Thursday, February 14, 2013

Stranger in a strange land

"Indian, Indian.... this way. Yes this way! You Indian, this way!" A harried, reed thin Chinese girl in an ill fitting business suit is trying to herd delegates from 7 different countries into a bus while welcoming them to her country. At least she speaks English, unlike the one at the immigration counter or the helpdesk at the Southern exit of Sanya Phoenix International Airport on the southern coast of Hainan, the southernmost province in China. As the bus drives along the highway laid along (what else but) the South China Sea, my colleague and I try to make conversation with the other passengers in the bus. Hardly anyone responds - their body clocks obliterated by flying 12-18 hours.

"ALANGBAYGAFFCLAB, ALANGBAYGAFFCLAB! Indian.... ALANGBAYGAFFCLAB!" It takes several moments and a sign in Mandarin that depicted a hole set in green to figure that she means Yalong Bay Golf Glub - our hotel. Both parties as relieved as the bus leaves us in the porch and pulls out. A stunningly beautiful woman in a security uniform welcomes us. A huge man with huge moustaches and a band master's uniform is nowhere to be found.

The check-in is a breeze and the room is beautiful, overlooking one of China's premier golf courses. One that has played host to many PGA and APGA events. For now though, only fat Chinese businessmen can be seen practising their swing. A shower and a shave later, it is breakfast time. Thirty seconds later we are wading through a long list of undecipherable or inedible breakfast items. I corner a steward, who speaks English and convince him to produce eggs and toast (not on the menu) and 'Coconut Juice' (on the menu). The meal takes a long time coming, but that was understandable considering the fact that we all know how hard it can be to coax a coconut through a juicer.

We head to the Hilton, where airport executives from around the world have gathered to find out what the others have been up to in the last year and then hand out some trophies after some song and dance. When we get there, we are told that we Hainan is the Chinese Hawaii (just like Haier). After handing over my business card, I am handed over my welcome kit by a girl in a faux grass skirt wearing a garland of tropical flowers. The welcome kit is a flowery shirt and trinkets made of seashells. A sense of deja vu was about to strike, but was dismissed quickly - I've never been to Hawaii you see.

Many handshakes and dimsums later, the day is over and I am glad to hit the sack. I've got to get up early tomorrow as there is wager to be won. Given the fact that I have spent years trying to hit a ball with a stick, it is no surprise that I win the first timers' golf competition beating the Iranians, the Pakistanis and the sole fellow from Vanautu. I rush back to the room for a shower, only to find it occupied by the lady from housekeeping. I ask her to come back later, but she speaks no English. I try to communicate in sign language, but that doesn't work either. I explain my predicament on the phone to the ladies in the reception - who then spend ten minutes on the phone with the housekeeping woman. Putting down the phone, she smiles and promptly proceeds toward the bathroom. I put her back on the phone again, she spends another ten minutes presumably telling the reception girl about her child's progress through school. The takes another twenty minutes cleaning the bathroom, leaving me an hour late for the conference.

We decide to skip the conference lunch that day and head to the Hilton's restaurants. The menu has Lamb Biryani in it. Described as 'Aromatic Indian Rice served with meat cooked in spices' - I give it a go. Soon it is apparent that in one shot, the Chinese have extracted complete revenge for the atrocities committed by Indians in the name of Gobhi Manchurian and Shezwan Noodals. My biryani is yellow rice with a few pieces of undercooked meat, in a circle of carrots and radish served with a papad that served as the frying pan for other papads.

The evening is free, so we head to the beach at Sanya City, 40km away. Our driver speaks excellent English, having been raised in Hong Kong. He tells us that Sanya was indeed developed as China's tropical paradise for rich Eastern Europeans wishing to escape their harsh winters. Almost 80% of the tourists were Russian, which explained why signs in Cyrillic outnumbered those in Roman letters. And among the first sign to greet us when we landed on the beach was this one

The beach has a wonderful promenade lined by shops, restaurants and bars. On the sands, Chinese families are frolicking along with couples indulging in middle class version of medieval Indian kings who liked to raise temples celebrating the human body and its desires.

We spend the evening at a brilliant beach side bar that rustles up excellent lobsters. I indulge in snacking on grilled frogs, eels and even starfish, while an excellent band from Philippines was performs live. I try TsingTao, the Chinese equivalent of Kingfisher along with Harbin and China Pabst Blue Beer. The last item on the list, I am happy to report is an excellent one.

The next day is the awards function and we are high on the list for winning several of them. The function takes place in the Hilton's lawns and we are seated on the same table as the Iranians and Pakistanis. The steward plonks down a few plates of snacks and immediately I am on my guard. I take him aside and ask him the contents and unsurprisingly it is beef and pork. Before the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Iranians cause an international incident, I summon the banquet manager and ask him for vegetarian or if nothing sea food items. Thankfully, the rest of the evening passes without incident. Unless you count the vodka shot competition with the chap from Sheremetyevo, or trying my hand at the traditional dances of Tonga and Namibia.

I stagger back to my hotel with three trophies in hand and a shot of vodka in hand. Next morning, back at the Southern entrance of Sanya Phoenix International Airport on the southern coast of Hainan, the southernmost province in China, I manage to smuggle in 4 bottles of Stolichnaya bought at USD4 each at the local supermarket. The chap from Sheremeteyevo is on the same flight as mine. His girlfriend is half his age and looks exactly like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie, often responding to a name like Irina. The rest of the story, well I'll tell you some other day....

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