Saturday, December 11, 2010

Kon’nichiwa Asuka II Part Eleven - Getting Shanghaied in Shanghai

At the moment the Asuka II is sitting quietly, somewhere in the Southern part of Japan. I can tell you for certain that we are somewhere in the Southern part of Japan, because that’s what my TV says. I know we are sitting not only because we aren’t moving, but because I can hear the giant chain links being released as they follow the anchor into the murky water below.


Essentially, during the Christmas season, the Asuka II does a lot of one and two day cruises, often times to nowhere. Much like an evening harbor excursion, people come on board for dinner and a show, then spend the night to wake up in the city we left the night before. On the other hand, they also pay north of 600 bucks per person (and it goes up from there) for the experience… I know this for a fact, and that ticket price is only for ONE NIGHT. For my hard earned clams, I think I’d rather eat some average Christmas themed food on a forty year old tugboat turned dining room, soaking in the city lights of Des Moines, and sleeping in my own bed… then I could use the money I saved on a one week Mexican cruise… but that’s just me.


Still, it is funny to see where we go on a cruise to nowhere, so again I turn to my television set. One of the channels we can access displays a map of Japan, with a blue line showing where we’ve been this cruise, and a dot at the end showing where we are.


Where the line starts on the map is where Kobe is, and where we’ll be tomorrow to drop our pax off. Not quite Family Circus, but it’s close. In case you’re nautically curious, from left to right, the numbers at the bottom represent our latitude and longitude coordinates, knots, and directional heading. It must take a moment for the screen to refresh, because even though we are definitely stopped, the knots still show we are moving.


So, maps on television… blah blah blah… What else has been going on? Welp, as usual I look at the pictures I’ve taken since we last spoke and see if there’s anything worth talking about. So, let me do that… oh boy… I don’t want to sound like an ungrateful Betty, or any kind of Betty for that matter… maybe Betty Crocker… cake sounds good right now… maybe some of that red velvet cake… yeah, with two big scoops of vanilla ice cream… or there’s an apple betty… that would be good with ice cream too… wait, what? Oh right… so, basically over the past month I’ve been mostly to Kobe and Yokohama. For me, it’s like being in my home town… I just do normal things, and unfortunately those things are mundane enough that they rarely require pictures. Still, let me get my long spoon and see what I can scrape outta the barrel.


Okay, well, there was this one time when they had a fan appreciation day at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium, home of the fightin’ Yokohama Bay Stars.

And then there was the replica of the statue of liberty standing above an American car dealership in a town called Kagoshima…


There you could buy a used PT Cruiser, a Chevy Van, or a Lincoln Towncar!


Here’s a Japanese Hearse… I find it a little ironic that in spite of all the ornate Japanese stuff the stiff rides in, it’s still a Cadillac…


Let’s see, what else… oh, Kagoshima also has a volcano!


If the hottest thing you see in this picture is a bunch of Japanese cheerleaders, then I hope you’re able to outrun airborne chunks of molten lava. The volcano spouted smoke every forty minutes or so. Thankfully for the residents of Kagoshima, the bay separates the volcanic island from the mainland. All right… anything else?


Saw a lady at a sushi restaurant who likes to coordinate her hair with her clothes…


I’ve been to a few Japanese arcades, and from what I’ve seen they are either multi storied affairs with everything from games to slot machines, to places that are full of nothing but photo booths and skill cranes. While in an arcade similar to the latter, I came upon something interesting.

Still, if you’re embarrassed that you won a Tamagotchi (we still play with those?), maybe you should pick another crane… you know, the one that contains pink hello kitties or anime porn.


And I guess that’s it… for Japan. I suppose the biggest thing I’ve done in the past thirty days is visit Shanghai. Now, before I begin, let me say that things don’t always go according to plan, and that happens a couple of times in my retelling of my Chinese experience. I might even learn something along the way… you may too. Okay, let’s get to it.


Here is the view from the bow at 5:45 PM, December first. We’re actually close to China, but waiting for our turn to enter the channel that takes us to Shanghai. Originally we were scheduled to arrive at the stroke of midnight on December 2nd, putting us port side at 7 AM, scheduled to stay until 5 PM on the 3rd. But we sat, along with dozens of other ships that surrounded us, for a long time. Day turned into night and we were hours late entering the channel… why? Apparently the fog was so thick that the channel was closed to traffic.


There was some talk amongst the crew that we were going to turn around, because the weather forecast said there was no chance of the fog dissipating anytime soon. Then, at 9 PM, the engines kicked back on, and the Asuka II did a one-eighty and headed back to Japan, taking us to none other than Sakaiminato… no kidding! Well, there’s only one thing to do in Sakaiminato…

Okay, so we didn’t go to Sakaiminato, but I’ve got a million of these stupid “Having Fun” videos, and I gotta get them on here somehow.

So yes, there was a rumor amongst the crew that the Asuka II was gonna high tail it out of China… but anytime there’s rain or fog or lingering grasshopper farts somebody here will start yakkin’ about drastic changes to the itinerary and mutiny. Yes, sometimes we’re late, but seriously… when the current 10 day cruise is called “Shanghai Cruise,” do you really think we’re gonna just skip the Shanghai portion? No way… besides the ticket sales, I am sure the majority of the pax have tours booked… there’s two big reasons why we won’t skip… sheesh.


Anyway, we spent the night anchored in open water with dozens of other ships, waiting to get in. Believe it or not, this puts us at risk for a pirate attack. So, with all eyes on deck from the bridge, officers standing guard to our aft, and our emergency lights extended, we sit and wait.IMG_3727

The picture sucks, I know, but all those lights are other ships, and this is what I saw all around our ship. Later, I discover just how busy this channel is, but for now all I can think about is the Asuka’s defense system for pirates. You see, I just assumed that we have a gun locker somewhere… nope. We have fire hoses. Yep. Some gun toting, scurvy barnacle bill tries to scale our hull with his cutlass clenched in his mouth, we’ll just knock him down with salty pressurized water. Oh, and the guy that had the aft watch shift told me he had a meeting with the Captain the following morning to discuss the possibility of him getting fired for something. I feel really, really safe…


Fortunately, no pirates attacked, (although there was one frisky fishing boat) and we made it to the next morning, where we sat some more. Finally, at around 2 PM the Asuka II weighed anchor and began her journey into the channel. I have to say, sailing into Shanghai was by far the most interesting sail in I have ever witnessed… video below.

I watch the video, and I still find it hard to tell just how crowded it was. Even in open water, we were in a line of ships heading in, and ships frequently passed us by on either side… and close.



And as you saw in the video, it was even more crowded once we began sailing down the channel. The Captain rode the horn like a New York City cab driver as every ship to our left needed to be on our right, and right to the left, and they had to get there RIGHT NOW!


As night fell we made our way out of the lengthy (and smelly) industrial area and into the downtown area of Shanghai, and the train tracks that separate the two sides of town were a large, red suspension bridge.


Finally, at 8 PM, the Asuka II tied down, only eighteen hours behind schedule. Still, that gave us about eighteen hours of shore leave… in theory. Sometimes, especially when there’s a heightened anticipation amongst the crew, our shore leave seems to always be delayed. So, we wait and wait… passengers have long since disembarked and caught their tour buses. So, I walk around the ship and take some pictures.


That’s the Oriental Pearl, Shanghai’s big damn TV tower… and the tallest tower in Asia. More on that later.


Finally, at 10:30 PM the crew is finally allowed off the ship… and this is where the learning experience occurred. So, the production cast leaves the ship as a group, as we were warned to not go out at night alone. On our way out there was a lady in the lobby who would accept our yen and give us Yuan, the Chinese currency. Instead of going to her, we decided to go to “this lady who is always outside the ship, every year,” as stated by my coworker. Many of you, if you’ve actually gotten this far by reading, are shaking your heads… I know, I know…


So, we go to “the lady” outside the ship, and like year’s past, she’s “outside the ship” with another guy. We each hand them a hundred bucks, and they hand us 600 Yuan, which was right along with the exchange rate, with a slight markup, but not obscene. After the transaction, the ten of us split up into two cabs and journeyed into town. I would say maybe five minutes went by when the ten of us, in two separate cabs, began to realize something was wrong with our Chinese money.


Turns out some of us got counterfeit Chinese money, and the rest of us got Taiwanese money, which, while pink like Chinese money, is in fact Taiwanese money. Me? I was holding 600 Taiwanese smackers, or, roughly ten bucks. Shit.


That’s basically all there is to that little story. Nobody would take my Taiwanese money, and the people who had the counterfeit Chinese Yuan couldn’t unload it either, as everyone in Shanghai was wise, and did a rubbing trick on the bill to tell if it was real. And whenever I tell the story, even as I type it here, I just shake my head. I heard someone say “Let’s give money to a stranger on the street,” and went with it… looks like my MFA is better suited to jerry-rigging cruise ship showers than it is at global economics. Still, at the very least we were all swindled… nay… Shanghaied as a group, so the sting wasn’t as great. It’s an achievement to be sure… not as big as eating Kobe beef in Kobe, or drinking Bordeaux wine in Bordeaux, but friends, I managed to get Shanghaied in Shanghai.


So, with time wasting away quicker than we could throw our money into the trash, we regrouped, got real Yuan, and tried again. That night, and the following day, was spent eating an admittedly awful steak, having a drink, and seeing the sights of Shanghai. People’s exhibit A below:


I’ll fill in a little detail here. The name of the garden is “Yu Garden” (and you can visit it yourself at All I really know about the place is that it’s old, and was originally built for one guy to enjoy. How old is it? Well, look at the following picture:


The place is so old, people used to sit in rooms and stare at petrified wood statues. THAT’S how old the place is. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.


Now let’s skip ahead to the Chinese temple. Behind the room with the big statue was a courtyard with three buildings. In each building there was a man playing a different musical instrument. It all felt very traditional… that is, until:


Here is a guy, playing music that is probably a thousand years old, and the dude next to him is tweeting about the blizzard he had at Dairy Queen…


Yeah, I ain’t making that up. And yeah, I had an Oreo Blizzard… come on… Japanese food is one thing, but how many tons of Chow Mein have I choked down in my short life?


I forget why I took this picture… HEY! Try the shrimp cocktail! Don’t forget to tip your wait staff! Can you hear me talkin’? Cause I can hear you leavin’!


Of course, when in China, or any country, you are surrounded by souvenir shops. I didn’t need to take any video of that, but one picture does stand out:


Surrounded by magnets depicting Chinese cities and masks, and directly to the right of a Panda, the most useless symbol of Zoos all over the world, are magnets of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Can you imagine going all the way to China, and bringing your poor bastard of a friend a magnet of Saddam or president Obama? From China?


Looks like I had more to talk about than I originally thought, as I actually left out something funny I saw while looking around the shops. Maybe you’re tired from rickshaw rides and souvenir shopping, and need a little relaxing massage.

Hate to think what a happy ending involves…


But, as many of you know, you can get reasonable facsimiles of bags, shoes, watches and clothes in China. I didn’t have time to go to the market where they sell all this stuff, but I was still approached by many people, all holding the same looking laminated piece of paper with pictures of watches and purses. “You want to buy a watch?” they would all ask me, over and over. Finally, I said  to one “sure, show me your watches!” Almost immediately, the man said “follow me!” and zipped across the street. I followed closely behind, stopping only briefly to eat another mouthful of delicious Oreo Blizzard.


We head to a row of stores, only to miss them and head down a narrow alley in between them… uh oh. We go further and further down, passing little closet rooms and boxes of trash. The noise from the street fades as it bounces back and forth off the cracked cement walls that reach up several stories above me and prevent enough ambient light to make me feel like doing this maybe wasn’t a sound decision.


Finally, I am led into a small room full of purses, and thankfully, I see a Chinese couple who is looking through the merchandise. “See?” I think to myself, “this is a safe place… families shop here.” Still, while I am surrounded by shelves stacked floor to ceiling with purses, the only watch I see is the one on my wrist. A lady who is part of the operation tells me the watches will be here in a minute, and to have a seat. “I’ll stand, thank you,” I say, as the sweat from my palm works at melting my Blizzard down to the point where it is no longer safe to do the upside down trick (which they also do in China before handing it to you).


Finally, a guy walks in with three metal briefcases… you know, the kind you see in movies that are heavy, silver, and usually contain money, cocaine, guns, or bombs. He sets them on an empty shelf and opens them one by one… watches. My ass unclenches as I dumbly examine the merchandise. The guy starts rattling off the reasons why these watches are the real deal, and displays they are quality by banging the face into the meaty part of my palm. As tempting as it was to purchase a Folex or an Omega Spreemaster, I declined… unfortunately for these guys I had already been Shanghaied my first day, and just because a watch is heavy and can bounce off my hand doesn’t mean I’m gonna buy it. “You guys must think I’m some sort of sucker,” I think to myself as I scrape the last bit of Blizzard from the bottom of my cup. I wanted to tape the experience, as it was all so unique, and a little scary, but you kind of know your place in a situation like that, so my words will have to do…


And the rickshaw ride? I told him I wanted to go to the Oriental Pearl, and he said sure! After ten hair raising minutes (the video really didn’t do the experience justice), he got me there…


Oh, I’m sorry… I should have been more clear. When I said I wanted to go to the Oriental Pearl, I meant I wanted to be able to get to it without having to swim. Oh well, I was able to take the picture and then take a cab. There’s a snake of tunnels going under the river… and you think people drive bad in (insert your city, state, country here)… oh boy. I saw people riding their scooters on the sidewalk here. Christ. The tower experience was worth it, though. Very high up, and that Plexiglas walkway was pretty intense. Still, what the hell is a roller coaster doing that high up only to be totally encased? Huh?


And that’s about it for me. I've glanced at the TV, and while the blue dot hasn’t moved, we are officially doing 0.0 knots. Christmas is right around the corner, and like all of you, I have to round up the rest of my presents, only this year I don’t have the advantage of internet shopping or 24 hour access to land. Speaking of Christmas, we’ve opened our Christmas show, and do it almost exclusively throughout the month of December. It’s a nice show, and I can’t help smiling like an idiot at the end of every performance. I mean, hey, I get to dress as Santa and sing about Rudolph, plus I can now sing “Silent Night” in Japanese… yeah, my job is pretty sweet.


Keep on Livin’ the Dream,


Michael Lamendola

(Resting my tired feet 850 feet above the doo doo brown water of Shanghai)