incoherent plot that carries the effects and expensive action set-pieces to their ultimate climax, a final, hour long battle sequence set in Chicago. So there is slightly more to enjoy in this film than robots slamming into each other at high speeds and buildings crashing over, particularly in its first half, including some grandiose historical fiction and whimsical comedy delivered by some familiar faces. But there is also more to dislike, including too many extraneous characters and a simply bad romantic sub-plot. Essentially, the film is not as mind-numbingly stupid as the previous second installment in the now trilogy of Transformers films, but certainly not smart either.

Retelling some 20th Century history to make room for the Autobots and Decepticons, the film begins with a montage retracing memorable steps in NASA's race with the Soviet Union to reach the moon. According to the film, it turns out this race wasn't so much for political bragging rights, but rather an attempt to reach The Ark first, the Autobot spaceship that crash-landed on the Moon. These scenes feature Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (who appears as himself later in the film), and even John F. Kennedy look-a-likes acting. Some may find these images out of place in the Transformers franchise, but I liked them; it was an earnest and fun revisiting of a golden age in American history, reminding us that the drama of reality can be more enjoyable than that of fiction. Though I would urge you to cherish this early attention-worthy content while you have the chance; the plot of the film will soon become to chuck-full of unaligned events and characters to grab your attention in a serious way again, at least not without the help of the complex action in 3D.

After revisiting the Moon with Apollo 11, we are returned to the present day, where we find the Autobots at work for the US government, working on secret missions with the aid of a special task force lead by handsome-faced Lt. Colonel William Lennox (Josh DuHamel), and our central protagonist, Sam Witwicky, played by the seemingly always over-stressed Shia LaBeouf. Sam is feeling a touch forlorn and anxious these days, as he is separated from his Autobot friends, and dealing with the stress of not having a job while living with a new girlfriend, Carly Spencer (Victoria Secret Model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, replacing previous franchise starlet Megan Fox, who was dismissed from the cast after a row with Bay). With help from Carly and her boss, Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), a wealthy tycoon and car collector, Sam manages to get one at a highly competitive firm where he encounters some zany co-workers in Ken Jeong and even the great John Malkovich as a despotic, yet clueless boss. Malkovich always displays a strong screen presence despite not having the best dialog here, and his few, short moments on screen are somewhat enjoyable. However, he, like many other of the other menial characters in the film, is quickly thrown onto the scrap heap for other brief and under-developed sub-plots. Namely that Sam is jealous of the obvious attraction that Carly's boss has for her, and the two have some very meaningless romantic banter. If you haven't already, by this point you will have probably stop caring about Sam and Carly altogether, and wonder what happened to the Autobots and the real plot of the movie.

Luckily for us, Sam does indeed quickly scrap his new found responsibilities to rejoin the Autobots, much to the dismay of Carly, to find intrigue with his old pal, Seymour Simmons, played by the always likeable John Turturro, and film returns to a somewhat recognizable location. By now, the Autobots have revisited The Ark and awakened their ancient leader Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), who controls the Pillars, a way of transporting the transformer home world Cybertron to earth. Some plot twists ensue, which you may appreciate, or may see coming a mile away, building the film up to the final battle for the Pillars, where the Autobots, allied with some sparse human assistance (Colonel Lennox and friends), take on the usual Decepticon baddies, plus a new addition to their ranks, Shockwave, a Decepticon with a giant, metallic, worm-like extremity, that eats through the Chicago skyline without missing any fine detail of twisted metal or broken glass.

By this point, the film has taken us through historical narrative, pithy romantic mellow-drama, whimsey office comedy, an attempt at international intrigue, and of course some intense computer generated action sequences. As you can see there is way too much packed into this long, two and half hour film, as its initial fun becomes bogged down with far too many scenes that should have ended up on the cutting room floor. If you're like me, who like most fans of the Transformers franchise, can appreciate the entertainment of the detail that went into creating the Transformers and their battles, you may say to yourself at some point "just get back to the robots fighting already!" It seems that Bay realized this at some point, or perhaps all along had in mind to save it all for the end. But until you get there, you may be somewhat beneficially occupied with some performances from a curiously strong cast, including Malkovich, Turturro, and Frances McDormand, playing a bureaucratic, high-ranking government official to some comic affect. Unfortunately, I cannot include LaBeouf or Huntington-Whiteley as equally enjoyable. LaBeouf cannot help but seem flustered at all times, always overdoing it. And meanwhile, Huntington-Whitely is as stiff as cardboard, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, as she's just a pretty face who has never acted before.

But as I say, in the end, the violence that we've anticipated comes in droves, over-the-top as always. With quotes from Optimus such as "Kill them all" and unflinching scenes of Transformers being executed and beheaded with their spines ripped-out, some will no doubt feel that it's all too much, and others will simply feel that the movie finally delivered on all cylinders they had expected. Whether it's a venerable thing that the world over, such mindless violence is usually a top-selling attractor for moviegoers is another discussion, but at least it does seem to be the case that we prefer robot blood (or should I say 'oil'?) to our own.

But as for Bay, and let's not forget his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, how are we to judge? If their only intention was to make money, than with each installment of the Transformers franchise they've laughed themselves all the way to the bank. But I do earnestly believe Bay would like some credit for the achievements in movie-making technology he and his staffs have produced. And to his credit, with this film he has found some good use for the often gimmicky 3D genre, as it seems often enough during his extensive set-pieces he had 3D in mind all along, and the extra dimension lends itself more to Bay's craft than other filmmakers. But can this computer technology alone take the place of decent plot, acting, or dialog in movies nowadays? Thankfully, with what I hear from most moviegoers regarding Transformers, the answer is no. But nonetheless, the allure of the effects and action is worth the price of admission for millions and millions worldwide. And though I too enjoy being entertained as much as the next man, this film in the end was not quite worth it for me.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

An old favorite.

My day begins and ends with idleness, the vast amount of it spent in front of the screen of my laptop. (A typical day in my life in Shenzhen is forthcoming in the next blog post.) I feel this is highly normal, though that doesn't entirely excuse my lack of creative output to myself.

One creative output I do have though is discussing movies, as I just did for a few hours over beers with friends. I consume large amounts of critical discourse on movies, or basically read AO Scott and Michael Phillips and watch Ebert Presents 'At the Movies'. So on that note, here's an old favorite intro that for a guy like me, revs up a lot of nostalgia, being from Chicagoland, and of course, being a film criticism nut.



Perhaps in the spirit of the moment I'll write a film review for Terrence Mallick's The Tree of Life. Though that would be no small order.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the nostalgia for Roger and Gene as much as I do. They were and always will be icons.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Forget Your Mind and You'll Be Free

I had to gently ease in to writing this blog post. I kept several other tabs open on my Google Chrome while beginning and even had video playing in the background to convince myself the actual writing was more an afterthought and not to be taken so seriously. I was actually watching some film criticism, as I am known to do, on Ebert Presents: At the Movies (I recommend it: www.ebertpresents.com, though I do still miss A.O. Scott and Michael Philips, and even Richard Roeper for that matter).

Why I couldn't quite bring myself to write is something that's been plaguing me for the last 4 months or so. I'm still not sure I can express it now, so I'm determined to keep this first post in many months short and sweet, a mere omen to what I hope is more to come regularly. The Gier Spot is a few years old now, and my writing continues to be highly sporadic. New goals are to not make posts so long, but rather just update regularly, sharing small thoughts and rants that happen to be on my mind, in addition to the usual travelogues and stories.

The truth is I'm living a quiet and enjoyable life here in Shenzhen, China. Shenzhen may be the outlying part of that sentence, but it's home to me, and I like it. Though it hasn't always been a walk in the park: Despite my imperious positive attitude toward having roommates when arrived here, my first living situation with two other men crumbled quickly into decay, leaving me to hastily dart out of the living situation and find my own place. So I did, and man am I happy I did so. Living there really sucked. There. I said it. But now it's over.

Furthermore, my job as a lowly ESL teacher (I do say lowly, as teaching English as a foreign language is usually something any jerk-off can do, though that has certainly changed in many parts of world) keeps me pretty busy with a 45 hour work-week. That may not seem like a lot, but it certainly decreases the joys of being an ex-pat somewhere, where one would hope to have time to explore the new, foreign place, rather than just be cooped up working all the time (in my last ESL gig in China I had plenty of spare time, but the catch was I was basically in the middle of fucking nowhere, so you see the trade off between Shenzhen and there). I usually come home not exhausted, but without ideal time to get many things done, such as exercise and pursue artistic endeavors.

But there I go complaining, and that was not my intention. My intention was to merely explain, to you or myself, why I haven't written in a while. True, I've had other things on the mind, but those are really no proper excuse. The truth is, I simply could have written in the blog more, could have studied Chinese more, could have learned guitar, and could have made more travel movies like I planned to do here upon my arrival. But I didn't. I chose not to. Nothing was stopping me but myself. The wall was in my mind and my mind only. And only I can conquer such wall. As trivial as it may seem, I believe it's this wall in all of us that stops us from doing things that, aren't easy per say, but are definitely not impossible. Why not start a band and try to get a recording contract? Why not pursue a career in stand-up comedy, or start your own scuba-diving business? The only thing stopping you is in your mind. So forget your mind, and you'll be free. (I listen to a lot of David Bowie, and Hunky Dory has become one of my favorite albums of all time). And yes, I do realize there's lot of Tim Ferriss in what I just wrote, as well as David Bowie.

So this post was hopefully a step-toward forgetting my mind and achieving the goals I've set for myself. Now I'll cut the self-help crap, and get on to something else I've been intending to do: learning Chinese characters. In the meantime, the Gier Spot is back.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Via Hong Kong

It may seem a bit trite to begin with "I can't believe I've been here for two weeks already!" but in some ways, that's quite the way it feels. At the same time, it has gone slowly, and feels like ages ago I had my going away party at Rock Bottom and arrived at my hotel in Shenzhen with no prior knowledge of my job and the characters I was soon to meet.

Well, naturally a lot has transpired since I arrived in Shenzhen, almost entirely all of it good. And while I'm ostensibly here for professional reasons, there is of course a lot of frivolity involved as well for a 24 year old single guy. I first must begin with the journey itself, then we'll get to me getting acquainted with Shenzhen. So let me bring you up to speed:

Momma and Poppa Gier dropped me off at the O'Hare airport early in the morning the day of my departure. Being unemployed the previous few months and not being used to waking early, I planned to sleep most of the flight from Chicago to Tokyo. Riding in coach, I'm not sure this is ever possible, but I was particular dismayed to reach my seat in the back of the plane and find a child the age of around 3 or 4 sitting next to me. He was biracial (half white, half Asian, as kids like that almost always have a white dad banging an Asian chick) with his Japanese grandmother there to watch after him. He annoyed me a lot for the first half of the flight, watching me do something like take out the remote and put on a movie, then do the same himself, but by the end of it, I had taken a real shine to him, and we ended up watching the sun rise on the Sea of Japan together with him on my lap. However, unfortunately for the Japanese grandmother, when we landed at Narita, the kid started to vomit. Poor guy, a 14 hour flight is hard for anyone, much less a kid of 3 and a half. But lucky for me he waited a few extra minutes till after he got off my lap.

I made my change to fly into Hong Kong in Narita with only one notable happenstance in the airport, which was trying a free sample of Johnnie Walker "Blue Label" in an absurdly expensive Japanese duty-free shop. It actually didn't seem to be that great. Then I tried Johnnie Walker's new concoction "Double Black," which I enjoyed.

The flight to Hong Kong from Tokyo-Narita was pleasant in that the plane had mostly open seats. I was busy checking out some hot Japanese girls on my fight, but I think I may have seemed too scummy and unkempt at the moment for any success. I was also delighted to find that one of the movies they were playing on the flight, among a bunch of poppy new releases, was "The Insider" starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. I'd always wanted to see that movie. It was good, but kind of dragged on, and after a long, international flight and few Asahi beers, I fell asleep.

Once in Hong Kong, I waited in customs for the average length of about an hour, then quickly found my luggage and went out into the night air. It smelled good, like I remember Hong Kong smelling, but it was colder than I thought it would be. I got on the bus that was supposed to take me to my hostel, which was at stop 13. We made it to stop 9, at which point the driver said end of the line, everybody get off. I was upset at this, not because I was really that inconvenienced, but because I considered myself a pretty savvy traveler who doesn't make mistakes like this. When I got my cab to take me to the hostel, I asked a few fellow white travelers (I think they were European, German or something) who had been on the same bus as me why hadn't the bus stopped at my stop where I thought it would. They said it did, but that I couldn't pay attention to the way the stops are numbered. "Oh, they think they're such fucking good travelers, huh?" I thought to myself. "They think they're better than me? That they can give me advice on how navigate Hong Kong? Fuckers." As you can see, I was getting kind of grumpy, which happens at the end of a long flight. Thus, when I finally made it to my mansion, although I was expecting the strange barrage you receive when you get there, I wasn't prepared for it.

The hostel is in a building called "Chung King Mansion". There are probably around 100 guest houses there on several floors with several elevators to access them. There are also tons of immigrants in the ground floor, from India, Africa, you name it, who see that you're white and try to get you to buy a counterfeit watch or suit from them. Upon arriving at "the Mansion", confused travelers can be "helped" by a strange guy claiming to be from the hostel they booked their room with, only to be led to a competing hostel. Me, a big white kid with a huge suitcase and backpack, was naturally an obvious target, and as I was rushed by several people, I started to panic and wondered if I was in the right place or if I could get to the right hostel. Several people tried to help me, and in retrospect I think their aims were mostly true, but I deterred them. But I quickly found my bearings, made it to my room, and passed out for the night.

The next morning, I woke up early due to the jet-lag. I killed some time by wondering around Hong Kong TST, watched boats on the harbor for a while, then chilled in an internet cafe during the day for a few hours. I should note that I was really in Hong Kong for two reasons: the flights there are cheaper than to Shenzhen, and I had a pretty, adorable friend there to see. Her name is Maggie, she's from Hong Kong, born and raised, and speaks English pretty well. She told me I could attend a family wedding dinner with her that Friday, and I pounced at the chance.

The evening was great, meeting her family, trying the food, singing karaoke (I'm no novice at that, as you probably know) and watching a traditional Chinese lion dance that her dad coordinates. I even bought a bottle of Red Label for the groom-to-be, which I think was well received (mainly though I just wanted to impress Maggie). It was exactly the travel experience I live for, but I'll spare you the details as most of you have seen the photos on facebook and there are some videos forthcoming.

By the end of the evening, however, I had to report to Shenzhen, as there would be a driver waiting for me to go check into my hotel provided by English First. I was also feeling quite exhausted with my jet-lag. I was having fun at the dinner party, but Maggie's family kept on asking me if I was bored, as I had a long face. This was utterly not the message I wanted to send to them, but I was so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open. Maggie translated to them that I was really tired from my flight the previous day, and I think they understood fine. Afterward, with Maggie's help ordering a cab to take me to the Shenzhen-Hong Kong checkpoint "Lo Hu" or "Luo Hu" depending on which side of the border you're on, I made it there quite early and had to wait for the driver to pick me up for an hour. This was irritating, as I was tired and just wanted to get to the hotel. I also didn't have any idea of what to expect. Would there be a white person there to meet me? A group of people? In the end, there was just one: a Chinese professional chaufer who didn't speak any English and simply held up a sign that said "EF". I don't even think he had my name, so I could have been any crazy person, as long as I was white.

He took me to the hotel, which was very nice. I got to my room on the 24th floor, also very nice. I took a hot shower and went to bed. The long journey to Shenzhen was over. Now the long journey to get settled began.