Welcome to the Future, China

photo by freshwater2006 / flickr
photo by freshwater2006 / flickr

During a presentation today, somewhere in Shanghai in a tall shiny building, a slide went up showing Shanghai’s PuDong skyline in 1990; green, flat, open space; and Pudong in 2014; packed with skyscaper after skyscraper, the new avatar of this megacity.  In 24 years it is almost unfathomable how much a place can change. It is pretty. It is cool. Is it good? Surely for somebody. Is it bad? Oh, surely in a few ways as well. But is it real – at this point I can tell you it is very real.

I feel like I grew up in the era where people said China would be an economic powerhouse, and now I live as an adult in that world. But somehow it is always a media story, always filtered through the internet and second hand stories, when you see it up close, that is when the world as you know it looks very different. That is when predictions and forecasts become reality.

“They don’t speak much english,” my fellow travelers often remark about people in Shanghai. — Why should they? It is their world. This one and the big one out there. And the way this powerful wind blows, it is for us to learn about them far less then it is for them to learn about us. Even if both of those would be beneficial to all and fun.

I can’t yet tell you about Shanghai. After seven days I probably still won’t be qualified or capable. But here on the ground in South Shanghai where buildings are low and the streets are empty at night, it is above all an interesting and intricate world. I’m only in the beginning phases of getting to know it.

CTRP Heads to China

I love Shanghai by Sam Gao / flickr

Since it started some 14 years ago, this website has been a chronicle of some unforgettable journeys to various corners of the Earth. Being able to share observations and lessons learned has long been one of the pleasures of keeping this place running.

This week, another milestone in the adventure category: I’m off to Shanghai, China.

Shanghai, city of legend, city of the masses, this benchmark for both the past and present, and probably the future too. Biggest city in the world. Economic powerhouse. These are the factoids I read and influence how I approach this journey. I expect crowds. I expect noise. I expect dumplings!

Stay tuned. After a sleepy few months, there are going to be travel stories on CTRP again!

Moscow Notes

10 days in Moscow; it starts with a child like excitement to meet the loved ones of my special lady. But also to see, hear, smell and try things in a legendary place with so much going on. It ends with some kind of hard-to-get-rid-of hung over, exhausted, and somehow defeated feeling.

I have no doubt Russians, check that, Moscovites, are strong. You have to be strong to endure the long and energy sucking commutes to, from and within this megalopolis. I grew up in and around New York City, I’m Lisbon guy deep in my heart, but the roads, metros, buses, sidewalks of Moscow are another animal altogether.

But never mind the city for a moment. Let’s talk culture and attitude.
14650454532_25875b32cc_zSo often you feel like a citizen of the world in one of those international destinations that people have been talking about for generations. You feel like you’re in the heart of a creative-living-breathing machine that is and will continue to be a major player on the world stage. That means as much economic, as it does social, and cultural. And despite what you may have heard in the media and what you may hear from the people themselves, it is not exclusively scary or unfamiliar. Whomever you are in this world today, of course you have things in common with the average Russian.

But ok, then there are the other occasions. Times when you feel like you’ve landed in another time. 10, 20, 30 years behind in terms of accepting people for being different when in comes to sexuality, ethnicity, or religion. So often someone’s views on the world are reminiscent of something someone’s preachy, no-nonsense, know-it-all father back in New Jersey used to say when I was a kid. It can be daunting, worrying, and disappointing. I arrive thinking we are all neighbors and part of the human family, but I’m confronted by individuals who see themselves as separate, unrelated, and worst of all – under siege by the judgement of much of the world.

Siege mentality, as you probably know, can be very dangerous and destructive. Never mind who’s fault it is or how it came about for the moment, that it exists to some extent among such an important group of people in this world, that alone is cause for concern and lament.

Let us come back to the city. I learned of its history. More than I ever knew before. I saw great beauty and impressive achievements of this rich culture. Special credit here to the Cosmonaut Memorial Museum, which not only covered Russian space achievements in impressive detail, but also acknowledged the global effort to go further and do more in space.  On the lighter side of being able to laugh about the past, I had the hilarious pleasure of playing the best and worst of Soviet era video games at the Soviet Video Game Museum. A topic close to my heart as a boy who grew up loving the arcade culture of the United States in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I have to mention but I won’t really talk about food. You don’t want to hear my glowing review of the food you find in the Russian capital. Perhaps they don’t deserve credit anyway, like my home city of Amsterdam, my favorite of their treasures are often from other countries and other cultures. Special thanks to Georgia, Thailand, and Vietnam among others.

Part 2 – The Journey Home

Just as all these and other bits and pieces played and re-played in my head awaiting the already delayed flight at Demededovo Airport, the unthinkable was happening a few hundred kilometers away. On the board we can see delays tagged on to every flight, which we thought might just be the poor performance of the airport on this day. After take off we watch the little flight map and I point out “Minsk” as we fly over Belarus on our way to a stopover in Zurich.  Another complex country that it would be fun to visit one day soon.  Upon landing there is a general grumbling on board from passengers who are worried about their connecting flights and pushing their way to the exit.

Though I consider myself an expert in metal detectors and ex-ray machines, somehow this machine beeps on me. A young Orange-is-the-New-Black looking security guard takes me into a cubicle for an individual scan. “Where are you coming from and where are you going” he asks in a matter of fact way. -Moscow. Heading to Amsterdam.- I tell him. “Oh, Amsterdam.” He suddenly drops the tough security attitude that didn’t seem to fit anyway. “Did they tell you anything on the flight?” – Just that we will make our connections and not to worry.- I tell him. “Oh, well, because something happened. A plane was shot down over Ukraine. On its way from Amsterdam or Antwerp, something like that.” – All I kept thinking was that this was some kind of security lie to test my reaction. In my tiny mind I believe airport security’s only aim is to annoy and delay me and they will use any means necessary (and have). I stare at him for a few seconds and it becomes clear that this is no elaborate plan. He is being real with me. This really happened. An entire commercial jet full of people was shot down and destroyed by some assholes on the ground with sophisticated military equipment.

A minute later I’m just about at the next gate for boarding, a bunch of older gentleman rudely rush past me seemingly mad at the airline for slowing them down. I want to slap them, shake them, and tell them what has happened. For some irrational reason I believe doing this would make them be polite, solemn, and focus on the fact that people traveling just like us today, were suddenly and without any reason – killed in midair.

Of course I didn’t say anything. They kept right on with their rush-rush attitude. In their world the only problem with today was these late flights. Only later would they get the text messages and phone calls. Only later would they reflect on the bigger picture. The losses. The closeness of it all. The cruel randomness.


A Teaching Adventure

14330691670_5f562afe1b_zVanish for a month or so from the online publishing world and some people might take notice. A few emails trickle in: “where’d you go?”, “what’s going on?”.  10 years of publishing something at least every week if not several times a week, brings some degree of expectation.

On the other hand, like so many things in life, it is great to break a tradition, strike up in a new direction, or simply defy expectations. Go left when they expect you to go right. – In my case, live more offline than I have in a decade; become a better cook, a dedicated partner, study the ukelele, get more into yoga, push the ultimate frisbee skills to a new level.  And while all that was going on, on the heels of my successful crowd funding project, the reality set in of needing to raise funds in order to live and have some kind of a future.

That is when a whole other kind of adventure appeared, a regular teaching gig, a 15 minute bike ride from home. A far different scene than the scorching hot classrooms of Jalalabad, Afghanistan or the brief-but-exciting classrooms of Brooklyn College, I found myself with the task of teaching 100 or so, mostly Dutch, second year college students who are not pursing journalism, politics, or any of the humanities my work has so often been connected to.  “A challenge” is what teachers typically call a really tough audience that may not always want to hear what you’re trying to show them and on the same hand demand you show up class after class after class with an interesting presentation to keep them thinking (or from falling asleep).  A challenge is definitely what I was confronted with these past months. An interesting challenge that also leads me to see both myself and the world from another new angle.  Although I’m still a traveller at heart, it was a reminder that new ideas and insight can sometimes be found  very close to home.

Like journalism, school is a special kind of institution with a kind of public responsibility. Yet somehow, like journalism, school has become a big business, suffering from all the drawbacks that business entails (sure a few benefits too). Attracting and keeping an audience,  dealing with limit budgets, following rules yet trying to be flexible; unfortunately journalism and education face many common realities. Perhaps that is the reason an education job, to me, doesn’t feel like a far stretch from the media world. It is all connected. As Zenobia Dawson once said to her teachers in “The Wire”, “We’ve got our thing, but it’s just part of the big thing.” – Indeed.

10 Years Ago Today: My Nephew Arrived

An oldy from our younger days.

Long long ago in a time where journalists could be bloggers and bloggers might be journalists and people actually read long form personal content, this here website was a hotbed of socio-political activity. Hard to believe, but in those days my friends and family were a regular part of what took place here. I could be talking about a war somewhere in the world or the latest activity my young family members were busy with.

Humbling to think that 10 years ago, this week, I wrote the following:

Special announcement: I’m an uncle. On May 13th, around 8pm, Alexander Marsh Rendeiro was born in New Brunswick, NJ, USA. Out of respect for the privacy of my nephew, photos are only available upon request for now. From what I gather, the family is good, just very, very exhausted.

From there every year or so I would write letters and record videos (currently offline) about or for my nephew.

As far as uncles go, I’m not the best. I live too far away to qualify as a great one. Still, from this side of the ocean, I watch, listen, and ask all about the life and times of this extraordinary human being.  And when I am over in New Jersey, I do my best to make up for lost time, and share some laughs before I’m off again.

10 years is impressive. It also goes by in the blink of an eye. As I type that, I find myself thinking of how interesting the next 10 years will be. Wow. Here’s to the decade to come, happy birthday young mister A-Ren!

Al From Manila: Passion for Your Work

“You are this guy in the newspaper, who is writing about taxi drivers?” Al catches me off guard as he runs a comb through my hair calculating where his first scissor incursions will be.  I’ve said three sentences to him about where I’m from and what I do and he immediately deduced that I’m the guy featured in a small article in the local 7 Days Dubai newspaper.

12091018683_ba06c40a3eAl is a middle aged bachelor from Manila, who has been cutting hair in Dubai for the past 7 years. With his calm demeanor, he seems to never be impressed by anything, yet at the same time he’s proud to show that he pays attention to what goes on in this city.  He’s a seasoned veteran when it comes to reading people, thanks to years of cutting hair, even before arriving in Dubai.

After almost three weeks of talking with taxi drivers I forget that not everyone bounces from job to job in an effort to stay in the country and send enough money home. When I ask Al what other jobs he has done over the years, he stops cutting to make his response perfectly clear, “I cut hair, this is my passion. It has always been my thing. In this life a person should follow their passion otherwise the job will never be well done or enjoyable.” I look up at the well groomed wise man and blink my eyes slowly to acknowledge his very important point.  After a brief moment of mutual understanding, he gets back to cutting.  “Before this I worked on cruise ships. I saw the world. But always cutting hair.” Al is a rare bird in a city where many people seem to do whatever they can or whatever earns them the most. He cuts hair with great energy, pausing periodically to step back and see what is taking shape.  The salon is not his, but you can feel the respect emanating from his colleagues and even the boss who is sitting a few steps away from us near the cash register.

“Have you gotten many taxi drivers from the Philippines?” he asks with the kind of smile that says, I know the answer. This is a trick question of course, as Al confirms, Philippino people rarely drive taxis in Dubai. “Buses yes! Housekeeping. Hospitality. Everything else. Just not taxi.”

Al proceeds to quiz me about what I am learning from the people I talk with. He even adds some of his own experience he has gotten from behind the salon chair. His observations of Dubai reveal a great appreciation for its diversity and beyond that, as a place where he can do what he loves. I had expected the sharp criticism of labor practices and social separation between  classes that so often gets talked about, especially by my taxi drivers, but Al moves right past that, speaking instead about the country as a multinational land of opportunity.

As the haircut comes to an end, I ask for a shave. Al happily obliges me and it gives us more time to talk. Family, travel, work, the two of us weave in and out of numerous life topics. With the completion of the shave he offers me some other small touches for my hair, which I happily accept. He finishes up, shakes my hand, and tells me it was a pleasure to meet me and all the best with my project. I seize the oppertunity, I ask Al if I can come back and ask him more questions. “It would be my pleasure, anytime in the evening when I finish work.”

Unfortunately for me I didn’t realize that only 24 hours remained of my journey. Errands, goodbyes, and a few more taxi rides would keep me busy and far from the salon. In my last few hours before heading to the airport, I run over to the salon hoping to catch Al on his way home and ask him more specific questions about his life.  As I walk in, a few unfamiliar employees are cleaning up. I’m warmly greeted by the owner who delivers the bad news that Al had already left for the day. He shakes my hand and promises to deliver my goodbye message. “Come back and see us sir, we’d be happy to hear from you and good luck with that project of yours!”

So it goes sometimes, my Dubai adventure goes from a surprising encounter to a missed opportunity.