We’ve been here three weeks, as of today. I’ve been wanting to write something for a week now, but unlike when I’m traveling, living abroad means that my day is consumed with just working and surviving, not so much meandering and pondering. Quantitatively, we have been here twenty-one days but only had three good ones to explore. I’ll write about those three eventually, but for now, let me tell you about what we’ve seen on the other eighteen.
Turning out of my building sets you in the midst of a row of restaurants, ranging from laughable to excellent. Laughable is a “bistro” that interprets gourmet American food the way we interpret Chinese food, ---turnabout is fair play, but I’ll cook my own Cesar salad from here out, without the bacon. Excellent is a Taiwanese noodle shop with supremely delicious beef broth. Many of the signs are in Japanese, as the area caters to the Japanese expatriate community. This causes no end of trouble, as most of the wait-staff recognize that I’m a foreigner and speak to me in Japanese, the language they’ve been trained to speak to foreigners. I respond in Japanese and they just look confused. Twice now, we’ve wound up with an actual Japanese server. It was like seeing blue sky, but that’s only happened once.
As we walk down the block we pass the last of the foreign restaurants and thus begins Taxi Alley. At about 6PM on any given day, no fewer than a hundred taxis line the street. They come for the half-dozen cheap Chinese restaurants and fill them to the brim. The shops are simply teeming with drivers, dressed in their white-collared shirt and black pants. Consequently, we have yet to enter a cab where the driver didn’t know almost instantly where we lived.
In between the cheap Chinese restaurants is an array of small shops and an utterly incongruous fancy pet hospital. We walk past an auto mechanic and car wash, a fresh produce shop, an office supply and stationary store, a DVD shop, a carpenter, and an animal seller. The other side of the block holds a convenience store, a sheet glass shop, a welding house, a clothes store selling only undergarments, a tiny arcade, another restaurant or two, and a water delivery service. Each storefront is no more than ten to fifteen feet wide and appear scarcely twenty feet deep. The sidewalks are lined with a further litany, recyclers sorting through their trash-picked wares, produce micro-stands offering hardly enough food to feed a single family, and men standing about bicycle carts presumably waiting to be employed in deliveries. There are cigarette and phone card hawkers, a man selling only the use of his bicycle pump, and children incessantly chasing down littler children. I am always amazed that these people can eke out a living in such a minute commercial niche.
Across the street from this mayhem there is no one on the sidewalk. There is nothing there but a wall, blocking off an empty stretch of land that sits awaiting its chance to be developed into chaos or an apartment complex. A little section has been turned into a parking lot and another piece holds some cinder block and sheet metal housing. The rest is the usual urban wild-land of tall leafy, prickly plants and rough grass. Directly across the street from our apartment, the corner of the empty block is being turned into a park. From street level, the park is veiled behind blue sheet metal. From our apartment, several dozen feet up, we watch the progress of the construction each morning and evening.
Before we arrived, the park workers cleared and leveled the land, a small square maybe fifty yards a side. Then they built a small hill, where a large concrete gazebo is appearing inside of steel scaffolding. Over the last few weeks, they have laid layer after layer of stone tile paths, first in dull gray sheets and now lovely white. The paths form a grid and we wonder during meals what will occupy the interstitial spaces. Memorials? Shops? Flower gardens? Late one evening, as we walked home from dinner, a large truck pulled up and delivered trees, planted the next day on the border of the park. There are stone pillars now and sheets of pink that lay ready for incorporation.
Some of the men building the park appear to live in a small shack made of the same blue sheet metal that wraps their work place. Every week, their laundry appears on a line hung from the shack and at night, a small light peeks out from various gaps in the shelter.
I’ve heard and seen that construction workers often live in their work place while it is in process. A number of restaurants near us are being renovated and we’ve often seen groups of workers and whole families eating dinner together on the unfinished floors.
Further down our street, at its intersection with a major boulevard, is going to be a new metro station. This requires the transport of serious amounts of materiel and machinery along our road. Between the restaurants’ renovation, the park’s landscaping, and this station’s construction, our corner apartment takes in the full urban symphony of horns, rumbles and hammers.
I could sit for hours noticing the details of the construction of the park and watching the passersby try to peek in between or over the fencing. I could hover over the intersection in our office’s bay windows or ponder our neighbors’ lives as seen from my balcony to theirs. But I’m living, not traveling, here, so it’s time to go help my wife with dinner. We need lunches for tomorrow.