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Stories from the Road Part 3

Happy Valley, Shen Zhen, China, October, 2009


 China is... different.  Being here, on the other side of the world, is really, really different from being in the States. Start with the fact that we're fifteen hours ahead, so the first few days, our body clocks were all turned around... Uh, pardon me while I take a nap right here on the floor, under this table, would you?

 Part of the difference is obvious.  The language is a strange sing-song of sounds that are awkward in the mouth, "szh"s and "ehr"s.  The one phrase I've completely mastered is "sheh sheh" which means thank you, if your inflection is right.  I've also been working on "Bu yao faong wei zing" which means "no msg, please," because it's in everything here.....  But listen, really, if your inflection falls when it should rise, or rises when it should fall, you could be saying something very, very different.. (what's that, you want extra msg? ok.)  For every syllable, there are four different possible intonations, with four corresponding different meanings.  It's baffling to me, and I'm someone who can usually pick up a new language fairly quickly.  They say a polyglot is someone who speaks four or more languages, one who speaks three is tri-lingual, one who speaks two is bilingual, and one who only speaks one is American...  I consider myself something of an exception to that rule, my Hebrew, Spanish and American Sign Language are passable, and I can make myself understood in French as long as I can use pantomime to help.... but Chinese? Well, do you mean Mandarin? Cantonese? Or perhaps one of the other *eighty* languages spoken in this country??  So, yeah, communication is challenging.


We have a translator.  Her name is Ella.  She's a lovely young woman, who is employed by the company we're here working for, the Overseas China Town Real Estate Development Conglomerate.  They own the all of the theme parks called "Happy Valley."  There are four of them, currently, in Shanghai, ChengDu, Beijing, and here in ShenZhen (also spelled ZhanJiang).  The company plans to open three more in the coming years.  For now, we're in the GuangDong province, in the southernmost part of the country, actually pretty close to the equator... so it's hot. And humid.  And sticky.  And rainy.  Did I mention that the back of the theater is open-sided?


 ...You try wearing a full mask with feather boas for hair and tiny eye slits to breathe through and see if your eyeliner melts.  Mine does.


Right, so anyway, Ella has been tremendously helpful in dealing with our employers, and in helping us get around.  The hotel we're staying in (the HongBo) is within walking distance from Happy Valley, just up the hill and around the corner.  It's a nice enough hotel; we're in a non-smoking room with a king size bed.  We've got a regular Western toilet in our room, as opposed to a little trough in the floor, like most of the public restrooms have.  On the first night, I noticed our shower door. It has a little sticker on it that says "Carefully slip and fall down." Hmmm.


We're well within earshot of the theme park; we can hear people screaming as their version of the Big Shot goes up and down.  Every five minutes or so, a woman's voice, live, sings the first two lines of "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" in Mandarin, over and over and over again.  It's positively maddening. Just down the street is a lovely little park, with lots of bamboo, a small lake, some pebbled stone paths and a fountain.  When we walk by, in the mornings, we see people doing tai chai, or juggling, or doing a Latin dance class.  Apparently, salsa dancing is getting big in China.  Just down the street is the Starbucks, and yeah, Wal-Mart is right around the corner, and so is KFC....  There are a few other restaurants and other coffee shops nearby, and a large shopping mall, which is always deserted.  When we walked by a restaurant at the entrance to the mall the entire staff was sitting at the tables in the window, with their heads down on their folded arms, napping. It looked like a bad case of sudden, deadly food poisoning had struck.  Let's not eat there.


Well, what is there for a vegetarian to eat in China?  How about rice noodles and boiled greens? Maybe noodles?  Some greens, perhaps?  I know, how about some noodles and greens?  Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but it's been kind of rough for a health food person like me.  Unfortunately, the concept of "pesticide-free" is unknown here.  I haven't been able to discern a word for "organic," and I'm wary of eating factory farmed eggs or dairy, so there you go.  Pass the noodles, thanks.


We flew into Hong Kong, which is just across the South China Sea from Shen Zhen.  We drove across the border, late at night after our arrival and got settled into the hotel.  Then, there were three days of rehearsals.  It can be difficult to get people to cooperate when you can't communicate easily with them.  The theater doesn't seem to have any work-lights backstage, which makes it difficult to set things up, when you can't see anything.  We spent a futile amount of time trying to get clip lights... and finally settled on two giant flashlights, but it's far from ideal.  You know, our show has a fairly large number of lighting and sound cues, which are pretty important to our presentation.  For instance, if the lights don't go down when the little flower shadow starts to grow all by itself inside the giant drum, the audience misses a lovely moment of magic, again.  Oh well, no magic for you, ha-ha.  Our technical rehearsal took over eight hours... but finally, all the cues were written, and we started the run of shows.


This whole week is a magic festival, at all of the Happy Valleys.  Here, along with us, there is Sergei & Oxana, (a Russian quick-change act), RuXian (a Chinese lady-magician), Jorges (a German manipulator) and Omar Pasha (a French black-light act).  Each of the other acts does about ten minutes, and we close the show with our forty-five minute set.  In the same theater, every day at 5pm, there is a show called "Making Happy."  What makes happy?  How about 120 dancers onstage?  They do a number where they're all exercising, followed by a fashion show, followed by a martial arts display, a tribute to the historical crafts of china, an array of workers in uniform, and a heartfelt rendition of the Chinese national anthem. In between, there are skateboarders, bicyclists, roller skaters, bungee jumpers, trapeze artists, hula hoopers, and strap acts.  It's quite a spectacle.  Very big.  Made me happy, sure.


For real, though, one of the most important things that makes me happy is my family... and there was no mention or reference to family in that whole show.  China has a "one child per family" rule.  Ok, well, if your child dies in an earthquake, you're allowed to have another one, but otherwise, only one... which means this is a society where every child grows up with six adults doting on them.  Mommy, Daddy, and both sets of grandparents.  They have no brothers, no sisters, no aunts or uncles or cousins.  Perhaps that's why every adult is called "auntie" or "uncle."  Perhaps why they're not so good about the concept of sharing, or taking turns, or not pushing in line.  Perhaps that's part of why the women often walk arm in arm in the streets.... yes, it's different here.


The Chinese audiences seem to love our show.  They clap a lot, more than most audiences do. They'll clap at anything.  (Here's my elbow, ta-dahh!)  They also talk a lot, all throughout the show. Yesterday, one lady was standing up on the side of the audience, yelling to her ...friend? husband? kid? who must have been half way across the theater, in the middle of the show. Oh, pardon me, was our performance interrupting your yelling??


Anyhow, we have one more show tonight, and then we're getting picked up early in the morning to begin our journey home.  I'm grateful that the shows have gone so well, that everyone on our team has had a good time, and stayed healthy, and that the air conditioning in our hotel room works reasonably well.  China.... what a trip!




TALES FROM TRINIDAD............................................June 2012


Greetings all…


We have returned from our whirlwind trip to Trinidad, and I thought I would share a little of what we experienced there, for your vicarious pleasure.  So, grab a cup of your favorite beverage and come for a little journey to the southernmost island of the Caribbean, Trinidad!


We flew in on a Friday night, and left early on a Monday morning, and had to load in and tech our magic show, perform two shows, pack everything up and load out, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time for sight-seeing.  The hotel we stayed at was a Holiday Inn Express, exactly like any other one of the hotels in this chain, with the only difference being that between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning, the water would be off, as that’s when the filtration system refreshes.  Remember, Trinidad is an island, surrounded by salt water.  The nearest mainland is Venezuela, seven miles away.  There are lots of “please conserve water” signs in the public restrooms.


Our driver, Blaise, was waiting for us past the glass doors, once Jeff had paid the “extra fee” (surprise!) for a visa, and we cleared customs.  Doing a little magic trick for the inspections officer always seems to help speed us through the process.  Magic is a universal human language, nearly guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of someone who sits under fluorescent lights eight hours a day, stamping papers…. We always ask though, “Do you like magic?” because once, in Kenya, we asked and the up-until-that-moment smiling man told us, in no uncertain terms, that magic was evil and that he didn’t like it at all…. Ok, we’ll just slide those cards back into the pocket, hmm?  But here, in Trinidad, magic isn’t perceived as evil, and the nice man continued to smile, stamped our papers and sent us through.


Both Jordan Wright (Jeff’s assistant and film-maker) and Tobias Beckwith (our manager and lighting designer) were with us on this trip, and their help was invaluable.  Jordan has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and knowing what is needed, almost before we do.  So on Saturday, about four hours before the show, he was off into the local markets, on a quest to find lighter fluid for our fire props with Blaise, while Tobias, Jeff and I waited for the stage to be completed, the lights to be focused, the wings to be built, and tried not to melt in the heat.  They didn’t have headsets for any kind of communication between the technicians and the stage area, so we were extremely grateful to have Tobias running our lights, as he’s been working with us for decades, and knows the show inside out.  It would have been a very difficult show without him.


Trinidad has two seasons, hot and dry, and hot and wet.  We were there during the rainy season, and it rained at least three times a day, which you might think would help with the humidity, but you’d be wrong.  In our show, I perform a straitjacket escape.  Once, and only once, in a high heat and humidity situation, I got stuck and nearly didn’t make it out in time.  So, I was a little nervous about this number.  For our Saturday evening show, I managed to pull it off (literally)… but for the Sunday matinee, I knew there would be trouble.  I was having enough of a challenge just changing my costumes backstage, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move enough to escape, so, in the middle of the show, through a smile and without moving my lips, I told Jeff “We’re not doing the jacket…” and then made it a point to let Tobias and the sound technician know that we were skipping that number.  I don’t think anyone missed it, and I was glad to avoid the possibility of being badly embarrassed in front of 2,500 people.


The auditorium was huge.  They call it the Center for Excellence.  The excellent air conditioning system is a few big fans way up in the ceiling.  Our excellent dressing room was a tent set up in the back of the hall, with two excellent plastic wardrobe racks, which promptly fell over when we tried to hang costumes on them….  But, as they say in Trinidad, “no problem!”  We were able to get the hangers through the tent poles, creative problem solving 101.


One of my very favorite moments from this gig was during the sound check, when I brought out my frame drum and started playing through the sound system.  All the guys who had been building the stage and hanging the curtains started dancing and grooving, up on the ladders, under the stage, along the aisles.  That was a moment to remember.


Trinidad is called the Land of the Hummingbirds, and although we didn’t happen to see any of the little guys buzzing through the auditorium, they are stamped on the pennies, so I was able to bring a couple of them home with me.  Trinidad is also home to the scarlet ibis, but they only nest in one part of the island, and we weren’t able to get to see them this time.  I did get a magnet with a picture of one on it, so that will have to do for now.


The people mostly speak English in Trinidad, but it’s a sort of a patois with a heavy accent, and required us to ask people to repeat themselves frequently.  There was a comedy duo of sorts who went on during the intermission.  He wore a baseball cap, and she carried a twig broom, which she would hit him with from time to time; I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, but the audience seemed to like them a lot.


Being a vegetarian while traveling is often a challenge for me.  Blaise thought we would prefer to eat American food, so we ended up eating food from Subway and Pizza Hut, which was, predictably, partly to mostly cloudy… When we asked to go to a “nice restaurant,” they offered to take us to Ruby Tuesday.  We asked where the local people went to eat after work, and they brought us to a sports bar for a late dinner after the first show…  which didn’t really meet my need for healthy, vegetarian local food. The other restaurant, (which, granted, had some terrific live music) only had one vegetarian choice.  Apparently there are other options, a breakfast called doubles, which is some sort of egg sandwich concoction, a chana dish made from chickpeas and a roti, which is rather like a burrito of sorts, but we didn’t get to sample any of those.  We were advised to be very careful around the pepper sauce, and to “go slightly” on it.  Pepper sauce on a veggie subway sub doesn’t do much to improve it, I’m afraid.


One of the props we use in our show is an arm from a doll.  When we got to the venue, Jeff couldn’t find this prop.  So, in addition to lighter fluid, Jordan was hunting for a baby doll, preferably a Caucasian one…. Now, in Trinidad the Caucasian people make up .5% of the population.  The rest are Caribe Indians, Africans, West Indians and Asians. It was interesting to be one of a very few white faces there in an ocean of shades of brown, and it made me realize how interesting it might be for some of my friends of color to be the only non-white face in a pale sea.  Jordan wasn’t able to find a doll that would work, but Blaise (not really understanding that the doll would be going through an amputation process) said we could borrow his daughter’s doll.  The doll’s leg had accidentally gotten broken off on the way to the theater, and once Jeff tore off her arm, she was looking to be in in pretty bad shape.  Blaise told us that he had been teasing his daughter, telling her that her doll was a star in a show she didn’t even get to see…  So, we arranged some tickets for him and his family.  Ours was the very first theater show they had ever seen in their lives, and they enjoyed it tremendously.  After the last show, Jeff got busy with the gaffers tape, and was able to reattach the doll’s limbs, adding a fancy bikini type of outfit made of tape….  We all signed the doll for his daughter, who was thrilled with the improvements.  Phew!


There is nothing quite like the feeling of thousands of people applauding for you.  There is nothing quite like the look on a child’s face when a bubble suddenly becomes solid in their hand… and there is nothing quite like Jeff’s face when he’s doing what he loves, performing onstage.  I feel so blessed and lucky to be able to share this part of life with him, and with you.




<< Stories from the Road Part 2