Friday, June 20, 2008

Gathering Momentum

Dave defines "intertia" as the concept that an object in motion will stay in motion; likewise, an object at rest will remain at rest.

The latter portion of the definition - the one about staying on the couch - was in full play this evening. The weather sat on the upper 80s today, with 80-95% humidity and heat indexes nearing 100. We spent the day in air conditioning - apartment to car to friend's home to car to store to car to our home. The sweat never broke through our shirts.

The weather forecast was consistent, is constantly incorrect. I checked at every hour. Always it said Fair and 85 degrees with high humidity. Always it forecast 90% chance of thunderstorms within a few minutes. The rain never came.

By 9:00pm, I knew that this storm must have built up its own momentum, and must be ready to blow up at any minute. I further felt that it had sucked all of the momentum out of my body. I had signed up for a midnight bike ride through the streets of Shanghai, but without my momentum I found it difficult to haul myself and my bike out the door.

Dave pushed me out, and once in the humid air I felt invigorated and ready to ride. I met my crew on a bar street in Puxi. Seven Americans with two Chinese guides. We started riding at 10:30 at night, and the scene around us was lively. We quickly moved onto quieter streets and watched the backside of Shanghai go through its evening. Biking shows a city at a different speed and on different routes. And Shanghai puts on a much better face in the dark. Dingy walls and crumbling concrete are less visible. Bright shop displays and well-lit food stalls stand out, the workers silhouetted in the steamy evening. Young couples walked the streets near their homes; children not much older than mine played together with no adults in sight; older couples in their thin pajamas walked slowly through the streets, keeping cool until tired enough to sleep through this sticky night.

We rode until 1:30am, when the rest of my crew headed back into Puxi. Our last stop had been at Yu Garden, the site of the famous crooked bridge headed to the classical teahouse. During the day, this site is crawling with people. Even in photos, I have never seen the bridge empty. But at 1:30 in the morning, we were the only waking souls in the market. Bright lights set certain sites ablaze, making the entire area picturesque and pleasant. We took pictures and explored, and then I headed back to the ferry. Were I to continue to the meeting point with my group, I would have an hour commute ahead of me. At the market, I was a 5 minute ride from the ferry. I chose to go it alone, and headed back.

Knowing that Dave had waited up for me, I detoured onto Shanghai's food street. This pedestrian street in the old town is lined with little food stalls selling the entire range of Shanghainese street food. Dumplings and steamed buns, noodles and fried rice, rice cakes, various grilled meats, fish heads and more. During the day, the street is always packed, and it remained quite busy in the wee hours of the morning. I meant to order a quick takeaway of dumplings to reward Dave for his wait, but having relaxed on my Chinese language classes for too long, my communication skills were wretched. Although I was able to communicate what I wanted, it took 10 minutes for me to understand the price and the wait. I saw a man pile my raw dumplings into the steamer, and then stepped back to take in the scene. An older man beckoned me to his table. He sat at a flimsy formica folding table with two other men, all three perched on short plastic benches. They beckoned for a bench for me and I joined their table. One of them could count to 5 in English, and that was the full extent of their English language skills. They asked me question after question, and only few could I answer. I told them my age, and that I have two daughters waiting for me in Lujiazui. I effectively communicated that I needed to catch the 2:00am ferry to get home to them. The men effectively commuicated that I should have a beer with them instead. I shared their kebabs - and having eaten it, I still have no idea what type of meat it was. I considered sharing their prawns. These are currently being sold on every street corner in town, and I'll admit that they look pretty tasty. These men had a large bag of them on the table with bowls of soup for dipping. They repeatedly asked me to try, but I waited for them to show me how. These prawns were whole - how were they shelling them? When I saw the process - stick either the head of the tail in your mouth, take a bite, and spit out what you can't swallow - I politely declined their offer.

I did enjoy sharing a meal with these men in the late night of old Shanghai. Living in such a city is challenging in a very exciting way, but these challenges feel nearly insurmountable when facing them with two toddlers on my arms. Something propelled me off the couch this evening, and it was well worth the trouble.

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