On The Road with Steve Barriault

Steve Barriault

June 20, 2017

Guangzhou International Airport

There are some days when technology lets you down. There are some days when humans let you down. Then there are days when both happen at once.

So, I am trekking in Southern China, visiting customers in multiple locations, from multiple industries. Working some magic on VxWorks, Tasking, GCC for MIPS, and others. Complicated cases. Several cities in five days.

Day 4, time to head back to the airport. The airport is in another city, 40-minute ride. Got a cab. Nice ride. Uber-like cell phone app shows the driver the way to the airport. All OK.

Until not.

At some point, the nice little phone app goes rogue and decides that the driver should abandon the main road and engage on a small, curvy road visibly not designed for two cars to cross at once. We start swirling wildly between houses, some of them quite nice. Cell phone app tells us, turn right, then left, right again... And then we turn onto an unpaved road roamed by chickens. The driver is visibly nonplussed. and decides to keep on going. Fine. Swirl again, avoid more chickens, then ducks, then more domestic avian species.

Now, this is not the first time I had a similar experience. I remember a time in a city in South India when the app had us turn into a scrapyard and then in someone's driveway on our way to the client site. Likewise, I also remember a time in Kolkatta, India, also on my way to the airport. The driver also decided to cut through the woods on a set of unpaved trails. We crossed many villages, bypassed multiple cows (ok, on that one, that happens in cities too in India), all of which while playing a funky quasi-reggae song on the speakers of the SUV.

But see, this driver knew what he was doing. We rejoined the airport in no time, no phone app necessary. Now, this driver did not know the neighborhood. And with technology failing him, he decided to make ridiculous decisions.

We come to a place where the road slopes toward a stretch of a freeway that is visibly not completed. The app indicates to keep on going on the OTHER SIDE of this stretch of unfinished road. Too simple. The guy turns left, and of course, comes to an unfinished bridge. He does a U-turn, but then instead of continuing on the road indicated by the mobile, he tries to go back where he came from.

I tell him to stop and resume the itinerary. Again, too simple to listen to me. I am a foreigner. What do I know after all? No: much better to drive aimlessly across multiple roads. Apparently, the cell phone telling him that the remaining road ahead is becoming longer or that he needs to do a 180 isn't sufficient, he keeps on going.

By this time, my Chinese colleagues are telling him to go back on the path. It falls on deaf ears. He asks directions from three different people. Again, incredulous. In the meantime, boarding time is coming ever so closer.

Then, low and behold, the guy stops in front of a modest countryside house, gets out of the car, walks in the house, comes back with an older gentleman, asks my colleague to sit behind so the older gentleman can come with us to indicate the road! Yes, he fired technology and decided to go with a human app.

And of course, the guy takes us back EXACTLY to the place I told him to keep on going!

By that time, the cell phone app has given up. It shows some message written in fine characters. Probably explaining to him that he won't be paid for the extra kilometers he put on at his own fault. Good.

Now, believe it or not, this is not my first experience of this kind. Many years ago, while traveling with the CEO of the company, the taxi driver did not understand how to get to the client site. I told him, take this exit, but again, I am a foreigner, so what do I know? Much better to continue on the freeway all the way to the toll booth then, upon realizing the mistake, turn around and go AGAINST TRAFFIC, ON A FREEWAY, honking all the way up to the exit I indicated previously so incoming cars can give way, scaring the CEO to death!

We make it to the airport, and of course, by then all the good seats in the plane are gone, which is why I am now sandwiched right next to the toilets. Thanks dude!

Oh well, it could have been worse - a canceled flight.The plane breaking down in mid-flight (yeah, that also happened to me, in the USA no less... when I heard the pilot on United Channel 9 being asked if he needed "equipment" when landing full of kerosene in Denver, that was pretty scary). Or simply not be here. Because, yes, I still enjoy the road. 

Breakfast of choice in Ningde. Much tastier and at 6 yuan a pop much, much cheaper than the hotel breakfast buffet!

There have been bright sides to this trip too. Food, for one. Hunan is home to some of the spiciest dishes in China (but not the hottest, being undone by Sichuan and Chongqing in that regard). Just look at the pictures of the spicy duck I got! Mmm... and just to make sure we did not waste anything, they even put the head in the oven (as you can see from the skull-and-beak picture). Truly amazing taste.

Hunan duck with plenty of peppers.

And don't get me wrong, I got pretty good service from pretty much everyone else. The hotel, upon talking to me in Chinese, decided to upgrade me to a ridiculously nice suite, two bathrooms, a walk-in closet and the likes, plus free breakfast (I usually go outside to eat in the morning, Chinese hotel breakfast buffets are often insanely expensive). Another one offered a nice type of window dressing, two seat cushions plus a small table. Ideal to drink tea with a view of the bustling city in the background.

Nice way of decorating a window bay! Now I truly feel in Asia!

There are days where things don't go your way on the road. Usually, taxis are a big source of trouble. Best to avoid them whenever possible.