Travel mercies. Or not.
It’s one of those traveling nightmares that you try your very best to prevent from coming true in the real world. I tried my best, but the nightmare turned into reality.
I was all set to go on a day of exploration of Macau, which promised to be very interesting. Macau is a former Portuguese colony that was returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1999. It is among the world's richest regions, and the world's largest and most lucrative gambling center—much more successful than Donald Trump! And Macau has the fourth highest life expectancy in the world, probably because so many people share in the profits of the gambling industry.
But alas, that trip was not meant to be. My first significant misadventure of the trip, my nightmare come true: I lost my passport.
I was enjoying a coffee and a delicious breakfast custard (at—of all places---KFC!), and I opened my special wallet to check my money situation. The special wallet also has a special place for my passport. And as I opened the wallet, and saw an empty spot where the passport should have been, my blood ran cold. (It was actually like my heart stopped.) Of course I checked it again and again, opening and closing the wallet as though it would suddenly appear like the coin my Uncle Joe used to pull out of my ear to my astonishment and delight. But no, it was gone, and suddenly the custard in front of me wasn’t delicious anymore.
I raced back to my friend’s apartment, asking my mother to intervene from above as she has often done in times of desperation. Surely it was in my bag, or in the pocket of my pants or jacket. But not even my mother could work her magic, and I realized that I was in big trouble . I could only guess where I lost the damned thing, and it was probably at the airport right after going through customs.
The best thing about this catastrophe happening at this point on the trip was that I was staying with my American friend and his family, who have resources that I would never be able to tap into if I were completely on my own in China. And the most valuable of those resources was Bill Gates. No, not THE Bill Gates. If I had that billionaire’s help, I’d have my new passport in about an hour. But this Bill Gates—I have no idea what his real name is-- was a good second stringer. He is a young, very capable guy, he speaks fairly good English, and he has a car. That was key, because I had to go 2 hours away to the closest American consulate in the city of Guangzhou to get a temporary passport, and without Bill and his car I would have been in deep doo doo.
Bill and I became good friends over the last three days. The American consulate was not the first stop—that was to the local police station. Nor was it the last stop.
With this problem I have had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand the incredible bureaucracy of an authoritarian state. Besides the American consulate, Bill and I have had to visit five separate police and immigration offices over the last three days, collecting documents, filling out forms, getting things stamped, verified, photographed, copied repeatedly. Most of these steps were incomprehensively duplicative, but captive to the system, we simply followed orders from one office to the next, racing between offices several hours apart from one another to get the passport, and more annoyingly to ger a replacement visa for the country I was already in. By most modern standards, the visa requirements are fairly ridiculous. To get a visa in New York before my departure, I had to visit the consulate on 42nd street on three separate occasions. Many western companies that do business in China have complained that the visa requirements are detrimental to good business relations between our countries, but the Chinese seem to share a Trumpian view of the world.
We had to stay overnight in Guangzhou because the American consulate closed at 3:30pm and because of traffic we arrived at 3:45pm. It made no sense to go back to Shenzhen and return at 8:30 in the morning, so I had to get rooms for Bill and myself in Guangzhou, and arrange for dinner there for us as well. (Bill was not doing this for charity. I was paying him for his car and his time, of course.)
There were some benefits of my nightmare—among which was the chance to experience China’s 3rd largest city, and to get to know Bill Gates!
Guangzhou was formerly called Canton, and its history can be traced back to the 11th century BC. It is on the Pearl River delta, and as such it has always been a very important trading center for the region and in modern times for the country. Until the early 20th century, it was composed of mostly rice paddies (its nickname is “Rice City”), and it was an important trading post for porcelain and tea. Today, like Shenzhen, it has a huge population of over 13 million, and it is a center of manufacturing for exports to the US and the world.
In the brief time we spent there, I actually liked Guangzhou more than Shenzhen. Its history hasn’t been entirely bulldozed and replaced so thoroughly with those miles of faceless apartment monstrosities I found at Shenzhen, and the modern parts of the city appear to have been thoughtfully planned and constructed. Bill and I took a night tour of the center of the city, and were impressed with the architecture and night lighting of its business towers, as well as its very cool and iconic observation tower, and a park that stretches alongside the Pearl River.
We stayed in a reasonably-priced ($50 a room) hotel near the American consulate, and had a delicious Korean barbeque dinner cooked right at our table. The chef/waitress seemed to be flirting quite a bit with Bill---I reminded him that he had been married just last year. But she also seemed to be flirting with me, and at one point she took my phone and added herself into a chat app called WeChat that everyone uses to communicate here in the land where Facebook is banned. She has attempted to chat with me in Chinese since we left Guangzhou, but pretty soon she’ll figure out she is barking up the wrong tree (even if I had a clue about this most confounding language!).
Bill is probably in his late 20’s, and he is probably pretty typical of young people in China. He went to University to study computers at his parents’ urging, but he was never interested in pursuing it after he graduated. His first job was as a quality control inspector at a video projector manufacturing plant, and when they moved the company to a bigger plant in another city, he chose to hustle as a driver for English-speaking business people in Shenzhen. He is a good talker—he has told me that I am ‘very smart’, and that ‘America is number 1, China is number 2’, and that he wants to work with me ’forever’. I’m sure he said the same things to his last American client, and to every one he has driven. I tried to get him to talk politics, but he was not buying my criticism of Chairman Mao, who almost destroyed the country with his economic and social policies. I was entertained by his commentary about China, and his youthful interest in women (even though he is married). Unlike in the US, the navigation screens in the cars here are enabled to play videos even while driving, and he frequently played Chinese rock music videos with sexy girls dancing to the beat. When I mentioned that he could be distracted by the beautiful women and cause us to crash, he laughed and repeated the phrase he said a million times, ‘no problem, no problem.’ In some ways, he reminded me of my own students of the past few years, and I was appreciative of his company, and of course his help.
I was successful in getting a temporary passport, and I am still awaiting the visa. That should be ready by this coming Monday, but I was given a document that supposedly will allow me to fly to Bejiing tomorrow. I am keeping my fingers crossed that my lack of a passport (they kept it for the visa) will not cause me any problems. If all goes well, my next chapter will be about the capital of this country!