Sunday, July 17, 2011

L.A. International Airport

There is a snatch of a country song that I remember from my youth, that distant past, whose refrain starts with L.A. International Airport. That is all I remember from that song: that one short riff, but it runs through my head as I board the plane, take my seat and head for LAX.

Country music has no place in stately Tienhe airport in Wuhan or in ultramodern Seoul/Incheon airport. Apparently, what also does not have a place in Tienhe airport is restaurants. I had somehow gotten very sick on Sunday, and I had a terrible sinus infection. Fortunately I was able to buy antibiotics over the counter – such things are possible in China. Unfortunately I was sluggish all day Sunday as I finished packing up the house for my impending move and on Monday and I attempted to leap out of bed and finish my packing for my trip.

My intent had been to go around the corner from campus and fill up on meaty steamed buns once my packing was done. But, with all of the students gone for the summer there is no point for the vendors to hang around. No one to buy breakfast from, unless I walk up The Street to my favorite restaurant and have a bowl of noodles. No time for that. Sam will be there at 9:30 with a car and driver to take me to the airport and it is already 9AM. I went back home and finished my packing.

I ended up buying a snack and a bottle of juice at the airport concessions stand. That turned out perfect because, even for the two hour flight to Incheon the airline served a quality meal, on porcelain dishes and with real – not plastic – flatware. I still cannot get over the difference between airline service in China and that of America.

Fully sated from the meal served aboard the plane to Incheon, I felt no desire to eat during my three-hour layover in Korea. So I rambled around the airport, taking in the sights. Again the airport is well appointed and clean, the people move about at a leisurely pace, the shops are spacious and the overall atmosphere is one of excitement and anticipation of happy travels.

At Incheon I did see a more diverse population than in Wuhan. Here, travelers making their connecting flights from Japan, the Philippines and other Oriental destinations congregated. There were many more Westerners, noticeable not just by their coloring and complexion but by their demeanor. They appeared unnecessarily hurried and slightly shocked; perhaps at the ease of travel in the Orient?

One notable incident occurred shortly after I arrived at my departure gate. An older couple was apparently angry about something. The man was shouting at the beleaguered airline clerk while his wife stood by, crying. I could not make out what the issue was but I could tell by the clerk’s body language that she was mortified at being yelled at in Chinese. I anticipated airport security to come and detain this passenger and his wife but what happened instead was an airport official arrived and did his best to smooth over the issue and make things right. Presumably he was successful; the angry couple was accommodated on the very flight I was scheduled for. They were seated just a few rows ahead of me and, to my knowledge were very well treated. They did not get angry and yell again.

Upon boarding the flight from Korea, I got my first reminder of tightened security measures in America. The overhead announcement let us know that, due to extra security regulations in America we would be subject to a more intense scrutiny and bag check before boarding the plane. “Here we go” I thought, remembering this exercise from the last time I had flown out of Incheon. Although no one that I saw was required to remove their shoes or any of their clothing, airline personnel did do a more thorough check on our bags, opening every compartment and asking a multitude of questions.

I have learned in all my travels to request an exit aisle seat on the plane. That guarantees that I will have extra legroom in exchange for the promise of helping people get off the plane in an emergency, a promise I gladly make. So, even though my seat was at the very back of the plane I had an aisle seat, with extra legroom. Not too shabby! Add to that the tasty meals and snacks provided, the onboard entertainment system featuring movies and games, and the good book I brought along to read and I was set for the next seventeen hours.
The only problem was sleep. I do not sleep on moving conveyances of any kind. While that is a plus for long distance drives, it is rather dismaying for long distance travel when I am not in charge of piloting anything. As a result of that I was a bit grumpy come time to deplane and go though customs at LAX.

After the ease and convenience of security checks in China and Korea, I found the enhanced procedures we were obliged to undergo redundant and asinine. First came the customs declaration: I was interrogated for approximately ten minutes about my purpose and life in China, why I was returning to the States and who I would be visiting, as well as what my daughter did for a living, of all things. Once I assured the Customs officer that by business in China is innocent and my daughter is legitimately married to a Marine, the customs clerk promptly wrote a 0 on my declaration form and passed me along to the next clerk. But first I had to collect my baggage.

Baggage collection is an exercise in precision in China. Although Boeing 747s are very big planes and this particular one was full to capacity, in China the bags are handled in such a way that one does not have to be an Olympian athlete in order to retrieve one’s bags from the moving conveyor. Each bag has its place along the edge of the conveyor for easy grabbing and once the conveyor is emptied out, then more bags come along. If the conveyor is full before any passengers make it to the conveyor, a baggage handler removes some of the bags and stacks them neatly nearby.

In L.A. the bags tumbled pell-mell down the arrival chute and crashed into the bags already circling around, awaiting their owners. As we cleared customs and came to the carousel, it was already full, with large suitcases two and three deep, circling around. Many women, most small in stature could not dislodge their bags from under the accrued tonnage and had to wait until they were physically able to pull their bags off the carousel. As I am rather large and fairly strong, I helped those in my immediate vicinity until my bag came along. After that, I left everyone to fend for themselves and stood in line for the final customs check, where our passports were once again scrutinized and our purpose for being in America was once again questioned.

Finally! After an hour and a half I’m done with all of the questions and all the formalities. I race through the corridors, pulling my two wheeled bags and toting my recently recussitated black leather satchel. My dear son, my Darrell is waiting for me at the end of this leg of my journey. I can hardly wait to feel his arms about me and hear his cry of joy. As I emerge from the tunnel that leads into the welcome concourse I scan the faces lining the barrier for him. Somewhat dismayed, I can’t see him anywhere!

That is when he surprises me with a tap on the shoulder. He had watched me turn the corner with my anticipatory smile intact and promptly turned away to wipe his tears before coming up behind me to greet me, dry-eyed. What a jokester!

Destination: America!

Finally! I have an airline ticket and a departure date! The ticket, bought for a good price at that, indicates my leaving China on July 11th at 12:15PM. I am joyous and anxious in equal measures. Overjoyed at the prospect of seeing my family and friends again and anxious over whether I am prepared for life in America, even if it is just for a visit.

It is not like I’m just going to one place, parking myself and holding court with everyone who comes by. No, I’m going to be hobo’ing it all across America, literally. From California to Colorado, down to Dallas and over to Memphis. Across to Florida and up to New York, where I fly out again. Along all of those stops are loved ones just waiting to meet and greet me and make the most of the time we’re together. I too want to make the most of what time we have, amidst all that bus riding.

But I know myself well. At some point I’m going to need some quiet time. Time when I’m not riding or visiting. Time to recharge my batteries. Time to reflect and write about everything and share it with you.

Time. The time will come for everything. For now, let’s get on that plane. My arms ache to hold my sweet Gabriel and my eyes thirst to feast on precious Cat. I’ll focus on that, and worry about all anxiety causing things later.

Who knows? Maybe there will be no anxiety.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Death of a Companion

I have owned a black, leather and canvas shoulder bag since 2001. I had originally bought it for my daughter who was attending college but she did not like the bag and tossed it in the back of her closet. After she and I parted company way back when, I found the bag she had left behind and made it my own.

It is a nice bag. It has a compartment for a small laptop – smaller than mine, anyway. It has a zippered pocket for pens, pencils and business cards, a larger center compartment for documents or whatever you might need to carry in it… maybe a laptop power supply and accessories? It has a back pocket that extends the width and depth of the bag, very convenient for keys, Kleenex and other small things one might need to carry. On the side is a mesh sleeve for a water bottle and on the front is a diagonal zippered pocket, perfect for storing sunglasses and lip balm. Its wide, continuous, adjustable shoulder strap makes for a comfortable carry and provides extra security as it is stitched to the canvas below the bag to prevent any loss due to malfunctioning buckles or other hardware.

I have taken this bag with me to Europe, China, all over the United States and to work. For ten years it has been my traveling companion and my daily companion except for occasionally, when I revert to a lighter, less cumbersome purse for my casual run arounds. It seems to bear me no ill will if I shunt it to the side occasionally; it is always ready and willing to go when I need it. All I have to do is transfer my things back into the various pockets and we are off again, to another adventure.

After the Great Mold Attack on my apartment and possessions while I was in Chengdu I never gave any thought to my bag. I had not taken it with me on the Chengdu jaunt because I used my wheeled laptop bag and carried a light purse. My black bag rested, carefully draped on my defunct computer chair in the living room, by the open window. As I cleaned inside and out of closets and walls, it never occurred to me that my bag might have been overcome by mold, until I needed to use it recently while the power was out.

The power goes out here frequently. I think I mentioned that in a previous entry. When that happens I grab my laptop and my book, and scoot off to a cafĂ© whose power does not continuously drop out. There, I spend the day reading and writing. My bag is perfect for carrying everything I need for such a day out. So, on this recent spate of power outages I grabbed my bag from the chair, ready to load it up and…

Oh, NO! My bag is home to a virulent crop of mold! Mold has attached itself to the supple leather and encroached itself onto the canvas! There are colonies of mold in every pocket! My beautiful bag now has a beard of mold growing from its underside! Even the carrying handle and shoulder strap was not immune!

For a moment I was ready to succumb to despair. After four days of steady housecleaning and mold scrubbing I could not face my faithful bag being besieged as well. I couldn’t think of how to clean the leather in such a way that it would not stiffen and become brittle, and it seemed that getting mold spores out of the canvas and mesh parts of the bag would take days of meticulous care that I simply do not have the supplies, tools or patience for.

That was just for a moment. And then, I got mad. REALLY mad. I was not going to let some fungus just take my bag! Not after it and I had been together for so long. It deserved a more dignified death than greenish fuzz and putrid smell.

After having run out of bleach, glass cleaner and Mr. Muscle, the all-purpose spray cleaner so popular in China, I hit the stores and bought what I could find in the way of disinfectants and heavy duty cleaners. I suspect my fight with mold is only just beginning and I had used up everything in my cleaning arsenal so I had stocked up. Among the solutions I bought was a bottle of Walch, a Lysol-like, Pinesol-smelling antiseptic and disinfectant. I don’t know what its properties are because the label is all in Chinese, save for ‘antiseptic and disinfectant’, written in English on the front of the bottle.

Giving no further thought and filled with determination I ran a sink full of the hottest water my ancient water heater could produce, added a third of the bottle of Walch and plunged my entire bag into the sink. Letting it soak only a few minutes, I donned my rubber gloves and took a scrub brush to it. I scrubbed every square inch of my bag, inside and out. The water went from milky white to sickly gray the more I scrubbed. I uttered triumphant grunts as I saw that the leather, and then the canvas was losing its greenish tint and reverting back to its basic black.

It only took fifteen minutes or so to clean my bag and then rinse it out. I still didn’t know if the leather would be damaged but, as the bag was ruined anyway I figured it didn’t hurt to try this radical cleaning method. Once cleaned, I devised a way to hang it up so that it would have the most surface exposure and dry thoroughly. Fortunately the weather was cooperating; the humidity in my apartment was down. It wouldn’t have mattered, for the love of my bag I would have run both air conditioners, which, by nature dehumidify.

No need for running up the electric bill. My lovely, beautiful bag, my companion in travels both big and small has been fully resuscitated and has convalesced nicely. The leather is still as supple as before its antiseptic bath and the canvas bears only ghostly imprints of where the mold took its roots. The pockets are completely mold free and the nylon lining glistens. My bag is again ready for adventures. I have placed silica gel packets inside it that I had purchased during my cleaning supplies shopping spree to prevent further growth and it now rests, unfolded, on the couch, ready to go on our next excursion.

Let me tell you: that was a close one. I’m OK with scrubbing mold off these impersonal walls, and I don’t mind the cough that follows me everywhere, but when my things are attacked, that is when I draw the line. That was the deciding factor, as a matter of fact. I had taken these pictures both to present you with a visual of how badly the bag was contaminated, but more importantly to show the school administration the extent of the mold problem. Victor and I then ganged up on Sam and told him we can’t live this way. Victor has mold problems in his apartment too, so he was a willing accomplice to my rant.

Driving the point home, I informed Sam that, although the furniture we have now is acceptable, if we move it into our new apartments with this mold riddled furniture, we may as well name the new buildings Fungus Condominium. Victor backed me up on that claim and we presented the pictures I had taken to the Administrators. Sam assured us that, most likely, when we move into our new apartments in the fall we will also get new furniture.

So, new things to look forward to this fall: a total curriculum designed for each grade I teach and prepared in advance, a new apartment and new furniture. That’s worth coming back to Wuhan for.

And, for the record, I DO mind that persistent cough. I hope it goes away soon.

Housekeeping a la Chinese

I offer no argument to the statement that I am not the world’s best housekeeper. While I do not like living in a pigsty, I will admit that I am rather negligent. The floor, for example: one only walks on the floor, so there is bound to be dust and a smidge or two of dirt. I can live with that as long as it is not overwhelming. Dishes is another great example: being as I generally eat alone, I don’t mind stacking the day’s dishes by the sink as long as they are rinsed and do not attract bugs.

I feel these are reasonable concessions for a person who lives alone. Sure, I’m down with clean linens and well made beds; I make my bed every day. I kind of have to because of all the people who like to drop by and surreptitiously ‘inspect’ my apartment. They’re just looking around and that is deemed acceptable by Chinese culture standards. It wouldn’t do for my bed to be unmade. They don’t inspect the bathroom, so those standards are all mine. I like a clean bathroom and go to great lengths to keep it clean. I can’t get clean in a dirty bathroom, can I?

In short, I’m no Donna Reed but then, I’m not Maxine either.

Dust is a different proposition. There will be dust, unless you have a central vacuum system that automatically sucks dust out of the air. Western scientists postulate that 80% of household dust is actually skin cells and hair. The more people who live in your home, the more dust you are bound to have. I do not have the wherewithall to scientifically refute that argument. I only have China, and my experiences here.

I live in what I’ve come to refer as my concrete bunker. I do have windows – four of them. I also have whitewash on my living room and bedroom walls and tile on my kitchen and bathroom walls, and I have laminate on my living room and bedroom floors while the kitchen and bathroom floors are tiled. Under these adornments is concrete. There is nothing in this apartment to absorb or conceal anything. No carpeting to conceal dead skin cells or fallen hair. No drywall, wood or tapistries to help balance out the moisture that a ground level apartment made of concrete is bound to accumulate.

The amount of dust that accumulates in my apartment indicates that I would have to shed an enormous amount of dead skin cells for Western science to be correct. Furthermore, my skin cells would have to be dirt brown and consistently damp. I refer you to the ‘Welcome Home’ entry of this blog, written in the distant past of … nine months ago for an original assessment of this apartment’s dust condition.

One morning last week I woke up to find my bathroom floor and vanity not just damp but downright wet, as though someone had hosed the room down. On top of the wet was a layer of dust, courtesy of those ever-present sweeping women who had, earlier in the morning, done their dance with their twig brooms and sent dust flying into my house. Around the sink’s spigot grew a dense crop of furry mold, which had sprung up literally overnight.

Fortunately I am by now used to never walking so much as a step barefooted. I was shod before entering the bathroom and seeing the sheen of moisture glistening on the vanity. As usual I didn’t regard the floor with any kind of importance – floors will be floors after all. They can’t help that they are at the bottom of things and only get walked on. It was only when seeing my muddy footprints leading to the commode and then back around to the vanity and out of the room that I gaped, dumbfounded: What the???

In winter I had a moisture problem because the apartment’s inner temperature was about twenty degrees higher than the outside temperature. With the advent of spring I relished being shut of that issue. Now that it is spring and my windows are flung open I’m having a moisture problem because the outside air is so humid it settles on every surface: floors, tiles, vanities. In both cases I have weeping, seeping concrete with no vapor barrier on the floor and nothing on the walls to absorb anything. It seems moisture will be my nemesis, no matter what season.

It would be an understatement to say my housekeeping standards have been challenged in China.

In America I could afford to be a bit lax in my housekeeping standards. No need to vacuum the wall-to-wall carpeting every day; once a week (or a month) would do. No need in dusting; as long as I don’ t move anything, you can’t tell there is any dust. For dishes I had the dishwasher and for the bathroom I had Clorox wipes. Once a week in-depth cleaning was sufficient. Again, bear in mind that I lived alone and as long as the dirt was not pervasive, I found it tolerable.

On top of that, America makes housekeeping convenient. There are swiffers for the kitchen and bathroom floors that include scrubby pads for high traffic areas. There are vacuum cleaners that will position their heads to whatever level of carpeting you have and do their best to fluff your floor coverings. Most come with attachments to vacuum your furniture, drapes, and anything else that would be convenient to vacuum. There are Clorox wipes for your surfaces, Magic Erasers for those tough stains and Pinesol for your vinyl, laminate or tile floors. There is Lysol to spray if, perchance, you do have a lingering mold odor. Spraying Lysol kills mold on contact, so the ad says.

I could use some Lysol right now; a whole case of it.

Instead what I have is a broom with a 4’handle, a dustpan with a 3’ handle, a long haired mop and hot water. And elbow grease. LOTS of elbow grease. I have useless dusting rags and meagerly parsed out paper towels. I have steel wool and dish soap and bleach. And that’s all I have. I do have a dust mop with a swivel head but what’s the point of that if the floors are wet?

It is obvious that I cannot keep house here a la American, but I do not know how to keep house a la Chinese. How do the Chinese keep their house clean with just those few tools? Do they clean every day, sometimes twice or three times a day? How do they keep their floors clean if, when they sweep the ever-present dust it just creates mud? Do they mop with no regard to sweeping the dust first and just thin the mud out? What about the moisture on the surfaces? Do they wipe that off? Do they have a family duty roster set up to maintain constant vigilance and wipe moisture away at the first manifestation?

Or could my housekeeping woes be the reason why most apartment buildings are constructed so that the first floor apartments are actually several meters from ground level?

Every apartment building I’ve been to since living in China requires climbing at least 5 steps to get to the first level. A lot of apartments are constructed over shops and are not ground level at all. The newer complexes have lush landscaping so that dust is not so prevalent immediately around the building. I have some friends who live in older apartment buildings and their apartments are far above ground level and they do not seem to have much of a dust problem.

In September, when I move into my brand spanking new apartment, I will have the chance to test out my theory.

In the meantime I have dust, moisture and mold. When I came back from Chengdu I found that, in my four-day absence my apartment decided to cultivate mold colonies in the kitchen, living room and bathroom. Even though I had left all of my windows open, it seems that, because the human occupant was gone, the mold was going to rule unchecked. I was horrified, both at the sight of mold growing everywhere and at the idea of how much moisture I am absorbing while I’m here, to prevent these colonies of mold that took over so easily in just four days. No wonder I always feel so good when I’m out of town!

I now do not have a broom, dustpan, mop or trashcans. They were useless in combating my mold and in fact were overcome with mold themselves. Instead of wasting my precious bleach supply on cleaning them, I decided I will buy new ones. I used all of my bleach on treating mold, anyway.

I’m ready for September.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Waiting Game

The last of my University obligations was dispensed of this past Thursday when I assisted in judging the English competition. My grades have been turned in weeks ago and the students are leaving the campus as they complete their various finals. English Corner and Teacher seminars have been suspended till the fall. The joy of discovery (and telling you about) Chengdu has long been savored and relegated to memory and print.

Internet connection is tenuous nowadays. I don’t know if it is because of the Great Firewall of China or because the school is dialing back its bandwidth needs for the summer months, but sometimes even getting my email and writing back is an exercise in patience and frustration. Chatting on Skype is impossible; Skype won’t connect anymore. Reading the news online is now a thing of the past; however I do have that brand new TV with (oh, the irony!) internet connection so that I can watch CCTV-News, the English news channel. That is, I can watch TV or even try my patience with the Internet if the power has not dropped out, as it has 4 times in the last 2 days.

The truth is, I am ready to jet out of here. Not out of China necessarily, but out of Wuhan and out of this apartment where housekeeping and combating mold is a full time job. Away from this campus where it takes nearly an hour to get to anywhere significant, and then having to battle crowds of people for a few moments of awe and wonder. And there is not much awe and wonder left in Wuhan for me, having already discovered most of the sights and sounds. It feels like everything is revisited. But then, I could just be whining again. Surely there are still things to see and do around here.

The irony is that I cannot leave Wuhan. I can’t even buy my plane ticket to the States. The regional government is still processing my paperwork for my next year’s stay and there is no estimated time of return for my documents. I am in limbo. I have no passport and no officially accepted identification in my possession. Both are currently in some bureaucrat’s hands. I can’t even go vagabonding around China without a passport.

I’m stuck like Chuck.

I have days upon days yawning ahead of me to contemplate some sort of activity and then ultimately rejecting that proposal because of all the aggravation involved with performing any activity outside of campus. Each morning I wake up wondering what the day will bring, only to realize that this day is bringing me what yesterday brought: nothing new. Nothing to pursue. Nothing to do. Makes you wonder why I even bother getting out of bed, right?

Makes me wonder too, but not for long. I refuse to slip down that slope I went down during winter break, and I let myself get so far down in the dumps that I could not bring myself to shower or eat. Every day I get out of bed and read the news and my treasured emails if I can access them. Every day I eat my modest breakfast in front of the television and then exercise. I want to stay in shape. Beyond that…

Retail therapy is out of the question. Money has once again become a concern because, by the time I am able to buy my plane ticket it will be peak traveling season and plane tickets will cost much more than during off-season. Although I will be reimbursed for my plane tickets, and I get an allowance for my summer travel from the University, that won’t happen till the back end of summer – I think. Sam was rather vague in explaining how that all works, but my contract outlines both of those factors. In the meantime, I feel like I should be prepared to disburse all necessary funds. Besides, there is nothing I need to buy right now anyway. No, I need to save my money for my traveling adventures. So, shopping is out. That’s OK, I’ve never been much of a shopper anyway.

What do I do with myself every day, you wonder?

Well, I’ve painted my toenails and fingernails. I could never grow strong, beautiful fingernails while in the States but somehow that is not a problem here. So, I watch movies and do my nails. For once, my hands and feet are pretty.

When the power drops out I take my trusty laptop and head out to the coffeehouse. More than ever I am compelled to write. Although what to write about is sometimes still a mystery, especially when it comes to this blog, being as I’m not doing anything remarkable these days. Still, I have things I want to tell you about. So I go and write. That is a very good thing. I also take a book with me. In case the words stop flowing from my painted fingertips, I can input more words into my head by reading. That is also a good thing.

I plan scrumptious meals for myself. And then I cook them and eat them. With my little grill it is a snap. I’ve stumbled on a way to grill chicken that involves olive oil and spices; add a nice salad and maybe a baked potato, and then find a good movie… and voila! My evening is taken care of.

One upside to being stuck here is that I do not need to wonder what to do about my food supply. I had planned to stay here until July 10 anyway, when, according to the calendar the school year ends. I went to Metro and bought accordingly. When Sam told me my teaching obligations would end mid-June I scrambled and fretted about what to do with all the food in my freezer. I had to think of recipients for it because the power would be turned off to the dorm building while no one is living in it. Now that is not a worry. I should have just enough food to last me until time to go.

I play video games. Strangely enough, while email and news websites are sluggish, playing video games online presents no problem whatsoever. There is not frozen screen, no blocked access and no pop up message telling me the server can’t be found. Big Fish Games has become my new diversion; I can play hundreds of games for free. And I do. When I can’t access the internet for whatever reason, I get out the Scrabble board and challenge myself to a game of Scrabble. I always win.

Somehow I keep busy all day but I live for the anticipation of that phone call from Sam that tells me my paperwork is ready. I’ve cleaned the mold growing on and in my luggage, and mentally reviewed what and how I’m going to pack and I’ve laid out my itinerary. I just can’t execute it, but I’m not focusing on that frustration.

Nor am I focusing on the frustration of knowing that, although Victor is staying in Wuhan through July his travel paperwork was completed and returned to him nearly a month ago. Why wasn’t mine done at the same time?

Nope, not going to think about that.

The Giant Buddha

I enjoyed all of our activities while in Chengdu but the one I was looking forward to the most, in fact the one that I actually went there for was to visit the giant statue by the river. We did that on the last day. One could say, optimistically, that we saved the best for last. Unfortunately it was a more hurried visit than I wanted because we started out early afternoon and the park closes at 5PM. After that we had to rush back to Chengdu and pick up our luggage from the hotel because our flight was scheduled for 10PM.

As previously mentioned, Le Shan, literally Happy Mountain is two hours away from Chengdu by bus. After that one needs to take a taxi to the actual site, pay a 90Yuan fee for access to the grounds and then climb a mountain to get to the top. It was all worth it to me, especially what happened at the top of the mountain.

My traveling companions felt the time crunch more so than I did. This entire trip I was happy to let them make all of our arrangements and I paid my fair share of everything with no complaints even though I spent much more on this trip than I normally would for a four-day getaway. The two things I was adamant about were: no McDonald’s meals and seeing the Le Shan Buddha.

We arrived at Le Shan just after 3PM, leaving us just under two hours to savor the park and all of its wonders. Carrie Ann and Olaf rushed up the mountain, clicking their cameras all the while. I took my time, holding them back from their rigorously planned schedule. They did not get mad at me but they did emphasize that time is of the essence if we were going to make it to the airport to catch our plane.

Climbing the mountain was an experience all its own. A few months ago I would not have been able to climb anything because I had been so sick, so being able to keep up with them, lingering because I wanted to, not because I was physically incapable of keeping up filled me with wonder. It also assured me that my heart and lungs are more than OK after those scary months of not being able to sleep or breathe properly.

At the top of the mountain, level with the Buddha statue’s head, rests a temple. I had already seen two temples on this trip and wasn’t particularly interested in seeing another but Olaf had his camera out and was shuttering away. Carrie Ann was following suit and I just loosely followed them. They took pictures of everything and they did it Chinese style. Not taking time to savor or get the feeling of anything, they clicked madly and moved on. Me, with my inferior camera and my penchant to experience rather than capture things on memory cards, concentrated on absorbing the feel of this temple, only loosely holding my camera in my hand should something picture-worthy manifest itself.

I should mention that I find it distasteful to take pictures of the insides of houses of worship. That goes for any discipline: cathedrals, synagogues (not that I’ve been in many of them), and temples of any kind. To me, these are places of reflection and reverence, not tourist attractions. As such, I do feel reverent when touring temples. I don’t mind taking pictures of the grounds around the temples, just not inside the temples. But that is just me, not Carrie Ann, Olaf or any of the tourists that clicked away in the temple while I silently walked around.

In this particular temple there were monks chanting in front of the altar and people kneeling on the prayer cushions. Outside the masses made offerings in the form of burning incense or oil in chalices, for a price. I did take this all in, but then I left it behind. Alone, my hands clasped in front of me I sought the feel of this temple. What was it all about? What solace did it have to offer? I circled the altar, where no other tourist had yet ventured and looked out at the deserted courtyard beyond. Apparently the tourists were concentrated in the front of the temple, yet the whole back area was being left, unexplored. I thought I should go get my friends and expose them to this uncrowded area.

As I circled the rest of the way around the altar I came face to face with a monk. Without even thinking about it I made the sign of respect and bowed to him. He raised his right hand to chest level, palm facing left, and blessed me. His blessing did not feel like dispensation. Rather, it was the recognition of one student to another of our great Teacher.

Without saying a word, a universe of knowledge passed between us. A gentle, knowing smile played on his face. His eyes, bright with the light kindled in his soul, locked on mine. I felt the impact at some unknown, unnamed place within me and for that instant felt connected to all things past and all things yet to come. This encounter lasted only a few seconds and he went on his way while I went on mine.

That was it. I instinctively felt that my trip to Le Shan had fulfilled its purpose even though I had not yet seen the giant Buddha statue, and I no longer cared if my eyes did light upon it. However, I had companions to consider, my touristy friends who, as far as I know, had not had such a personal and deep encounter with a monk. So I went back to them and to the noise and the crowd in front of the temple and asked them if they had seen the courtyard behind the altar. “Is there anything worth seeing?” asked Olaf. “To me there is” I replied. He gave me a strange look but nudged Carrie Ann and they followed me through the deserted area beyond.

We did in fact climb down the steep staircase parallel to the statue, and the Buddha is impressive. My mind was still distracted by the force of the encounter I had at the temple, away from the crowds and the noise. Intellectually it did register that I was a participant to the activity around me. I had to stop and start continuously on that treacherous staircase carved out of the side of the mountain that was only wide enough for one person at a time, because people in front of me were taking pictures all the while. I really didn’t care. I was content to only snap one or two pictures on the way down, and only one picture once at the foot of the statue for posterity. My real experience had happened atop the mountain.

Ever aware of the time, Carrie Ann set the pace back up the mountain and through the rest of the park. We had to rush back to Chengdu in order to have some dinner before getting on the plane and time was running out. She bartered cab fare back to the city for us and Olaf bought our bus tickets. The only tickets available were on a bus scheduled to depart at 5:40PM, which would put us in Chengdu just before 9PM. Worried frowns on my partners’ faces; they knew we would not manage the time to eat anything decent before tearing off in the direction to the airport.

To make matters worse, the bus stopped to refuel. Here we had been elated because we were making good time, only to lose our advantage at a gas station on the outskirts of the city. Not being able to keep still I had stood up in front of my seat by the window and, facing rear, had spied a cab at the head of the traffic line stopped at the light. Olaf suggested we ditch the bus and cab it back to city center and I pointed out the available cab. Things worked out just so and we made it back into town with over an hour more to spare than we thought we would have. That cab driver first dropped Carrie Ann and I off at our chosen restaurant and then took Olaf to the hotel to retrieve our luggage, finally driving him back to the restaurant. We women ordered dinner. Everyone’s food was served just in time for Olaf’s return. We had time for a leisurely dinner before making it to the airport. This cab driver was jovial and poked fun at Olaf, with Carrie Ann and I translating. That was our final experience of Chengdu.

I leave you to guess which one made the deepest impression on me.