Author Archives: PBH

Abduction in China!

If I don’t write this down now, no one is going to believe me. So here it is.

Anyone who’s ever flown into China from the US knows the hell flight. It’s 15 hours (in my case last night, 17 including the problems with the “baggage”) here, then, normally, a two hour drive to the hotel. This all in a timezone 180 degrees apart from where I come from. I am a veritable zombie when I finally get to my room.

So last night I get to the hotel. I forgot to arrange who would pick me up, but luckily our super-efficient Chinese business unit had left a message for me at reception that Daisy would collect me at 07:30 this morning, along with her cell number.

Our Chinese business unit has moved location and I know that there was some staff turnover that was associated with the move. I also know that some of the Chinese folk chose their English name – something that appeals to them, or is a close phonetic approximation to their native Chinese name. So there are quite a lot of people in the unit I haven’t yet met.

I try not to let my hosts wait, so this morning I was outside the hotel at 07:28. A chap I didn’t recognize walked up to me and asked “Paul?” – exactly on time. I didn’t recognize him, and unsure of his English ability, I asked in slow English “Where is Daisy?”. He said “She not come”. No problem, just glad I got picked up.

Off we go. My sense of direction is quite good and I quickly thought that we were headed in a direction which was not at all what I remembered, but with all of the building and roadworks in this city, I have been taken on so many routes to our offices that I didn’t think there was too much wrong. Also, the hotel is built on a lake, so one sometimes needs to go in all sorts of directions to get to the office.

My driver’s English was a lot better than my Chinese, but there is always a difficulty communicating, especially with my South African accent which the Chinese are not as used to. We were excitedly discussing my flight from the US, the length, that I had flown through Chicago, the timezone difference and what we were planning to do in operations today. He seemed to know his stuff. All the while I was becoming more concerned about my internal GPS telling me that I “should make a U-turn when safe to do so”.

About 15 minutes into the trip, my internal GPS got the better of me and I tentatively, and hesitantly (like a child asking their parent about an upcoming outing that may be cancelled if the weather is bad) asked my driver: “Where do you work?”

The look of abject horror on his face made me think I had just caused another international incident. He ripped his name badge out of the glove box and showed me the logo of a very large American company, also present in this section of China.

I then ripped my business card out of my wallet and he again gave me that horrified look when he saw I worked for a company he’d never even of heard of.

Just as we were making the U-turn to go back to the hotel, his phone rang. He answered it, and yes, on the line was the Paul he’d originally tried to collect.

What are the chances that two Paul’s agree to meet their collective hosts at 07:30 in front of a hotel, that both hosts know a “Daisy” and that perhaps both hosts’ “Daisy” was ill?

Anyway, when I got back to the hotel I met and explained the situation to the other Paul, and went and greeted my real host, who had been waiting for 30 minutes for me.

Not Stop Signs

Ok. I was born and raised in the “third world”. I was also raised to respect the rules of the road.

Numerous stints in Germany, France and other European countries have entrenched this way-of-life: if everyone follows the rules, no-one gets hurt. Since moving to the US, I have had this opinion strengthened immeasurably.

But this is not so in the third, or developing, world. I have yet to travel to any country not in the G8 where the word “stop”, written (mostly) in white on a red octagonal sign, has absolutely any visible meaning (clearly no enforceable meaning either).

It’s almost like it is offensive to stop. Something to be derided. It makes my life very distressing. If the car drivers have the right to ignore the stop at a pedestrian crossing, then is my right to cross the road lower? Will they stop? But what’s even more amazing is how the cars don’t seem to be in a constant fair-ground bumper car parade.

My ranking order for the worst nations at car driver rule following (from worst to best): Indian sub-continent drivers, South Africa, rest of Africa, China, Brazil, USA, Europe. (Note: South African drivers are probably the most dangerous drivers in the world as the rules they break are done with stupidity, arrogance and agression, but there are still some rules that are followed)

Driving in India can best be described as disorganised pandemonium, with a small touch of lucky telepathy. It seems that when approaching an intersection, it is necessary to tune into the minds of all other approachers and “feel” the rush they’re in. If they’re in more of a rush than I am, slow down and let them through. If not, I get right of way. And the worst thing is that it works.

Showers. 2.

What perversion of the mind besets the brains of bathroom designers? Surely, after a couple of hundred years of bathing, we, as a species, would have clearly defined rules about how to place a shower head.

Again it has happened to me in this hotel. I am so afraid of turning on the water to the shower and being blasted by an atomised spray of freezing water (usually enough to bounce off my arm and into my face) that when I turn on the shower, it is the same analogy of the snake catching spoken of in the other shower post. And it never works.

Come on guys. Place the shower head above the tap or faucet, and if you’re trying to make a design statement and absolutely need to place the thing somewhere else, give us hotel-livers a little stick with which to turn on the tap.

It’s almost the most stressful thing in my life to turn on the shower and see if I can outsmart the jet of water coming from some hidden orifice.

The Cold Shower

The other week I was at a hotel somewhere in the US. I had clearly chosen a poor time for my morning shower as I heard water flowing in the pipes in the walls of my room. This poor choice was accentuated when I turned on the water in the shower and only a strong, gushing, tepid stream came out. You know, the type that is just marginally colder than body temperature, the type that you wish for just a single degree warmer to make it bearable. I tried forcing the handle, turning it the other way, using harsh language on it, everything, the temperature did not change.

Side note: I cannot understand why the US has the taps (faucets) that do not allow the volume of water to be controlled. It is off, or on, and only the temperature can be adjusted. I can only think that it is a litigation thing – you must turn the control from cold to hot so that it is virtually impossible to scold oneself by having only the hot water on. Whatever the case, it is infantile, in my opinion. Like the warnings about the contents of coffee being hot. That’s like saying that when showering one could get wet.

Anyway, I waited for a long, long time, hoping stupidly that the temperature might increase. The gushing of water in the pipes (which I was acutely aware of) had already alerted me to the fact that this was not a problem with pipes between the furnace and jet of water emitting from wall in my bathroom needing to be heated up, this was a problem of there being no hot water in the hotel at all to heat up any pipes. It was also pointless phoning the front desk as I was sure they were not going to run outside and stoke fires on the incoming lines to sort the problem out – this was a problem that required more time to solve than I had available.

So, gritting my teeth, I stuck my arm in. Imagine someone trying to catch a venomous snake just below the head when it isn’t looking and half way in realising that the snake is turning his head. That quick – in, out. Lather up. To rinse off, more like the action of the drive rods on a steam engine, in-out-in-out in a blur.

This continued until I was approaching hypothermia. But my body was clean. (Ever notice how cold soap smells on the body?)

As I tried to turn the tap off, I got blasted by a jet of super-heated steam. It seems that there was some super-complicated sequence to get the hot water to come out, that I had not been educated in. Next time I will know better and do as most Americans would – phone the front desk and threaten to sue.

Taxi drivers. You pricks.

Anyone who have ever flown into Lyon in France, knows that it is a god-awful drive of something like 30 minutes from the airport to even the outskirts of the city. Our company always used taxis to get us from the airport to the client, who was located too far from the rail station to make it a practical alternative.

The first time I landed there, I confidently hailed a cab and gave him the address. Off we went and 60 Euros later he deposited me at the client. Meeting over, back to the airport. But the return trip only cost 35 Euros. What had happened is that the criminal fraudster that was driving the taxi on the inbound leg had intentionally driven around knowing I would have no way of knowing.

Not in the words of a former American president: Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

The next time I went to Lyon I was prepared. I confidently hailed a taxi. When I got in, I asked the taxi driver from which country he was originally (he was clearly not born in France). He told me Turkey. I then ripped my GPS out of my bag, plugged in the client’s address, changed the language to Turkish and told him to follow the directions. Taxi cost: 35 Euros.

Dangerous Words

My language tutors here warned me about a particularly dangerous problem with Spanish and Portuguese.

Apparently there is a word in Portuguese for “embarrass” that means “pregnant” in Spanish. Now, I can understand that in the past the one could lead to the other. However, one needs to be very careful when traveling around that one does not become cockily sure of one’s language skills and cause personal (and professional) embarrassment by basically saying that one is a promiscuous cross-dresser in a business context.

There is another problem though.

Don’t always trust the locals. The other morning I went to breakfast and saw the milk standing there with the following tag: leite quente. I knew from other places that leite means milk and asked the waiter what quente means. He, with confidence like Albert Einstein describing relativity, said “cold”. I try to make mental associations between words so I’ll remember them and associated quente with quench (to make cold).

A little later, I was on my way to get vinte cervejas and thought I’d toss in a little flair to show my host how far I’d come with the language. I put the quente at the end – vinte cerevejas quente I boldly told the waiter.

The effect was not what was anticipated. There was a stunned look on everyone’s face and that look of bewilderment that could be associated with finding out that one’s dog can actually speak.

I did notice this and asked what was wrong, only to be told that quente means “hot”. So now I make sure I ask two people the meaning of a word before making my mental maps.


Ok, so I’m now officially calling on the Illuminati to do something about the security at airports.

No, I’m not asking that security be stopped. I know it is a multi-billion dollar industry that will never be renounced no matter how overbearing or irrational it is in context of the tens of thousands of daily flights around the world. No matter how much additional time it adds to the already valueless activity of flying, it will forever remain with us. Thanks to those buffoons with box cutters and the other scorched scrotum chap, we’re forever more going to be treated like borderline suicide terrorists when trying to board an airplane.

No, I would like the Illuminati to please arrange a standard for the security checks at airports. For example:

  1. Is it necessary for one to remove one’s laptop from the bag – yes or no? There is now a laptop bag that folds open so one does not have to remove the laptop, but some security checks allow it and others not. Can we please have some consistency here?
  2. Is it necessary to remove one’s shoes? I have once been reprimanded in Germany for removing my shoes at a check. When I explained that they were steel toe-caps, I was told that I needed to put them back on and go through the metal detector and let it decide. WTF???? So I went through – of course the machine went into a panic about the amount of steel it had just detected, screaming so shrilly that everyone in the airport, and outside, simultaneously turned to glare at the source of the obviously detected threat. I was then told to go to the “unsecure” (not my words) side of the check and remove my shoes so they could be individually scanned. What the double fuck? When I came back through the metal detector, the same imbecile smiled at me with a sort of “thank you for your co-operation in making airline travel safer” way. I hope my expression back to him was somewhat less polite.
  3. Can I carry a lighter? If not, matches? I would like to understand the reason for the lighter ban. Really, is there a potential for me to cause some flight diverting emergency with something that cannot really melt solder, never mind burn through aluminium? Or is it some form of subtle anti-smoking thing? Or is it just the security people’s idiocy? In China I have been through some airports where no lighters are allowed, but inside the airport there are lighters chained to the wall in the smoking rooms, so I don’t think it’s the smoking thing. Instead of focusing on my lighter, perhaps you should force all 787 pilots to bring their batteries in for a check: that would be a far better way of preventing in-flight fires and emergencies.
  4. Why can I sometimes not carry my passport with me? While travelling there is only one thing that I never leave anywhere, except my top pocket or my hand – my passport. No matter what happens anywhere one might be, without one’s passport one is totally fucked. I don’t even willingly surrender it to the airline check-in clerk. So what is it about my passport that could be so dangerous that it must go through the super-Roentgen machines with my laptop?
  5. Do I, or do I not, need the sticker or tag marking the bag as hand baggage, and in any case, why do I need it? I am carrying the thing and it has made it though the security with me. If it were possible for me to get another bag from someone inside the “secure” section that had somehow smuggled it there, do you not then think that they’ve probably worked out how to get hold of the tag or sticker? WTF (again)? I have traveled through some airports in India where the order in which one receives the stickers for the 4 (four, quatro, vier) security checks is important. It’s like airport snakes and ladders – get it wrong and you go back to the start.
  6. In international airports, could we please get the most experienced officers to do the checking. I once landed in the US after a flight from South Africa via Europe and, as it is with all smokers, almost pushed the little old lady in front of me to the ground trying to get outside to smoke after the 10 or so hours without one. On coming back in for the security check for the domestic leg of the flight, the woman checking my boarding pass and identification flipped through my passport and then asked if I had “some form of US identification”. I’m not normally at a loss for words but this one threw me. Like total brain freeze. What does one say? I mean, I am showing you my passport precisely because I am in your country as a guest, as someone without any other form of identification. Fuck man, a passport is THE form of identification, above all others. I guppied there for a couple of moments not speaking. The dimwit took this as a sign of imminent danger and pressed the big red button in front of her, that started the rotation of the big red light above her desk and simultaneously the “burr-burr-burr” of the “danger imminent”  buzzer. When the supervisor arrived, she told him “this guy does not have US ID” – in a tone like I’d just been caught with 5 kilos of cocaine in my rectum. The supervisor gave her a look that I think was very similar to what mine must have been. To his credit, he apologised profusely to me and allowed me through, shook his head at Mrs Dunce and walked off.

There are more issues, but if we travelers could just get some standardisation of the above points, I for one, would be a lot less stressed when I fly. Surely by now all of the potential threats to airline safety have been identified and we could just all agree on the steps necessary to mitigate them. Even if the result is a nudity enforcement.

Thanks in advance.

To the American Businessman

To most American businessmen:

Thanks for destroying the assumption that all American visitors are arrogant, overbearing, loud mouths who travel the globe irritating the locals.

Most American business people, in my experience, are deferential in another country and realise they are the guests.

Thanks for this.

Oh yes, and to the traditional American tourist – shut up. Forcing your hosts to listen to your screaming between your group is not the way to garner any admiration or respect. Speak at the same level as your hosts (you’ll still be noticed, don’t worry).

PS: South Africans are to Africa what American’s are to the world. South Africans are arrogant, overbearing, loud and demanding when tourist-ing in Africa. Must be the “biggest economy in Africa” thinking that makes us think we are simply superior to those idiots in other African countries. Perhaps the “biggest economy on Earth” has a similar effect on American tourists.

Eye Test

What is it about understanding (or rather, a lack of understanding) that forces us to use more – more volume for conversational misunderstanding, or in my case, more font size for the written form of misunderstanding?

I’ve caught myself on a number of occasions doing it and am now consciously trying to stop it.

I studied in the days before CAD was the only way to draw. Long, long ago there were things that dispensed ink, and “lead” (actually graphite) onto big pieces of paper. One used rulers and other things called French curves and made projections and arrows by hand. One, of course, moved one’s hand in strange movements to write dimensions using said ink. I hated sloppy drawings and forced myself to change my handwriting until it looked like it was printed by a machine – the Queen Bee has on a couple of occasions told the kids to get me to write something for them because my handwriting is like a Word document print out.

Back to the other day. I was writing down the sequence of something that I needed done. About 10 letters into point 1 I realised that I was doing it: using the size 40 font because the guy I needed to run the tests couldn’t speak English well. Realising my mistake, I slowly reduced the font over the next couple of lines until it was down to normal size for me. Imagine an eye test chart in the optometrists room.

I was thoroughly brought down to earth about the error of my assumption a little later when the same chap was trying to explain the difference between two Portuguese words and wrote that the one word was a “substantive verb” while another was like a “past participle”, all written in a beautiful (small and evenly sized) cursive script.

The Whiskey Incident

I’ve told this story so many times I’m afraid I’m starting to embelish a little, so I want to write it down with the most accurate level of detail I can so that it can become a sort of “Calibration Standard” for me. Like a measuring tape, of sorts.

You see, the Queen Bee and I decided that South Africa was on a down-hill spiral of note and that for the sake of our two young children, it was imperative that we move to a country that is not proud of its title of “Rape Capital of the World”. There are a couple of other titles South Africa has, but they’re not absolute and so the government seems to be particularly proud (based on their willingness to not do something about the problem) of this title. The others are things like “Almost the Murder Capital of the World”, “Almost the Most Corrupt Country in Africa” (which is really quite an achievement), “Possibly the Most Racist Government in BRICS”. These titles just don’t have the finality, the power, of “Capital of the World”.

So we applied for Australian residency. We waited, and waited. It seemed nothing was happening. So we applied for New Zealand residency, and got it. In order to activate it, I needed to fly there before a certain date and get the visa stamped.

While I was searching for flights, I found a super-cheap fare that required me to leave on a Thursday afternoon, fly Johannesburg-Sydney, Sydney to Auckland, then spend two evenings there and then fly Auckland-Sydney and Sydney-Johannesburg. That was the plan.

On the Wednesday before my departure, we were in a management meeting and it was decided that I would need to go to Perth within a month. I suggested that we re-arrange my trip (for the following day) to just allow me to stop in Perth instead of Sydney on the way home. So said, so done. The itinerary was now:

Thu: depart Johannesburg 16:00
Fri: arrive Sydney, wait 3 hours, depart for Auckland, arrival at 23:50
Sat: depart Auckland 22:00, arrive Sydney. Depart Sydney for Melbourne, then onto Perth, arriving at 18:00.
Sun: Perth
Mon: morning meeting, depart Perth for Johannesburg at 16:00
Tue: arrive Johannesburg 06:00, go to work.

5 days, 6 flights. Flying time of about 36 hours.

Eventually on the Monday evening, after the meeting, I was so fucked I could almost not speak. I won’t be surprised if there was a small stream of drool coming out of both corners of my mouth. How I navigated to my seat I don’t know, but here I was, visa stamped and business meeting complete. A success. Triumphant. I noticed that the flight was particularly full, but I was fortunate to have the window seat, right at the front of economy = first for drinks, closest to the bathroom, able to fart with impunity.

In those days one could still charm the air-hostess for “more than the normal” drinks. When the cart came around, I asked very nicely if I could swap the ice in the glass for more whiskey. A fair trade I thought. The hostess obliged and gave me 4 of the little bottles – I think that’s like 8 tots, or 200ml. Sleep I was going to on this flight.

Sometimes when I nod off, I wake with a start. It’s usually accompanied by wild arm flailing, my arms horizontal and flapping like Icarus. A zombie on speed.

Well, this time I nodded off with the full glass of whiskey in my paw. I was so tired I hadn’t even had a sip. The problem was that my first waking zombie flail was in an arc upward to my shoulder, then a rapid stop and arms flailing down. The whiskey, however, did not want to follow the down motion and continued on over my shoulder for about 5 rows. Some of it even ended up on the overhead consoles of the rows behind me. So, for the rest of the flight, 5 rows of window seated passengers, reeking like homeless drunks, drenched in whiskey were subjected to Chinese water torture using whiskey dripping from an overhead console more normally used to dispense oxygen during cataclysms.

I made sure I was first off the plane after we’d landed.