Archive | July, 2011

Environment vs Health Issues in China – When they conflict

22 Jul

Here in Canada, I grew up searching for crayfish in local streams, jumping into clear lakes and playing in leafy woods.  “Nature” has always meant peace and familiarity to me – it is intrinsically valuable, something to deeply cherish and respect. Although as Canadians, we frankly don’t have a track record to be proud of in terms of carbon consumption per capita (and I won’t even start on the tar sands), we do have a strong affinity to the value of unspoiled nature for its own sake. Nature is an abstract concept with very real value.

In China, the motivations behind environmental awareness and actions are different.

Contrary to what many westerners assume, China has begun to recognize the consequences of its economic development at all costs, with the biggest price being the impact of pollution and environmental damage.  The central government has made cleantech themes a major component of its stimulus package, and some forward-thinking regional officials have taken leaderships roles in understanding and inculcating sustainable values.

(BTW, China Environmental Forum, Harmony Foundation – providing Canadian sustainability training to China’s mayors, and China CSR are 3 terrific sources regarding environmental direction in China).

In China, concerns about environment relate directly and tangibly to individuals instead of to an abstract cause. People care about environmental issues when they perceive the impact on their health.  They connect the dots between the factory dumping waste in the local water supply and people in the community getting sick.  Sure, it may be providing jobs but those matter less when someone you love is suffering from environmentally related illness.  It’s this encouraging grass-roots realization that is motivating positive change at all levels in China.

The challenge comes when environment and health are at odds with one another.  Nothing was so immediately obvious in this regard as the issue of bottled water.

Water quality is an enormous issue topic in China. Although other issues such as air quality of product safety get more airplay in the western press, clean water is becoming a severe concern in China.  The degree of pollution in many of China’s water sources is becoming too high for industrial or agricultural use, never mind drinking or fishing.  When living in China several years ago, I began boiling my tap water, distressed at the alternative of buying bottled water for drinking and cooking.  A friend advised me that the contaminants in the water – such as lead and other industrial chemicals could not be simply boiled away.

So when faced with the choice of questionable drinking water on my recent trip to Beijing, vs buying bottles, I was faced with a dilemma.  My hotel room came stocked with a steady stream of 500 ml water bottles.  But with heat in the upper 30s C (near 100 F) I knew that I could go through 5 bottles a day, contributing to China’s landfills of plastic water bottles.  If Americans use dispose of 50 billion plastic water bottles a year, imagine what that volume would be in China?

Drinking Water Dilemma in China

My solution?  Ignore the 500 ml bottles in the hotel room, and haul back a 4 L bottle from a nearby Watson’s (despite my partially dislocated shoulder).

What would you do, when health and safety concerns conflict with your environmental beliefs?


Toronto, not Rome – believe it or not!

16 Jul


Beijing Public Enemy #1

14 Jul

I think Rob Ford, Toronto’s new, car-loving mayor, would love Beijing.

(By the way, you may be wondering what I am suddenly doing in Beijing? Since my last post, I’ve become gainfully employed. Admittedly, there has been a writing hiatus, however I’m happy to be getting into the swing of things, as I feel more productive when I’m busy! It’s an international sales role with a great education company that helps international students gain entry US and Canadian high schools, and my territory is Europe and China – hence, on the second day of the job, I was on a plane to China.)

Anyway, In Beijing, Rob Ford’s dreaded war on the car has never been considered.  Beijing is an astonishing city; but its vast avenues and city blocks on a gargantuan scale were designed to be dominated by cars.

Massive avenues of Beijing

Looking at a map, walking seems like a feasible option, until you realize that the scale of this massive, sprawling city is beyond imagination.  It’s almost embarrassing that night after night, I’d go out for a stroll to experience local neighbourhoods, and end in agony, stranded between subways lines and limping home on my shoes inappropriate for an unintended 3 hour walk (and sweltering temperatures).

Oh, why don’t I catch a taxi, you ask?

A: It’s impossible to find an empty one.
B: Beijing taxi drivers make me insane.

I love the people of China – beyond my dear Chinese friends, I have so often been touched by the kindness of Chinese strangers.  But Beijing taxi drivers are the bane of my traveling world.  I’ve had Beijing taxi drivers who have been dangerously drunk, who have fallen asleep on the highway, and who’ve had a hissy fit when they can’t find my destination…it’s true, I’ve had some very pleasant ones too, in particular the one who just dropped me off at the airport, but it’s so frustrating just to find an available taxi, and I think the drivers know it’s a seller’s market.

Friday night, I was meeting 2 friends living in Beijing for dinner at a restaurant in a hutong, one of Beijing’s atmospheric old neighbourhoods. The adventure began when I asked the concierge to help me write down the address of Susu, a new Vietnamese restaurant with a hutong courtyard patio.

There was a disorganized and annoyed queue of people waiting in line for a taxi.  Empty taxis trickled in at a discouraging pace.  Finally it’s just me…and my taxi finally appears after 30 minutes. He drives up, examines my destination, gives a fluttery, disgusted wave of his hand, then drives away in an outrage.  It’s a disconcertingly diva-like move for such a rough character, but I’ve seen it before in Beijing.  Translation: “your destination is too inaccessible/too difficult/too hard to find – in short, you are too “ma fan” (too much of a pain in the ass) for me to contemplate permitting in my taxi.”


Over I walked to the nearby Silk Market, as I thought that there might be taxis waiting outside this tourist trap.  And there were, accustomed to overcharging tourists who’ve just grossly overpaid for a counterfeit Gucci tote.  The first offered the appalling price of 150 yuan, about 10 times more what the meter fare would be.  I refused, making a big fuss (when you are bargaining, it’s the one time you can reasonably make a fuss in China). Another driver offered to take me and use the meter.  Super!  Only when I got in the car he changed his mind, and decided that 100 yuan would actually be a fair price.  Later, I discovered that gouging is illegal for Beijing taxis, and infractions are punished.  Beijing travel tip: If you threaten to call the Beijing Taxi Protection Bureau, they will instantly recapitulate and turn on the meter.  Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time.

Jumping out of the taxi, I was somehow able to catch one passing by.  By this time, I was 40 minutes late for dinner and unable to get my iphone working to call my friends.  But now that I was on my way, I hoped I would arrive before long.

Hutong life

Many hutongs are narrow pedestrian-only laneways, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when my taxi stopped and indicated that the restaurant was just a walk down the alley.  But walking away, the taxi gone, I slowly realized my destination was nowhere to be found.

But true travel adventures are created in moments like these. From one moment, where I was stressed to be late, anxious to be completely lost, and hot and sweaty…everything changes.

I asked someone for help, and a little community gathered around to assist me.  At least 4 people were in animated conversation, with one of them on his cell calling a friend for additional support.  Finally it was determined where my destination was, and that it was too far & convoluted for me to walk.  So, the cell phone guy called upon his son (employee?) to stop BBQing meat at a little restaurant and to carry me on the back of his scooter.  I looked at scooter-guy, looked down at my sandals and wrap dress, and laughed.  Why not?  Suddenly all the frustration and annoyance washed away, and I was touched by this group of people who cared so much that I was lost.

As we arrived on the back of my new Chinese friend’s scooter (Susu is so hidden that frankly I still would not have been able to find if I were standing in front of it), my dinner friend was standing outside to get better reception on her cell phone.  She was talking to my hotel, anxious over the fact that the concierge was telling her he had given directions to a woman to that restaurant over an hour ago, and no one had seen me since.

But all was well and I thanked my scooter-saviour as he sped off.  We had a great dinner, and I learned that my expat friends bought bikes so that they never have to depend on Beijing taxis; even riding in the dead of Beijing’s freezing winters.  And so, to illustrate a point, after dinner, we sped off for a nightcap, with me perched sidesaddle once again, this time on the back of a bicycle.

Dramatic recreation of sidesaddle travel through Beijing

My friends love seeing Beijing by bike, and it’s a great way to experience its local neighbourhoods behind the gleaming rows of skyscrapers.  They tell me that cars respect bicycles here and the dedicated and often separate bikes lanes make them feel safe cycling through the city.

Bike lanes in Beijing

Something that they don’t feel comfortable doing in Toronto, by the way.

Maybe Rob Ford wouldn’t care for Beijing so much after all…

What I am looking forward to…

2 Jul

As I begin to write this from the airport in Zurich (where I got scolded by not just one but TWO immigration officials who lamented the fact that I had not insisted that the Italian immigration officials stamp my passport upon entry – as if this should be MY responsibility), I reflect not only on the beginning of my European adventure in love and family, but also on what I am looking forward to as I return to Canada.

Of course, family and friends are at the top of that list.  And saying goodbye to Alessandro for the next 4-6 weeks is the hardest.  Over the last 4 years, no matter how many times we’ve parted, it never gets any easier.  But it’s also a privilege, allowing us always to remember to be grateful for the moments that we do share together.

So here’s what I am looking forward to the most Toronto after my weeks in bella Roma:

1)    The freedom of taking my bicycle to get from place A to B.

Cycling in Rome seems to be reserved as a pastime where riders remain within a defined, safe area (like pedestrian zones in Centro!); unless you are in training for the Tour de France, and you ride fearlessly along the twisting country roads.  I’ve not seen anyone ride as a commuter – and between the crazy drivers, the complete lack of shoulder (let along bike lanes), and the heat, I can understand why!

2)    Lingering over my coffee in casual and atmospheric cafes

Sure, I have no complaint about the coffee itself in Italy – in fact that will be one of the things on my list of things I miss from Italy!  But I do miss the comfortable informality of Toronto cafes – finding an armchair with a friend and a BIG mug of something hot, rather than hovering at the bar with a thimble for my caffeine fix.

3) The occasional cool-ish summer day

I used to despise the unpredictability of a summer in Toronto but after the onset of the non-stop intensity of Rome’s heat, I long for the temperature to let up, just a smidge.

4)    Options other than pizza, pasta and panino when you go out to eat.

OK, there are more options in Rome than that, but you have to seek them out.  I love and miss Toronto’s little ethnic villages and eclectic eateries!

Unfortunately I’ll not have long to enjoy as I am getting on a plane for Beijing on Tuesday for my new job!  But I’ll be back in a week…