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‘Nosediving’ I: Life Imitating Art in China

“I’ll just follow my nose…”
-Toucan Sam

Friends,

In my recent efforts to get caught up on the program Black Mirror, I yesterday watched the first episode from season 3, entitled “Nosedive.” In this episode, the protagonist, Lacie lives in a world where everyone is constantly rated by each other on a 5 star scale. One’s rating at any given point is an aggregated average, with 5-star ratings from “high-4s” bringing one’s average higher than 5-star

ratings from 3.5s and lower. Lacie averages a respectable 4.2 at the episode’s beginning but to achieve a 4.5 and receive the benefits such a ranking holds (financial, social and professional) she takes a gamble and enters the high-stakes game of upward mobility at the elite level. Things quickly unravel for her as circumstances beyond her control coupled with some “average-dropping” faux-pas’ cause her to drop just below 4.2 and lose that ranking’s necessary benefits. This leads to an emotional outburst and profanity (a positive no-no in the perfectionist world of social media lifestyle cultivation) which gets her harshly penalized until her average is so low that she throws away all pretension and goes thermonuclear at the very social event that she gambled would bring her 4.5dom.

The whole episode seems as if it’s going to be a sobering parable about hubris and the dangers of superficiality, but late in the episode  Lacie has a chance encounter with a formerly high-4 woman happily reduced to 1-dom and we start to see that maybe letting go is the path to salvation and the moral of the episode. The final scene in a jail cell where Lacie (at an abysmal sub-1 average) trades barbs with a fellow inmate only confirms this moral.


She seems happier cussing out this black man than at any other point in the episode….RACIST!!

And it’s a good moral. It smacks of Voltaire’s timeless bit of wisdom, “Man is free the moment he wishes to be.”

I pondered this moral and it’s implications for me and where I’m at. I realized a few years ago that cultivating a squeaky-clean image online was not possible for me, nor desirable, as it would psychologically limit me in the future when I wanted to say some real shit.

Or perhaps more accurately, recognizing that a social media presence is a digital monument, if I built one based on omission and SFW opinions, I would be unwilling to topple it down the road (with risque points of view), it being a monument after all and something I would have, at that hypothetical future-point, invested much time and effort into creating.

No, better to speak my piece, polarizing as it may be, and let the chips fall where they may.

Enter the universe (or invasive data-mining), which, in it’s infinite wisdom, has been known to conspire: Logging onto the Facebooks this morning I saw that a friend posted an article from Wired entitled, “Big Data Meets Big Brother: China Moves to Rate it’s Citizens.

 

That’s right, China is moving to implement citizen ratings based on stringent governmental standards by 2020. I would suggest you read the article for Rachel Botsman’s in-depth analysis of the implications, but essentially people will qualify for better services and greater privileges based on how high their rating is. Furthermore, and much more insidiously, those considered “untrustworthy” (Naturally, China is framing it as a trust-scale more than a conformity-scale) will not only have a lack of privileges, but be a threat to their circle of friends, as one person’s degree of “fuck-uppery” will reflect poorly on anyone who deigns to associate with them, threatening even the ostensibly “trust-worthy” with loss of privileges.


“China, YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD!”

It’s like in Full Metal Jacket when Pyle keeps fucking up and so Hartman decides to punish the rest of the platoon, alienating him from everyone and causing them to beat the shit out of him, in what was (impressively) arguably the most disturbing scene in any Kubrick film. Punishments against bystanders for indulging and tolerating undesirables is a fundamentally malicious policy because it goes against beautiful and humanistic ideals such as “Love thy Neighbour” and “Do Unto Others…”

I’m not so naive to believe that this is a China-problem, nor that people-rating hasn’t already manifested there and here in the west. In a way, I’m all for it; I’ve worked hard to be a good traveler and earn a good reputation on CouchSurfing for example, and that reputation (rightly) gains me the trust of new hosts in new places a lot quicker and more easily. The logic is simple: Don’t be a shithead; Don’t get treated like a shithead. Simple! I, much like Ms. Botsman believe reputation to be the once and future currency of the world -good enough for proto-human tribes, good enough for the post-scarcity economy we’re moving toward.

However, China is bastardizing the noble concept of reputation by taking two of it’s ugliest permutations, credit ratings (a mechanism to further deprive the already deprived) and people reviewing (a “legitimate” way to smear someone via apps like Peeple), and combining them into an ugly abomination with the power to bestow privilege and convenience to the worthy and mete out suffering to the unworthy based on pre-established standards which are reflective of the state institution’s survival needs rather than the ability of citizens to co-exist with each other. And if that wasn’t already enough, those afflicted with “unworthiness” carry a memetic contagion of sorts, alienating them from worthy members of society who may help to, at the very least, rehabilitate them, even though they may have done nothing worse than question policy.

In this last regard, China is almost creating a prison without walls, which might not be so bad if this state-sanctioned social smearing was implemented as an alternative to physical incarceration (even though the ‘bar for entry’ seems to be much lower), but there has been no apparent mention of this, so its essentially just a way to lock up more citizens and scare many more into falling in line.

Well-played, China. The magnificence of your bastardry apparently knows no bounds.

My knee-jerk reaction to this article was predictably fear and anxiety. I’m not a violent criminal but it seems ‘crimes’ we all engage such as out-spokenness may one day land us in hot water as state-ratings become normalized and global. From a strictly amoral and Machiavellian perspective, it does seem to be a viable way to conserve and consolidate power and only someone with a complete lack of imagination or an interest in seeing this system propagate could deny it will be implemented in the western world if the China test-case proves successful.

Again, what was most paralyzing about the worry I felt  was that I realized one day having an opinion that was considered unpopular could hurt those I care about. If I had to dissociate from my father for example, or worse, if he decided to dissociate from me because I was too much of a liability… Well, how could I fault him for that?

But in that moment of panic I realized that I was just feeling, I wasn’t thinking. The former has a place to be sure, but sometimes we have to be pragmatic and logical. Whenever I am seized by existential anxiety I go over my escape plan. The details of it change over time but points 1 and 2 are pretty much always the same:

ANDRE’S SUPER-SECRET, ‘DON’T TELL THE GOVERNMENT’, ESCAPE PLAN

  1. If shit gets too bad I can always kill myself and then my problems on this material plane are over.
  2. I can always focus on my breathing and the present moment.
  3.  Refer back to points 1 and 2 as needed until such time as a better solution presents itself.

You could maybe argue that the order of 1 and 2 could be switched, but they’re just a starting point and as important as their actual viability as solutions to the problem of life, they serve the purpose of reassuring me while I formulate other strategies.

Those strategies I will elaborate on in my next post which will be a follow-up to this one.

Best,
-Andre Guantanamo

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Structural Dishonesty

My Friends,
   I work in a warehouse where we receive refrigerators and stoves from manufacturers, perform quality control on them, attach some standards stickers and company logos to them and then sell them as our own products.  We are the very definition of a middle-man, and sad will be the day when the retailers and manufacturers realize that they could get by without us.  But for the time being we facilitate things well enough to be a profitable business.
   In the last year the decision has been made to re-source a substantial portion of our refrigerator models from a Chinese company called Delware.  Try as I might I can not find the website for these dudes, but I assure you they exist.  Now when I heard that we were going this route I had to ask why; the models to be replaced are high-performing and attractive.  I asked my immediate supervisor a few months back and he explained that the one company we have been buying from (a subsidiary of Whirlpool based out of Brazil) is no longer making that model.  But then he also explained that they have been systematically jacking the price up every year for the last two decades so we wanted to go with something more cost-effective.  So between those two answers I was not really sure what the deal was, though I suspected it had more to do with the latter (cost-savings) than it did with a company discontinuing a reliable and popular product for no apparent reason.
   We received some sample units from Delware and I was struck by how ugly and plain they were.  Now you may think a fridge is a fridge and you would be right, but you would also be surprised about how important the little details are when you deal with them on a day-to-day basis.  Frankly, they looked cheap, and I inquired if they were in fact significantly cheaper.  They, of course, were.  Next I inquired if they were going to sell for the same price as their Whirlpool predecessors.  A resounding “yes!”  I assumed naively that this was simple greed.  I was wrong.  More on that momentarily.
   Mulling it over in my head, it occurred to me that if we were sourcing our products from a Chinese company for significantly less money, there might be some of those … whaddya call ’em??? Oh yeah, Human Rights Violations going on at Delware.  Never one to be subtle, I walked up to the operations manager at the end of the day and asked him point blank about his trip to China where he discovered this company and toured their facility.  I specifically inquired about the working conditions and wages.  He said (seemingly, a little uncomfortably) that conditions were “relatively” good there and that the company had a high turnover rate.  It didn’t click with me what “high turnover rate” meant, even though he said it like three subsequent times as if the fact that people were constantly quitting/getting fired was somehow supposed to assure me that things were copacetic at Delware.  But I trust this dude, so I feigned satisfaction with his words which I didn’t truly understand.  It was only after I did some more mulling on the way home that I realized he had told me nothing and that he was probably just regurgitating lines which the company tour-operator had said to him to pacify his conscience while he was touring the plant.
   High-turnover rate?  The fuck does that even mean?  McDonald’s has a high-turnover rate too and its a shitty job.  In fact all restaurants typically have high turnover rates because a lot of the positions in restaurants are shitty.  In fact, a low turnover rate would typically indicate a better employer, wouldn’t it, as it would indicate a job which people actually want to stay at.  The only positive thing a high turnover rate expresses to me is that technically the job is not slavery, because technically the workers can quit whenever they want.  So the best thing that our operations manager can say about the ethics of our sourcing is that technically its not produced by slave labour?
   Great Job!
   In spite of my misgivings I am just a peon in the company structure so my opinion + two quarters doesn’t add up to a dollar.  I kind of just kept on living my life.  But yesterday while talking with the receptionist during lunch, I heard her say that she wasn’t allowed to tell customers that the fridges are made in China.  I asked, “Well what do you tell them?”  “I tell them that we are the ‘manufacturer on record’,” she responded.  “Diabolical,” I thought.  Then I said as much.  I asked her about situations where a customer pressed her to explain what manufacturer on record meant.  She told me that if any customers were not satisfied with her answers she was supposed to refer them to the owner or ops manager.  I was angry (not surprisingly, as I have a tendency to get irate about injustice) that she would be compelled to perpetuate misinformation.  I realized this deception related back to the price we were selling the units for: Since we were keeping the same prices we had for the previous models, the customers would hopefully not suspect that we were selling them a shittier product from China => Not just greed, but dishonesty as well.  So, if it wasn’t bad enough that we were sourcing product from slighlty-better-than-slavery conditions, now we were denying it outright, or at least putting a glossy veneer of technical language on it.  Manufacturer on Record, my ass!  We’re a warehouse!  We manufacture nothing!
   I was mad for a second, and in that second I thought of the owner of the company.  I thought about everything I didn’t like about him.  This is the kind of guy who spouts off statistics about how the average life expectancy in Canada is increasing and concludes from there that the world must be getting better and better because he can’t see over the fence of his backyard in the rich neighbourhood he lives in.  He’s the kind of guy who will say “no vacations til the end of summer” for employees, but then talk excitedly about his upcoming mid-summer vacation; not out of malice but due to a complete lack of tact.  This is the kind of dude who will micro-manage the fuck out of every aspect of his company and then call a meeting at the end of the day (delaying the departure of employees) to talk about how his “pep-talks” are really having a positive effect on production.  Tis also he who will hold up production so we can do a detailed cleaning of the warehouse so he can give the visiting bankers (who have no interest in the warehouse) a tour of it.  Also, during these bank visits he’ll make anyone with a nice car park in the back so the bank doesn’t get the impression he’s paying anyone too much.  Now apparently he is also the type of guy to unethically source product and then tell his employees to lie to customers about where its from.  His relationship to reality has always been tenuous but now its seems it is will-fully so.
   But like I said, I was only mad at him for a second.   I mean, is it really his fault?
   One thing I have become more and more cognizant of is how this system corrupts people and puts them at odds with others, not just to excel, but simply to survive.  Anything I or anyone else gets is necessarily at the expense of someone else.  In that paradigm how can you blame someone for playing by the established rules, even if that entails outsourcing and a cavalier attitude toward the truth?  Certainly it must be harder to see the flaws in the system too when you’re making a ton of money.  So to call this guy a bad person is not accurate.  For one thing, I think he makes genuine, if misguided, efforts to do right by his employees.  But more importantly, he is playing by the rules we all must play by to some extent.  Whereas I try and extricate myself from this game as much as possible, he revels in it and commits 100% to the deception, to the point where he would deceive others.  Our respective socio-economic standings are the practical outcome of our various commitments to this deception, or lack thereof.
   For his sake, I hope I never have to pick up the phone and speak with a customer who is curious about where their product comes from.  For starters, lying doesn’t sit well with me, and second, I’m not getting paid enough to fib.
Stay Thirsty,
-Andre Guantanamo

P.S. To be clear, I don’t object to outsourcing on any patriotic grounds.  I don’t think “Buy Canadian” or “Buy American” campaigns are worthwhile because they don’t address structural flaws and they perpetuate xenophobia.  Ultimately it won’t be Chinese or Indian or Malaysian people who take all the jobs but an automated assembly line.  And that’s the way it should be, as menial, repetitive labour, or “monkey-work” as I call it, is simply a stultifying existence which needs automating.  I simply wanted to elucidate upon the dishonesty this system fosters with a practical example.
   

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99 Problems

*Written early in the morning of Christmas Day 2011 in the Chongqing North train station whilst waiting for my train

My Friends,
   Anyone among you has ever done dirt with me (or hung out wth me for any appreciable amount of time) probably knows that “99 Problems” by Jay-Z is one of my favourite songs of all time.  The beat, the lyrics and the delivery combine into one dope package which never fails to pick me up. 
   I have often wondered though, “What are these fabled 99 problems which allegedly plague Jay-Z’s existence?”  Sure he gives some examples during the verses, and to his credit he does take those few examples and really run with them, painting vivid and nuanced pictures.  However, if only for the sake of the verifiability of the claim in the song’s title I have long thought he should have provided a numbered list of each specific problem (in the album cover perhaps for all of us true fans who bought it). 
   Since I can’t comment on what that man’s problems might be (prolly not being able to wear skinny jeans cause his “knots” don’t fit) I thought long and hard about what I could provide; namely, a similarly itemized list of my own prblems. 
   Now I must qualify this list before I kick it off: For starters, many entries are very introspective as I like to think my greatest strength is a realistic appreciation of my limitations and shortcomings.  Second, some of these things are problems which do not currently afflict me but which I try and remain constantly vigilant against.  Finally, as I wrote it while traveling, many of the problems may seem a little pecualiar and applicable only to someone living a similarly transient lifestyle.  However, I think even these entries have some applicability in everyday life (we all want a safe place to sleep even if we take it for granted)..
   So without any further ado:

If you havin’ girl problems I feel bad for you, son.  I got…

1) My Woman’s dog. A useless toy poodle named Lacy
2) Too little time in life
3) Too many options in life
4) Never enough money
5) Maintaining my street cred
6) On again/off again athlete’s foot
7) Turn the other cheek & feel like a bitch or fight and feel like an asshole
8) The shitty state of the world
9) Not seeing my family enough
10) Changing the mindset of those around me
11) My mother and her whole side of the family
12) Self-doubt
13) No career
14) Stolen rhyme-book
15) Negative self body-image
16) A certain constantly-evolving relationship in my life;  I never quite know where I stand in this one
17) Zipping my beard into my coat
18) No shower in over a week (as of Dec 24/11)
19) Getting Portuguese citizenship
20) Liquor
21) Pipe-smoking
22) My uncertain future in the military
23) Finding a decent place to shit
24) Keeping my feet warm
25) Remembering the words of my favourite songs
26) Suppressing feelings of superiority
27) Not behaving wretchedly when I feel wretched
28) Keeping my finger out of my nose in mixed company
29) B.O.
30) Speaking only English
31) Blank pages in my passport
32) Thinning hair
33) Mangled feet and toes from a lifetime of wearing traditional shoes
34) Naivete
35) Cynicism
36) Finding safe place to sleep
37) Losing my composure when I’m excited about something
38) Sentimentality/”hoarding” tendencies
39) Cops
40) Not being able to wash hands after dookie
41) A picture of my dick that may be floating around from Mardi Gras 2009 in New Orleans
42) Disdain for flaws in others which I see in myself
43) Crooked Jaw
44) My shitty Riddler tattoo
45) My right knee
46) Laziness
47) Restlessness in stable situations
48) Conspicuousness in foreign lands
49) No patience for differing points of view
50) Stubbornness
51) Incomplete private pilot’s license
52) Keeping my rhymes fresh
53) Internet porn
54) Making extraneous attempts to curry favour with those I view as gate-keepers
55) Short-sightedness (not literally, but in life)
56) Quick temper
57) Braggadociousness
58) Trying to make certain rituals/events too perfect (“The perfect is the enemy of the good”)
59) Thinking of new experiences (and life in general) in terms of what would make a good facebook status or profile pic
60) Judging those I care about particularly harshly
61) Over-complicating simple things
62) Relating every situation to a rap lyric (maybe not a problem in itself, but someone who’s upset prolly doesnt want to hear, “Well, it’s like 50 Cent once said…”)
63) Taking too much satisfaction in deconstructing and manipulating social situations
64) Wanting to be liked by everyone
65) Being variously too stingy and too generous
66) Jealousy/Hating
67) Lack of ambition
68) Losing touch with friends and those who have helped me along
69) Getting discouraged after a failed first attempt
70) Enjoying the companyof people who make me feel better about my life relative to theirs
71) Preaching at others about my beliefs (not religious)
72) Getting quickly bored after initial enthusiasm
73) Enjoying garbage television
74) Swearing too much
75) Being automatically resentful of authority
76) Insensitivity
77) Always playing devil’s advocate for the sake of arguing
78) Dwellling on the path not taken
79) Dwelling on past mistakes
80) The inability to receive praise or admiration gracefully
81) Not remembering the names of my extended family (unless they’re on facebook)
82) Waiting for my turn to speak in conversations
83) Letting my mind wander while ostensibly listening attentively
84) Being slow to swallow pride and apologize
85) Fitting oddly shaped objects (read: bottles of wine) into my carefully organized backpack
86) Lack of hiding places on my person for wads of money and passport
87) My travel sensibilities often take me to ghettoes
88) Overzealous third-world types who aggressively try to sell me their wares and/or swindle me
89) Curious foreign types (or “local” types as I’m in their country) who invade my personal space to get a closer look (Looking at you, Chinese people)
90) Blisters
91) Losing pens
92) Never knowing for sure what the meat/food substance in Chinese snack foods is when I buy them (sometimes even after I eat them)
93) Talking too fast
94) The constant work (twisting) that goes into maintaining an exquisite handlebar mustache
95) The gigantic balls of belly-button lint which accumulate when the only time you take your shirt off is for your (bi)weekly shower
96) Killing time at airports, train and bus stations before departure
97) Finding stores which sell English-language books
98) Countries with travel advisories (or who declare a “state of emergency” after I have already entered the country)
99) The ultimately self-destructive compulsion to engage in, as an adult, all the mischief and stupidity I did not partake in as a relatively well-behaved and rule-abiding child

…but a bitch ain’t one!

Stay Thirsty
-Andre Guantanamo

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Central Asia Recap Part One: Kazakhstan


My Friends,
   Due to the unreliable internets access I have been made to endure as of late, I havent been the prolific bloggeur I normally am.  Let me perhaps rectify this by filling in some of the blanks of the last couple of weeks. 
   I left the balmy beach weather of Israel on 16 December.  This was a significant departure because it was my final good-bye to my beloved Mediterranean.  More than simply a sea to me, I had swam in its warm waters, interacted with its peoples and used its coastline as a navigational aid for months.  I treasured my last Mediterranean sunset walking on the beach in Tel Aviv and even got a lil’ misty.
   My plane from Israel took me first to Kiev, Ukraine for a 9-hour layover.  I had planned for this and I used the extended downtime to make a foray into the former Soviet-bloc city.  Luckily, by entering the country instead of simply waiting in the designated layover area I copped some pretty new bling (read: stamps) for my passport.  The bus ride to Kiev took awhile but I actually like the city a lot.  It was very beautiful and the people seemed really friendly.  The food and drinks were cheap and although wet, it was not too cold.  My only complaint was how cozy and warm all the little shops seemed: the Christmas spirit was in the air and watching happy couples gazing longingly into each others eyes over hot cocoa/coffee by a warm fire really drove home the point of my loneliness over the holidays.  It was far easier to stick to the cold air of the outdoors than torture myself by going into these shops and getting a closer look at what I was missing out on.  I have resolved that I will one day go back to Kiev with my woman during the Christmas season and enjoy it like I was not able to during this first visit.
   Went back to the airport, waited some and got on my plane for the four-hour flight to Astana, Kazakhstan.  I had heard from a chick in my hostel in Israel that Kazakhstan was like -20C and I joked that I was going to freeze my balls off although I was secretly concerned.  But having already submitted my passport for the visa I could do little with this knowledge except steel my nerves against the expected onslaught of cold weather.  I began to think to myself that -20C wasnt that cold.  After all, I have experienced that in Canada and survived.  If nothing else, the cold weather would be a boon; people would be more likely to take pity on this hitch-hiker and pick him up.  In retrospect, such imaginings and self-reassurances seem sheer folly, but you’d be surprised what you can convince yourself of when you need to.  So, “prepared” as I was for -20C, I was dismayed beyond words when, as we pulled into Astana airport at 530am, the captain said the weather was -27C.  I hadnt planned for this, and this extra 7 degrees of coldness may as well  have been an extra 50 degrees of coldness.  I took a glance around the airplane and saw everyone pulling on their bubblegooses (puffy coats) and furs, while all I had was a Von Dutch zip-up sweater and a wind-breaker.  What the F had I gotten myself into?
   Still, maybe -27C wasnt as cold as it was cracked up to be.  I hadnt experienced it since last winter so I really shouldnt be so quick to judge, as my faculties of memory might have been flawed.  They were not.  Just getting off the plane and feeling the slightest touch of outside air chilled me to the bone.  I realized this simply wouldn’t do.  I thought long and hard about my options after clearing customs and waiting in the front entrance of the airport, shivering in spite of myself every time the door opened and someone entered.  I resolved that I would get the fudge out of the city by means other than hitch-hiking and to the former capital of Almaty, as it was at least a manageable -7C or so.  So I cabbed it to the Astana train station (of course the cabby had to be parked at the other end of the parking lot) and got a ticket for that night’s train to Almaty.  Having to wait 15 hours in the Astana train station was a trying experience: the multitudinous police and security officers present were so unaccustomed to a Westerner that they took me aside and detained me while they looked through my passport and joked about my shoes, my manner of dress and prolly my facial hair.  This particular incident happened in the morning but I had passport checks all day and was continually harrassed about where I sat, lying on my foam mat while waiting and charging my ipod.  It got to the point that I started being a little bit of a prick and whenever they would make eye contact with me I would hold up my passport and ticket and insist they check it while cursing at them audibly (they didnt understand Englirsh anyway). 
   It was so bad that my only reprieve from this intrusiveness was the dreaded cold; I made the arduous 60 second trek to a nearby cafe, almost died in the process, and spent an hour or two there drinking coffee and keeping warm.  I noticed the sun (which had gingerly risen around 10 am) during the walk to this cafe.  It sat so low on the southern horizon even at “high noon” that I swore I had entered the Arctic circle (and who knows, maybe I had; I really didnt do much research on Kazakhstan before deciding to go there as foreknowledge and preparation often preclude wacky adventures).  I dont want to overstate the cold weather but you must understand my situation: My upper body and legs were perhaps warm enough to survive for protracted periods of time in the cold (not comfortably mind you), but my footwear of choice is Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks.  These are a barefoot equivalent shoe which mimic the barefoot very well, particularly in their almost complete absence of resilience to cold weather.  There was only 6mm of rubber between me and the snow and my toes were separated which made them chill that much faster.  I literally may as well have been walking out there barefoot.
   Whatever though, I survived the day and made it to the train (although the walk on the platform was another trying experience).  The compartment I was in had two young guys and two old ladies on it who became essentially my Kazakh aunts, insisting that I eat with them and drink tea with them.  It was a very pleasant train ride considering noone spoke English.  Also, I finally got warm.  The train itself bears some mention because it was incredibly old-looking and it seemed to me that it was very possibly a Soviet relic which I thought was kinda cool.
   We arrived in Almaty the next night and one of my aunties insisted on taking me to the international bus station so I could buy a ticket to Urumqi, China.  Almaty was warmer but still not as warm as I would have liked, and I was forced to walk outside for over half an hour, poorly-equipped.  We got me set up for a bus leaving the following night and I stayed in the bus-station dorm.  It was a fun night as I got invited to drink with some Kazakh taxi drivers taking a “vodka break” in the kitchen of my hotel (I didn’t write that last bit as a joke, but its actually kinda funny).  We crushed their whole bottle (smoothe stuff) then I figured “fuck it”, and busted out my bottle of cheap scotch from the Kiev duty-free.  We crushed that too and smoked my pipe and I woke up feeling like shit the next morning.  My wake-up was even worse because it was conducted by the Kazakh cleaning lady who was yelling at me to get out in a voice that sounded like a cross between a cat being strangled and a little girl being raped.  I had to kill the day in Almaty waiting for my night-time bus departure.  I spent a good three hours internetting across from the station.  It was during this time that I learned from FB friends that Kazakhstan had declared a state of emergency in response to unruly labourers in the Southwest who were protesting the government for something (higher wages, better hours, more jobs, etc…).  We had passed near this region en route to Almaty while I was sleeping on the train two nights before.  Leave it to me to sleep through a conflict. 
   Around 10 pm on my third day in Kazakhstan I boarded my overnight bus to Urumqi, China.  It was awesome because I was expecting to be sitting up for the whole 24+ hour ride but it was a sleeper bus stocked with thick fleecy blankets.  I dwelt on the cleanliness of the blankets for less than an instant and got to the business of sleep real quick.  My awakening the next morning was a rude one: my busmates telling me to get my passport out because we were getting boarded by the Kazakh miltary.  Fortunately this was no random passport check; it was the first (of several) passport checks to go through the border to China.  The border crossing took about two hours as all the bus companies seemed not to co-ordinate their schedules, so there was a surfeit of people trying to get through the border, and these people had seemingly not grasped the concept of “a line:” I literally had to occupy my whole border lane to prevent little Asians from pushing past me.  In this instance my backpack came in handy for occupying space as it is roughly the size of a small Asian.
   Much more pleasant than exiting Kazakhstan was entering China.  There was a 5km or so “no mans land” between the two countries which was traversed only by my bus apparently.  What this meant in practice was that all of those people from the various buses that came through all piled onto my bus and I almost didnt even get a spot.  Plus this old man who was mad that he didnt get on the bus before me kept pushing me from behind.  It took all of my patience not to clock the Kazakh fuck.  But like I said, entering China was fine: in fact because I was so conspicuous in the crowd of Asians, the Chinese authorities pushed me to the front of the line which happened to be right on front of the pushiest fucks from the bus ride over, much to their Kazakh chagrin.  It was a small victory but a victory nonetheless.  The process was delayed a little by passport control who kept looking back and forth between me and my passport pic.  He even called a friend over to get his opinion on if it was really me.  That was really the only hiccup. 
   Clearing customs was a lot like clearing customs in Egypt though; as soon as I was free of security the hustlers and hucksters wanted a piece of me.  Many were holding wads of Chinese money to change but I had read about rampant counterfeiting in China and opted not to change my money with these disreputable seeming characters.  We had a quick lunch China-side and were on our way.  It wasn’t until after midnight that we reached Urumqi, and the bus saw fit to drop us off at a hotel instead of the bus station.  This was problematic because Urumqi was not much warmer than Almaty and I really wanted to be on my way further south to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province.  In the next few hours I had one of my weirdest experiences thus far, but alas, that’s a story for the sequel.
Stay Thirsty
-Andre Guantanamo 

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Holdıng ın a Fart for Chına

My Friends,
   I am playıng the waıtıng game rıght now ın Ankara;: I always suspected that applyıng for a vısa was an arduous process, thus my comparıson to ıt beıng lıke wıtholdıng flatulence; I cant be bothered.  Sımply put, and thıs ıs perhaps my arrogance talkıng, but ıf a foreıgn government wants me to jump through hoops to enter theır country then ıts theır loss.  Stıll, not all countrıes are created equal, and whıle there are many countrıes requırıng entrance vısas I would be happy to say nukka peace to, Chına ıs not one of those countrıes.
   Thıs ıs for two reasons: fırst ın practıcal terms, ıt ıs sımply rıght there where I need to be.  Whıle ıt ıs technıcally possıble to move through Asıa wıthout hıttıng Chına, havıng a vısa there allows you greater movement through the contınent because ıt ıs essentıally the frıggın contınent.  Second, there ıs so much hıstory and beauty there that I would be derelıct ın my duty as a professed traveler ıf I skıpped ıt.
   Now Ive never been one for plannıng except when ıt comes to parenthood, so naturally I dıdnt purchase any vısas before I left Canada.  However the research I dıd before I left ındıcated that I would be able to purchase a vısa upon entrance lıke I dıd ın Turkey.  Yet I thought ıt prudent to check the Chınese embassy ın Ankara to confırm that before I left the cıty.  Sure enough I would have been ın for a nasty surprıse ıf I trıed to land there wıthout prıor approval.  So thıs left me ın a bıt of tıght spot because ıt was thursday at around 1030 am, I had to get a letter of confırmatıon of ıdentıty from the Canadıan Embassy stıll, and the Chınese embassy ıs only open Mondays Wednesdays and Thursdays untıl noon.  Quıckly I fılled out all the forms as best I could then set out for the Canadıan embassy runnıng as fast as I could wıth my backpack.  Luckıly I had passed the Canadıan embassy earlıer searchıng for the Chınese one and I headed back there to get my confırmatıon letter but they wouldnt let me ın.  In fact the guards couldnt even speak Englısh.  I started flashıng my passport and makıng demands lıke get me someone who speaks Englısh.  That they responded to my demands was lıkely due more to theır seeıng my desperate state rather than any bass ın my voıce.  They got a dude on the phone who ınstructed me I was at the Embassy Resıdence and not the Embassy.
   The guards called me a cab and I got to the rıght embassy a few mınutes later.  By the tıme I made ıt through securıty I was dıshevelled to say the least.  I had to waıt for some couple to fınısh theır ıntervıew as I watched the mınutes race by.  FInally ıt was my turn and to the guys credıt he typed up my letter of confırrmatıon pretty quıck but then lıke a douche he charged me 50 bucks for ıt (Note: one thıng that has been made paınfully obvıous to me ın the last couple of months ıs that consular servıces are not cheap.  I prolly could have saved a ton by stayıng home, throwıng my backpack ın the garbage, tuckıng my passport ınto my ass and hıdıng behınd a tree.  Lesson learned).
   I made haste back to the Chınese embassy and handed the lady my passport, vısa applıcatıon form and letter of confırmatıon wıth 15 mınutes to spare.  Her next words were lıke a dagger ın my heart: Do you have a passport photo?  WHAT PART OF THE GAME IS THAT, LADY?  Then I remembered I had had pıcs taken for my replacement passport ın Lısbon and they had gıven sıx when I only needed two.  I searched through my stuff but they were not there.  I was at a loss.  Sensıng my desparatıon and takıng pıty on me the lady formulated a plan of actıon whıch ıncluded her helpıng me beyond regularly scheduled embassy hours and holdıng onto my passport ın lıeu of pıcs, a detaıl whıch I glazed over at the tıme as I was payıng heed to her ınstructıons and quıte frazzled by thıs poınt.
   So off I went to book accommodatıon for one more nıght and secure some passport photos, happy ın the knowledge that I was gettıng specıal treatment and all I had to do was have a mını nervous breakdown.  The detaıl of the passport she was holdıng onto came up not long after though when I pulled out my wallet to show a dude what I meant by passport photograph cause he spoke no Englısh and I needed dırectıons.  I realızed ıt was gone.  I mını-panıcked but I remembered exactly what I had done wıth ıt so that kept my manıa at sub-crıtıcal levels.  I ran back to the hotel I had stayed at to book another nıght and call the embassy to confırm that she had ıt.  The hotel was full but they let me use the phone and when I called her she seemed annoyed at my further questıonıng because ın truth she was already goıng above and beyond for me by seeıng ıf she could get me rushed servıce so I get my vısa by today.   Nonetheless she confırmed that she had my passport, although her words carrıed the ımplıcatıon that I was somethıng less than a man to her.
   I cursed myself for a fool, havıng lost track of the one pıece of ID I have ın thıs world.  Frazzled or not ıt was an unacceptable lapse.  But then the sun peeked out from the clouds and I was suddenly overcome by a sense of mırth.  After all, as long as Im alıve Im alrıght, rıght?  If I get my Chınese vısa ın one day of frantıc runnıng around and ın spıte of the ınadequacıes of my applıcatıon ıt wıll be a great moment ın travel hıstory.  If not, I spend the weekend ın Ankara; not the worst thıng ın the world as the new hotel Im stayıng at ıs cheap enough and the guy who drove me ınto the cıty mentıoned a hıkıng club whıch hıkes the beautıful mountaıns around the cıty that only meets on weekends, so even faılure could be a blessıng ın dısguıse.  Perhaps the latter outcome ıs even better because as my woman can attest to, I have thıs notıon ın my head that I can get by ın any sıtuatıon wıth no plannıng by just pullıng a wın out of my ass at the 11th hour wıth persuasıve arguıng (or cryıng as the case may be); a notıon that I sorely need to be dısabused of.  However, ıf I get my vısa today that wıll only bolster my confıdence and who knows what sıtuatıons I mıght then get myself ınto.
   Heres hopıng I get the vısa today.
Stay Thirsty,
Andre Guantanamo

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