Sunday, September 20, 2015

Update: a day in the VIP lounge at GRU, and a bit of a surreal experience

Because of my stupid mistake, I spent the day in the business class lounge at GRU airport.  I guess there's worse places to spend the day, like the deportee detention room, which i wrote about in my previous post.

I talked to my host here, and we decided that since at least 1 of my talks was already prepared, I could record it right here using my webcam, he could play the recording while I'm in flight, and (if all goes well) I land at SFO just in time to do live q&a.  (Unexpected problems require creative solutions.)

So i found a quiet area of the lounge, changed into my Cal polo shirt, recorded myself giving the talk in picture-in-picture mode overlaid on the PPT slides (using the same software I use for MOOC recordings) - that took a couple of hours at least - and exported the video and uploaded to YouTube over the painfully slow Wifi.  Within one minute  of that finishing, the airport security people showed up with my passport to inform me that from now on I'd have to be escorted everywhere, until the moment they escorted me into the actual jetway (strange, since I was unsupervised all day in the VIP lounge).  But since my flight doesn't even start boarding for another hour, one of the security people offered to stay here with me so I wouldn't have to wait at the gate.

So this is surreal.  On the one hand, the security person gets to enjoy the VIP lounge for an hour.  She can't drink on the job, but she's certainly helping herself to the food bar, which isn't too bad.  When I move from the bar to the dining area, so does she.  When I pee, she waits outside the bathroom door.  It's weird because I'm technically still in the part of the airport that is outside of customs, i.e., I'm not actually in the country.

She's not actually reading what I type, but is sitting right next to me, chowing on blue cheese and a fruit salad and mineral water.  I tried to get a picture of Penguin with her, but she was cheerfully adamant that pictures of her are prohibited.  Surreal.  But I did manage to get this clandestine candid when she went for dessert.

So, I guess it is what it is, and I will continue to hydrate myself with VIP-lounge-house-brand vodka until my flight boards.  I invited her to join me in a round, but no go.  But at least it helps take this whole thing in stride.  

Next stop Newark.  Hopefully the rest of this trip will be uncomplicated…

Postscript:  I did indeed land at SFO in time—actually a bit early, since I was able to stand by on an earlier connection flight home, at the expense of a much less comfortable seat—so I arrived at my house, freshened up briefly, and conducted a lively 30-minute Q&A via Google Hangouts with an audience who had just watched my talk on YouTube.  I'd call that a successful recovery.

I got to spend time with deportees today

Well, this is a first for me.

I arrived at Sao Paulo airport early this morning as part of a whirlwind lecture tour, having just spent a week in three different cities in Spain.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize that US citizens need an advance visa to enter Brazil (and it cannot be issued or purchased on arrival), and my host had forgotten to tell me.

So I was refused entry to the country.  ("You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.")

First, of course, I was taken to the little room where the customs police are.  I learned various things (fortunately the customs guy spoke good Spanish, because most people at the airport didn't speak much English if any). First, there are no exceptions to the rule of having a visa on arrival, not even by calling the US consulate (which I did). Brazil has a "reciprocity law" where if some country requires Brazilians to have a visa to enter, then Brazil requires citizens of that country to have a visa to come here.  Second, the airline that flew me into Brazil (Iberia, coming from Madrid) was partially responsible because they were supposed to have verified at check-in time that I had the necessary documents to enter the country they were taking me to (which they obviously didn't).

"Responsible" means they are also financially responsible for getting me back out of the country, but technically, only for getting me back to where they flew me from, not from where I actually needed to go.  Since I certainly didn't want to go back to Madrid, I called United, changed my return flight, and am hoping I can get the $600 price difference (United was nice enough to waive the change fee) back from Iberia.

I figured that the one saving grace would be that in a splurge of last-minute indulgence, I had paid a significant amount to upgrade my flight from Madrid to Brazil to business class, so that I could get a good night's sleep (which I did) and be ready to work today.  I figured that would entitle me to use the business class lounge in Sao Paulo airport, where I'd clearly have to spend the day, since my flight is not until 9pm and I had arrived at 6am.

But this is where it got more interesting.  This whole time I'd been in the customs area; now I had to be taken to the "no man's land" for people who haven't cleared customs, until it could be sorted out with Iberia whether I could use the VIP lounge or not.  Mind you, we're not talking about the transit lounge: it's the place where people being detained, deported, etc. are held, including people who were kicked out of the transit lounge because they didn't have the proper visa to continue on to wherever they were going.

It is a cheerless room containing a bathroom, two water fountains, and not enough seats.  As you can see, some people had clearly been there a while.

Some people were sleeping on blankets and had clearly been there for hours or overnight.  A couple were praying on blankets, having oriented them in the direction I assume Mecca must be.  Most were on smartphones; every wall outlet had something plugged in.

I figured I might as well be friendly, and I learned some interesting stories.  Narendra Singh and some of his friends from the Punjab had been on their way to Ecuador, but Ecuador didn't let them into the country (they still don't know why, since they had visas) so they were sent back and were now awaiting the ability to get home.  Michael from Liberia was enroute to Mexico, but at the transit lounge they had pulled him aside and sent him here; I wasn't quite sure why.  He had lived in the US and spoke perfect American English.

Suleiman and Neru (photo) are refugees from Bangladesh trying to gain asylum in Brazil. But something was wrong with their refugee documentation, and they were waiting for an immigration lawyer to come to the airport to help them.  Their English wasn't as strong but they made themselves understood to me.  Unfortunately, almost nobody at the airport here speaks much English; my Spanish is pretty useful, but if English was my only language, navigating a problem here wouldn't be trivial.

Nonetheless, everyone was of good cheer, smiling, friendly, and incredulous that I was in there with them.  Suleiman insisted on becoming Facebook friends, and I couldn't really say no.

Penguin was just bemused at the whole thing.

Eventually an Iberia agent came and pulled me out of the "holding pen" to transfer me to the VIP lounge. (Although they are still holding my passport hostage until my flight boards—I guess they want to make sure I don't use it for anything except leaving their country—and I had to sign a statement saying I understood why I was being kicked out.)  The lounge is certainly an improvement—I'm going to try to record my lectures here and provide the videos to my host, there is food, I was able to get a shower, it's reasonably quiet, and they even have some cots for sleeping.  And while this is an inconvenience for me—I have to fly home overnight, via Newark—Suleiman et al. are still in the holding pen, which puts things in perspective.

For an update of what happened next, go here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A night and a day in Hong Kong

After yesterday's Disney adventure, I had a bunch of work to do, after which I was ready to reward myself with dinner.  So back to the MTR station to head downtown.  This photo doesn't do justice to scale, but this is the elevator tower and passageway that leads from the HKU campus to the MTR station.  The tower shaft is about 10 stories tall and ends in this walkway connecting you to the HKU campus area.  Below ground, the tower extends 10 more stories, for a total of 100 meters of length, because since HKU is on a hill the actual station tunnel is deep underground.  I wonder what happens when the elevator power goes out.
Thanks to Yelp, I found a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui with a million-dollar view—kind of a hipster upscale bar—and amazingly I scored one of the few tables on the outdoor terrace!  I got to talking with a young couple from Singapore at the adjacent table, who had been in Macau to a trade show for companies that sell casino gaming machines. We talked about world economics, Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew's death, and the future of Asia.  Then later as they were leaving, a couple of British-born Indian guys from London, one of whom had just retired from the "financial engineering" industry (computer-aided short-term trading) and was burned out and taking a break in HK deciding what to do next, took over the table so I bugged them too.  All in all, I had a couple hours' worth of the great conversations I love so much as part of traveling in a foreign country.

Today was mostly given over to work, but I did take a 1-hour study break to go downtown and walk around Sheung Wan, where there is a concentration of stores and stalls that sell dried seafood and other weird things.  Penguin was vaguely amused.
Now that's the kind of business I can get behind—Ox Gallstone Business!

And they also sell dried sea cucumbers.

Aw shucks, they're closed.  I could've used a swallow nest.

Free samples? Drying out the merchandise? We don't know. "Twists of meat" is the best description of the middle platter I could come up with.  I have no idea what the others are.

After some afternoon meetings we had dinner with the Dean—a very nice guy who's only been here 3 years, and was previously Dean of Engineering at Case Western, and before that the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at UC Davis while also holding a faculty appointment at Berkeley (he's a Cal grad—Go Bears!).  We went to a fancy-ish "Pekingese" restaurant with a fixed menu of N courses of two bites each.  The last time I was here, most of those bites were disgusting, but this meal was fine with the exception of the appetizer—pickled pig knuckles and raw jellyfish (or as they distressingly call it here, "sea blubber").

What the hell.  I still love Hong Kong and everyone here has a sense of humor about stuff like that.  Looking forward to a couple of days of strenuous work, though if I get any kind of break tomorrow I'd like to briefly check out the famous electronics flea market in Sham Shui Po.

For now, it's time to watch the amazing lightning and thunderstorm happening right outside my window.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Penguin visits Hong Kong Disneyland

Everyone wanted to go
When the travel penguins heard I was going to Hong Kong and would get one free day to spend at HK Disneyland, they all wanted to go, but I insisted there was only room for one.

Since Texas and Facelift had been on the most recent trips—Texas went to Disneyland Anaheim, and Facelift had been to Asia with Emily—I decided it was Travel's turn.

We get real food. Penguin liked the scallops, but the lettuce in the salad was lame.
Penguin wanted to play blackjack on the inflight entertainment console

As it turns out, we landed with a 4-hour delay…severe weather at HKG was causing 1.5-hour arrival delays, and we didn't have enough fuel to be in a holding pattern that long, so we had to land at Taipei to refuel, and when we finally landed in HKG, there were 25 planes ahead of us in line to get a gate.  So I got to my hotel room about midnight.  I'm staying in a housing building for academic guests, faculty and students, so it's very basic accommodations but comfortable (modulo the Asian preference for rock-hard beds, which I'd forgotten about) and right on campus.

View of Central from my window. HKU is on a hill, like most of HK. The fog is actually mist: it's 85 degrees and100% humidity here, even at night, and it's always about to rain
I had brought hybrid swim trunks/shorts and Birk-alikes for the day at Disney. I was a bit hesitant as to whether this would be appropriate on-campus attire, but in the student dining hall of my residence (Robert Black College, where "College" is used in the English sense of "living unit") there were almost as many Westerners as Asians, and both students and faculty alike were dressed this way.  HKU is like any California college but with a lot of Asians.  In other words: like any California college.  

After breakfast, it was a short walk to the brand-new MTR (rail) station on HKU.  Imagine putting a BART station at the top of Grizzly Peak by having the trains stop in the Caldecott Tunnel and having a tall elevator shaft to get you out. That's the HKU MTR station.  It's like the 168th St. station on the C train, but clean and well-lit.  It was only about a 40-minute ride to Disneyland, including a connection at Sunny Bay to a dedicated train that shuttles between that station and the Disneyland station.
The Disneyland connecting train has Mickey-shaped windows…

…and Disneyana decorating the interior
The MTR station drops you literally at the main entrance of Disneyland; they have parking but it's super expensive and I don't see why anyone would drive there given the convenience of the train.
This is what you see when you exit the MTR station

Main Street USA
Once inside the park gates, the layout is a lot like Disneyland USA.  Main Street USA looks very similar.  But as you can see, unlike Anaheim or Orlando, Lantau Island is mountainous, and most views within the park include these mountains, which turns out to be kind of cool.

Near the top of Main Street USA

Sleeping Beauty Castle is small, even compared to Anaheim's

Once you arrive at the castle, the layout is very similar to Anaheim: Fantasyland is behind the castle, Tomorrowland is to the right, Adventureland is to the west.  There's no Frontierland (more on that later); and there are two lands absent from other Disney parks, Toy Story Land and Mystic Point.

The entry gate attendants told us the weather was "unstable" and advised us to hit the outdoor attractions first.  (When severe weather hits, the outdoor attractions often shut down.)  So we headed first for the World Famous Jungle River Cruise [sic], which has narration in three languages—English, Cantonese and Mandarin.  There are three queues and you line up to get a boat in your language; the queues are managed so that the wait is the same even if the language demand is different.

Of course we chose an English guide, but his accent was so thick and the PA speaker so distorted that we might as well have gone with the Cantonese group.

The basics of the attraction are the same as Disneyland, but what's weird is experiencing it as a "straight" ride, without the cornball humor that has become the ride's USA trademark. This version also has a neat scene at the end where the god of fire and god of water duke it out with some fire effects, water splashes and smoke machines.  Otherwise, the scenes and audio-animatronics would be familiar to a US rider.

The river goes around Tarzan Treehouse Island.  There is no Tom Sawyer Island or steamboats, because there are no popular-culture referents here for those things.  The treehouse itself is suspiciously similar to the Swiss Family treehouse, so I skipped it; the rest of the island is off-limits.

This park is smaller in area than Anaheim, though not a lot smaller.  But what's really striking is how few rides there are—I arrived shortly after 10am opening, and by 3pm I had done everything.  (It's low season, so I walked onto most rides.)  I was surprised how many "staples" were missing: no Matterhorn, Pirates, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad, Splash Mountain.  I'm not sure if that's for cultural reasons or other reasons.  Most of the space that is taken up by more rides in Anaheim is instead handed over to scenery here: for example, notice how lush the vegetation is as we leave Adventureland.

Next it was on to Grizzly Gulch, Hong Kong Disneyland's substitute for Frontierland.  There is no Frontierland here because there's no mythology to hang it on; Grizzly Gulch is more similar to the "national park themed" area of California Adventure, and the big mountain that is the centerpiece of the Runaway Mine Cars ride looks a lot like the fictitious Grizzly Mountain in California Adventure. The premise is that it's an abandoned mining town where only the grizzly bears remain, and they get into all kinds of trouble.

The town was also "accidentally" built over natural geysers, which form a water play area for the young'uns.  (There's a number of water-themed play areas with sprinklers and fans, as you might expect for a park in a subtropical climate.)
Entering Grizzly Gulch.  The spires in the background are Mystic Manor
The Runaway Mine Cars is a very cool new ride that looks a lot like Big Thunder, but has a much more intricate ride system that resembles that of Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom.  The roller coaster effectively has three sections—one where you have mild thrills, another where you experience part of the ride backwards, and a third that launches you horizontally using a linear-induction motor.  It was a fun and effective ride and we went a couple of times.

As an interesting side note, the thrills and "woohoos" and hands-in-the-air that are common on US thrill rides are absent here.  The three times I ended up seated next to someone on a thrill ride, they closed their eyes in agony and held on for dear life.  It was kind of weird.

Adjacent to Grizzly Gulch is Mystic Point, a themed land with no real counterpart in US Disney parks, whose signature attraction is Mystic Manor.  It's clearly inspired by the Haunted Mansion, but given the Chinese views on ghosts and the afterlife, an attraction themed around ghosts would be tacky and inappropriate.  But even the anteroom has the octagonal shape of the "elevator room" in HM—although in this ride it's just a staging area where you get to hear the ride's premise, but it's not an elevator.
The exterior of Mystic Mansion

The premise here is that the eccentric archaeologist Professor Mystic and his pet monkey Albert (a dead ringer for Abu in Aladdin, right down to the fez) have traveled the world and brought back interesting artifacts, most recently an enchanted music box the makes inanimate objects come to life when the music plays.  The monkey opens the box, and the ride unfolds.

The ride raises Disney to a new level in two ways.  One is the combination of projection, lasers, and animation to create special effects for the artifacts that come to life; it's a cool hybrid of audio-animatronics and the kind of technology in the Harry Potter Hogwarts castle queue at Universal Studios.

The other is the ride technology. The cars are similar to Doom Buggies in the Haunted Mansion, but there's no track.  They glide on a smooth floor that has sensors embedded in it that direct the car to move and rotate. This allows the premise that each car is being taken on a "tour" of the mansion: the cars enter different rooms in the house and stay there for 5-10 seconds as animations unfold; during the animations the cars may stand still for a few seconds, rotate in place, or rotate and move around within the room, depending on what's most theatrically appropriate for that scene. 

Because there is no track, the cars' paths can cross over each other, different cars can go into different rooms (some parts of the ride have two different but parallel rooms), and cars can execute complex choreography within a room. For example, there's one room where four cars enter, the door closes behind the fourth car (there's another copy of the room for the next 4 cars to enter), the four cars do a little ballet around the room's centerpiece, rotating about their axes teacup-style as they go around the room, then another door opens and the 4 cars follow each other out.  I rode two or three times and the car's motions were somewhat different each time, so I suspect the software for this ride system gives some freedom in introducing nondeterminism into the ride, which was cool.  All in all this was probably the coolest thing that was different from the US parks, and I'm sure we will soon see rides in the US parks that use this ride system, which apparently was pioneered by a different attraction at Tokyo Disneyland.

Where to next?

The entrance to Toy Story Land

Penguin and Mr. Potato Head
Our next stop was Toy Story Land; apparently Toy Story is huge here, and this themed land does a nice job of reducing you to the size of a toy in Andy's room along with the other toys.  It's very light on rides, though: there is a "himalaya ride" themed around Slinky the dog, a "hot wheels racer" ride where you go back and forth on a "HotWheels track" a la Montezuma's Revenge but without the loop, and a Toy Soldier Parachute Drop that's basically a child-friendly version of real freefall rides (but it isn't real freefall).  Below is my attempt to take a couple of quick panoramas from the top of the parachute drop.
Toy Story Land from the top of the Parachute Drop.  The greenery and mountains make the setting quite dramatic and very different from Orlando or Anaheim.

A hurried panorama. You can just barely see Space Mountain in the background.
Based on the park's geography, the next logical place to go was Fantasyland.  It's a small world is very similar to the Anaheim version but the queue is inside.  I got a boat all to myself because Asians appeared incapable of following the simple instruction "Use both queues" (even though it was presented in 3 languages)—they all lined up in a single big queue, like penguins, leaving the other queue totally empty.  I followed the instructions and loaded immediately. I noticed this behavior throughout the park: whenever there were multiple choices as to which line to get in, most people followed everyone else, leaving at least one of the lines empty for foreign devils like me.  Between that behavior and the "single rider line" for some rides, I had very few waits.
Approaching the entrance to it's a small world. Again, note how relatively sparse the park is. I wonder if it's because Hong Kong is so crowded that a park that spreads out the crowds and the stuff is part of the appeal.

Penguin and I got our own boat

Travel wanted to replicate Texas's photo. He doesn't understand it either
One difference from the Anaheim version is that there's relatively more emphasis on Asia, including a diorama of the Hong Kong skyline, and that the entrance to the Americas room features the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ferry Building (which I wasn't able to snap a photo of in time).  The bridge is an understandable choice, but I was surprised to see the Ferry Building featured!

No Disney visit would be complete without character photos.  In HK Disneyland there is a section called Fantasy Gardens that has nice landscaping and a whole bunch of pavilions with Disney characters.  There are a couple of stations throughout the park for character photos, but mostly they are concentrated here, perhaps in keeping with the Asian obsession with taking lots of photos.  (If Orlando's Magic Kingdom is Scooter Nation, then this park is Selfie Stick Nation.  I'm not sure which is worse.)

Pooh Bear is one of my favorites and didn't have a long line, so that's where we went.  I tried to put my arm around Pooh and give him a hug, as I had done two weeks before at Disneyland, and Pooh very firmly removed my arms and folded them in front of my chest.  Really.  I wonder if there is something about body contact that is considered gauche here, but I saw this happen to a Chinese family too.  I also tried to get him to hold Travel Penguin, as Anaheim-Pooh had been happy to do, but no dice—he pushed my hand away.  Maybe my Pooh was just a sociopath—I don't know.
Pooh looks playful and coquettish, but inside the suit, he was all don't you fucking touch me
A "boutique" guide book I'd purchased on my Kindle ("boutique" means it lacked an editor or proofreader) suggested I take in the Golden Mickeys, a live stage show originally developed for Disney Cruise Lines and then adapted for presentation in a cavernous 1000-seat theater.  It's a variety show combining costumed and non-costumed live singers and dancers performing various well-known Disney songs.  This was kind of a cultural experience: the narration was in Cantonese with English and Mandarin subtitles, but the songs were all sung in English with Chinese subtitles!  The dialogue continuity was ludicrous, even by cruise ship standards.  I can only hope that the English translations were partly responsible for mutilating the original text.  ("And now Disney's tribute to friendship."  Really?  That's the best dialogue continuity you could come up with as a prompt for singing "You've Got a Friend in Me"?)

The one bright spot in the otherwise saccharine presentation was Under the Sea, which was staged with a combination of full-size human-operated stage puppets (Sebastian), an aerialist (the floating and swimming Ariel), and cool puppets for jellyfish and other floating things.  I tried to capture a bit of it in this video clip since it reminded me of the groundbreaking stagecraft in the Lion King musical.

Finally, on to Tomorrowland.  Again, a scarcity of rides: Space Mountain, the Astro Orbiter, Buzz Lightyear, and Autopia.

Space Mountain has an identical track layout to Anaheim, but the queue is much less theatrical.  I was able to walk on and do it a couple of times.  Penguin wanted to try being in a ride-cam photo, but here the preview monitors as you exit the ride have an annoying message across the photo which presumably helps thwart cell-phone photo stealers but also makes it hard to see if the photo is any good.  You'll have to click to see the full-size original but Penguin is above the letter "a".

Autopia was the one attraction I actually stood in line for (40 minutes) since the guidebook says it is the most extensive and elaborate Autopia at any of the theme parks.  I was stuck behind a little Chinese boy whose driving was all over the place and who apparently couldn't find the gas pedal.  It sucked.  Interestingly, though, the Autopia cars here are electric, not gas powered, and the "vroom" noise is played through an in-car speaker when you press the gas pedal.

Having more or less done the park, we walked out to Disney's Paradise Pier, abandoned at this time of year but I suspect in high season they run ferries to the mainland and to Central,
The promenade extends a mile or so along the water.  Back right is the Disneyland Hotel.
We also toured the Disneyland Hotel, which is a knockoff of the Grand Floridian in Orlando and quite beautifully done.  Surprisingly, there were a lot of people there.  I'm not sure why people would stay here when Hong Kong is 40 minutes away by train, but I guess people stay in the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim too.

I was in the hotel for maybe 20 minutes, and when I emerged the sky was black.  A 10-minute thunderstorm pounding was kind of cool to see, since we rarely get that in California, and it let up just in time for me to get back to the MTR station.

So that's it.  A smaller park, but as well run as any other Disney park, and truly amusing to be the foreigner and see how Asians see a theme park.  The rest of this trip is work, work, work, so I'm glad Penguin and I got the day off.