Mr. Toad’s

We flew to a city outside of Beijing tonight called Qingdao (Chingdow) and after getting our bags we then drove for two hours northwest to the city of Tsingtao (like the beer) for a meeting with the Foton Lovol client.  I’ve been in taxis around the world, feel as though I’ve ridden in every kind of mini-van known to mankind and endured countless hours in traffic jams or in the backseat of some sedan being driven by person who treats the gas pedal like that of base drum – pump, pump, break, pump, pump, break – until I’ve felt my head would just roll off my body onto the floor.

Qingdao Airport

Our driver to Tsingtao had to be one of the most terrifyingly hilarious and I think dangerous I have ever encountered.  He was late to pick us up and after several terse intonations I got the impression that our Chinese hosts were unimpressed with his excuses.  There were four of us in total, myself, Jim, Ean (producer) and Mouse (production coordinator).  Mouse is a slight girl of about 20 who embraces her name by carrying a suitcase with the famed Disney character on the outside.  My first impression of her was that she was a young production person who is just learning the ropes but I soon learned she is no nonsense. She speaks fairly good English but prefers to point or nod when given the opportunity.  After clearing security Jim and I were a little lost in the Shanghai airport, sort of wandering around looking at all the direction signs in Chinese with English translations, our glassy eyes giving away our lack of confidence to find the right gate.   We were also a little late because of traffic.  Our flight was to depart from gate number 195 and looking at the terminal map we realized it was a long walk.  We began trudging toward the end of a hallway that stretched out in front of us to a vanishing point.  Mouse pulled ahead of us and stopped Ean, Jim and I by putting up her hand like an experienced traffic cop.  We all stood watching as she went to a security guard who then pointed to a counter.  A few more hand gestures and the person behind the counter muttered something into a walkie-talkie and from behind us there was a ting-ting of a bicycle bell.  We turned to see a human transport vehicle with a smiling driver behind the wheel.  Mouse appeared next to Jim and gestured for all of us to climb onboard and off we went for a 1st class ride through the terminal that seemed to go on for miles.  No way we would’ve made our flight had she not procured the ride.  From that point forward I knew Mouse was no slouch.

She turned from her conversation with the Tsingtao driver and again without a word, gestured to the parking lot.  Like teenage boys being told what to do Ean, Jim and I pushed our luggage carts out of the door and followed the berated driver to his van.  We loaded our luggage and off we went.

There’s a child’s attraction at Disneyland called Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  In it you are taken to hell and back in a series of jerking and twisting corners.  It sounds more violent than it really is but for a small child I can see where it would be scary and maybe for the light hearted overwhelming.  When I was in India we spent many hours in the mini-van running to meetings, dinners and other events.  In those first few days on the streets of Mumbai I felt we could be in a head-on collision at any moment as the drivers swerve into on coming traffic then gently ease back into their own lanes.  After a week or so I came to realize that there is a flow to that mess and that the Indian’s gentle attitudes don’t allow for tempers to flare – at least not in front of foreign guests.

Here in Qingdao, our driver was Chinese/Russian and had brought an assistant with him so the four of us were forced to sit in the back of the van.  Upon exiting the airport we seemed to be traveling under the freeway on what felt like a frontage road pot marked with deep holes and haphazard government repairs.  He tore out of the parking lot and began to weave his way through exiting airport traffic, swerving into oncoming trucks and honking and flashing his lights as we went.  Unlike the Indian drivers we’d had this guys technique was full of anger and road rage.  Stopping abruptly and then flooring the gas pedal again and again.  He checked his phone for text messages and spoke to his partner in well overheard tones of what sounded like disapproval of the truck just missed plowing into or the western passengers gasps of terror from the backseat.  They’d mumble to one another then laugh quietly – heh, heh, heh.

I didn’t find much humor in it and turned to Mouse who was sitting behind us and asked if this was safe and she shrugged and nodded her head.  For the next thirty minutes the ride was like traveling through the underbelly of some forgotten part of the city.  Huge equipment trucks would lurch into the lanes just in front of us and we’d swerve into oncoming traffic barely avoiding a collision with another truck baring down on us then we’d swerve wide to the right nearly driving into the ditch to avoid the unknown depths of a large water filled pothole then finally end up back in our lane where he’d honk his horn at a small family of four all traveling on a small motorcycle with that days shopping hanging in bags from every available hand.  It was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in adult form!

At long last we exited this form of hell and entered a pristine freeway.  At least the ride smoothed out and we didn’t have to worry about cross traffic but the highway was packed with semi-trucks.  Not the clean well wrapped trucks that travel US freeways but old Russian and Chinese built behemoths with all kinds of loads.  Most were exposed and tied down with rope or chains and the diesel exhaust spewed unincombered into the face of our van filling the inside with the acrid smoke.  The two lanes were often blocked by one truck passing another and we’d slow to 25 miles an hour tailgating, honking and flashing our lights of course and then passing on the left or right whichever made the fastest route around so we could speed up to 70 or 80 only to be slowed again by another moving truck block.  If we found open road our driver drifted between lanes.  I asked Mouse if he was drunk and she shrugged and shook her head, “No.”

View from my room in Qingdao

We finally pulled into our hotel and upon exiting the van I almost bent down and kissed the earth.  There’s song from the famous Paul Newman movie called “Plastic Jesus Sittin’ On The Dashboard of My Car.”  I’ve been trying to learn it on the guitar lately and I woke the next morning humming the tune.  We had breakfast and went outside to get into another van to go to our meeting with the client.  It was new van and new driver and on his dashboard was a plastic Buddha.  I guess for the same reason one would put a Christian icon in their windshield.  Quite a ride!

Plastic Buddha Sittin' On The Dashboard of My Van

tom lowe photo, llc

tacoma, wa 98406


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