Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sharing the View

Being as I’ve been in my new digs for about two months now, I thought I would start sharing the view with you. Like: what does the new place look like? And the new neighborhood? And what about that path I take to get to the internet cafe?

And then I took the idea further. What do things look like from this end of campus? And what about the changes to the area? With all of the construction, you need to be brought up to date on everything.

So the next few blog entries will be pictures. Mind you I’m a wordsmith and maybe I’m doing myself a disservice by posting pictures. But, on the other hand, could you really imagine my new, red velvet couch that looks like it belongs in a lounge based on my description alone?

I thought not. So I’m sending pictures. I’ll send words after I send all of the pictures I’ve taken.

These should be self explanatory: living room, dining room, bedroom, office, bathroom, kitchen and the view of the housing area, still under construction.

I hope you enjoy them.


‘Getting porked’ is an expression I picked up early in my Federal Facility days from one of my mentors. As in: “Tour 2 porked us again” uttered when the outgoing shift left a piece of equipment down for us to fix. Or “We’re getting porked” when it was reported how much of a raise our governing branch voted themselves, all while trying to hold back on giving us our contractually mandated raise.

Somehow, pigs always end up maligned. Think about it: besides getting ‘porked’, pork barrel spending is rampant in government, the phrase ‘bringing home the bacon’ implies that some poor pig died in order for a slab of meat to be slung over some workman’s shoulder and brought home. Even in Animal Farm, that George Orwell fable, Snowball and Napoleon end up being bad guys.

You won’t see me wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan “Save the Pigs” anytime soon, but I might consider wearing one that says “Foreigners get porked”, if only Chinese people would understand the slang. And that is what this entry is all about.

As a rule, foreigners get cheated. In taxis, at the market, in smaller shops where bargaining is expected foreigners are looked at hungrily and salaciously. Allegedly, if you are a foreigner you are either too stupid to strike a good bargain, or unknowing of the art of bargaining. If the vendor even thinks that deeply into it, that is. Usually it is a matter of ‘oooh, a foreigner! Must be rich! I’m going to make a bundle today!’

I accept the concept of foreigners getting cheated. For that very reason I do my routine shopping in large stores such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour or Metro, or some Chinese equivalent to a big department store where the prices are fixed and advertised and no bargaining is expected.

Taxi drivers have been known to get very mad at me when I travel with my Chinese friends. I have an unusual amount of luck flagging down cabs, but when my Chinese friends get in the cab with me and tell the driver where to go, usually the driver goes on a rant about how they thought they would only be conveying a foreigner somewhere. That is because they intend to cheat me. I know. I have experience.

One time I needed to go to Wuhan train station, which is further than Wuchang train station (the one I always write about). As I only had a rough idea on how to get there and didn’t have time to try my luck with the buses, I hailed a cab. He chose to take me all around the city on 3rd Ring Road – the longest way possible that would afford him maximum fare. It ended up costing me 80Yuan to get there. Had I had the language skills – or a Chinese friend to debate the matter for me, it would only have cost about 30Yuan.

See how I get porked?

Another time I wanted to take a cab home from Metro. I didn’t mind taking the bus to City Center, so that my campus would only be a few minutes’ cab ride away, but I didn’t feel like lugging my heavy shopping bag all the way across campus to my apartment. So I hailed a cab. In all fairness he did tell me that he had to stop at a gas station to fill up, I just didn’t figure he’d start the meter until after he completed that chore. Or, when he did start the meter right away I figured he would go to a gas station along the way instead of in the opposite direction. That ride home cost me over 50Yuan. And this time I did have the language skills to tell him there was a gas station along the way to my destination. He countered with ‘but I have to fill up at a certain gas station’. I didn’t see why; he did not fill out any forms and his cab number was not registered. He paid cash for his fill-up.

No, I think he just wanted to cheat me.

So, as a rule I do not ride in cabs alone. And, I do not go shopping alone unless it is for routine, mundane stuff you can find at Wal-mart. But now is the time for Christmas shopping, and that involves bargaining, and again the thought comes to mind that, being a foreigner, I will be cheated. What to do?

I’ve enlisted the help of some of my friends and students. As they like to go out with me anyway, why not turn the outing into a profitable venture for me? They can do the bargaining and I will stand by, seemingly deaf and dumb and visibly foreign, laying out the cash only when the transaction is complete. Buy two of this with this student during one outing and three of that with that student on a different outing and there you have it: I’ve kept my promise of outings with students all while they help me.

That is fun, good and right, but at that rate, I’ll not get my Christmas shopping done till after Christmas! So I talked to Sam, who suggested I shop online. You see, I have in mind to gift many of my friends the same type thing, but not in the same style. By shopping online I can not only get a fair price – the computer doesn’t know I’m a foreigner, but I can get a discount for multiple purchases. Only two things holding me up there: lack of internet connection and the fact that my Chinese language skills are nowhere near good enough to negotiate online buys.

Again Sam volunteers his services. Not only will he direct me to the proper websites but he will also navigate though the screens until the buys are complete. I like that idea: I can get all of my Christmas shopping done with a few mouse clicks, I won’t have to go out into the crowded shops and I won’t break a hip kicking myself for my helplessness or from frustration at knowing I’m being cheated and being unable to do a thing about it.

So now things are looking up where Christmas shopping is concerned. As long as we’re looking up, let’s look at other good things.

All of the vendors around campus, along The Street and at the Farmer’s Market welcome me with open arms and charge me just as much as they charge the other shoppers. At the various restaurants near campus I get charged as much as the other diners, and usually get served extra food or larger portions. Because ‘the foreigner’ eats there, I tend to drum up business for them. Larger portions is how they show their appreciation.

Now: what am I going to do about the cab drivers?

Avoid riding in a taxi alone if at all possible. The bus system is more than adequate to ferry me where I need to go. Except for last night.

Last night, after Thanksgiving at Aloha’s, bus 202 was not running anymore – it stops at 7PM. That is the only bus that will take me directly back to campus. There are other ways back: take bus 208, then transfer to bus 222 and finally connect with one of the other 3 bus lines that stops in front of The Street. However, my belly was groaning with all the good food I ate and my head was verging on a migraine. I did not want to spend 2 hours getting home and there is always a proliferation of taxis in front of Aloha’s. While Carrie Ann and the Mapleleaf bunch hopped into their cabs I snagged the closest one to me. I told the driver my destination and mercifully, he said he knew right where it was at, clicked the meter on and off we go.

I leaned back, comforted that this driver did not want to talk, only to drive. And it seems he meant business… until we missed our exit off the highway. ‘Here I go again!’ I say to myself, resigned to being cheated yet again. But not this time!

The driver apparently realized he made a mistake and asked me again where I needed to go. I told him he should have taken the Wuchang exit and followed Zhong Shan Lou up to my road.

Brace yourselves now…

He stopped the meter and doubled back! He only charged me up to the time he realized he made a mistake and took me the rest of the way home without squeezing an extra fen out of the fare!

By no means has this one driver restored my faith in all cab drivers throughout Wuhan or across China in general, but he went a long way to comforting me about being cheated. I will still operate under the belief that, unless I patronize established shopping houses or ones where I am known I will be cheated. But I do thank this one driver for not cheating a foreigner whose head hurt too badly to argue.


I do not pretend to be the Know-All, Be-All and End-All of anything, least of all of Chinese culture. When I write about the various topics I try to be as informed as possible. Sometimes I am misinformed… or just flat wrong. So, every once in a while I need to make corrections. In the old days of typewriters or cursive, such corrections were done with Wite-out – sometimes called Liquid Paper, something that glue sniffers took to like ducks to water. The fumes were toxic and those with an affinity for sniffing toxic substances took to sniffing it to get their jollies. I think one would be hard-pressed to find the old, toxic formula anymore; nowadays there is Wite-Out on a ribbon that one traces over lines of print or in a pen that does not emit toxic fumes.

But this is not about Wite-Out, no matter what the title says. It is about me being wrong. I accept being wrong, as long as I have the chance to correct my mistakes once they’re pointed out to me.

The first and most important mistake I need to correct is the Singles’ Day entry. My daughter informed me that her husband’s best friend, the one that died in Iraq was named Tanner, not Taylor as I originally published. Far be it for me to disrespect my beloved son-in-law’s best friend and the Tanner family by ascribing his valiant acts and shortened life to the Taylor family. And, I certainly would not want any Taylors to find out about the death of their loved one, albeit misreported, through my humble blog. Thus I correct my mistake: please keep the Tanner family in your heart and prayers. Although I’m sure there are Taylor families worth consideration, there are none with regard to this blog. At least, not yet. And I hope, considering the circumstances connected to Tanner, there will be none. Tanner was hard enough on everyone concerned.

Next I need to correct the name of the restaurant that George and Chris took me to in ‘The Entry Devoted to Food’ post. Originally I had listed it as Corky’s Barbeque, a famous restaurant chain in Tennessee. As A. Chris and George do not live in Tennessee and B. to my knowledge have never patronized Corky’s, it seems a mite unfair to give credit to an eatery they’ve never even heard of. It is in fact Outlaw’s Barbeque that they treated me to, and the food was succulent.

None of these have anything to do with Chinese culture, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph. These were just wrongs I had to right. With those mistakes corrected I can now move on to what I misreported with regard to life and culture in China.

I have often reported that the kids who move onto our university campus are most likely away from home for the first time. That statement is accurate. I have also reported that young children are cared for by their elderly relatives. That is also true. The inaccuracy is that I reported they were away from their family for the first time. I have recently found out that that is mostly not the case.

Young children – mostly under the age of 10 are in fact, for the most part, cared for by elderly relatives. At some point, usually when the elderly relative turns sixty or shows signs of ailing and failing, the child is enrolled into a local boarding school. There the child will live 5 days a week and return home on weekends. Or, he/she will come home when one of the parents has a day off.
I stand firm by the impression I’ve created that Chinese parents and families in general are devoted to their children. By no means do they shunt their kids off to boarding school to get away from the kids or because the children are difficult or unmanageable, as the running impression goes of boarding school children elsewhere in the world. Also, I stand firm with the statement that there is no such thing as a ‘latchkey’ kid here in China. One way or another, kids are monitored and well taken care of until they turn eighteen and go to university. That is why our freshmen tend to go a bit wild once they discover the freedom being away from home and out from under watchful eyes offers.

A long time ago I reported that there were no dumpsters in China. One simply throws trash into an open pit, or, as is the case on campus into a little hut. Such disposal methods make combing the trash for recyclables easier. While the last sentence is true, the rest is not. China is in fact rife with trash cans and dumpsters. At the time I reported it, very early in the blog – see ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ entry, posted in the dim and distant past: October of last year, I did not have a wealth of exposure all over town. Furthermore, our campus trash was disposed of in just the way I reported previously.

Things have changed. I now know that Wuhan has dumpsters everywhere, lovely green and white ones. If you do not get too close to them, they are quite nice and serviceable. If you do get close to them the smell will knock you over. Hopefully you will fall to the side of it and not into it. Either way I discourage sniffing dumpsters.

Besides dumpsters there are trash cans. Two-sided trash cans, to be exact: one side for recyclables and the other for ‘normal’ trash. As long as the general citizenry makes the distinction, the people who routinely pick through the trash have no problem picking up bottles and other plastics to cash in at the local recycling plant.

As part of the campus beautification project most, if not all of the green barrel type trash cans have been replaced by stainless steel, two-sided trash cans. Also, along The Street such disposal containers have been anchored into the sidewalk. It seems that, even here in the armpit of the city, civilization is catching up. However, in front of the dorms there are still little brick huts with a steel dutch door where the students are to dispose of their trash. That trash, as I’ve previously reported, gets raked out and shoveled into green handcarts, and then taken off campus to be sifted through for recyclables and then burned.

Also, as you’ll see in my upcoming blog post ‘To Get to the Internet Bar’, there are still open pits for burning trash. You don’t want to be around when that happens. It does not smell good.

I believe I’ve corrected everything I’ve misrepresented or otherwise got wrong. If you note some deficiency in my narrative, please do not hesitate to let me know. Especially when I give credit where none is due or misspeak something you know to be false.

Confession time: I do like to research what I write before I write it. With no Internet connection at home, research is a bit difficult. I try to remember to make notes to research whatever I’m writing about while at the Internet café, but oftentimes I neglect making notes or forget the notes altogether.

On the bright side I did hear workmen monkeying around in the telecommunications box just outside my apartment this morning. Maybe I’ll have an Internet connection soon, so I can write you and research what I’m blogging about. Believe me: as soon as I’m connected, you’ll be the first to know!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Because I Have so Much to be Thankful For

I’m writing another entry for Thanksgiving because I have so much to be thankful for. I just have to tell you about my Thanksgiving Day.

It started the day before Thanksgiving, when I was walking across campus burdened with my shopping bags. I had just made a successful foray to Metro, buying a bottle of liquor for Carrie Ann’s birthday, and fine German chocolate for Tony’s birthday next week. He kind of wolfed down the last bit I had at the house, declaring it the best chocolate he had ever tasted. I thought it might be an appropriate gift for him. I also bought a tin of imported cookies for Evan, whose birthday was this past Saturday.

I passed on the turkey because I decided to go to Aloha’s and celebrate with Carrie Ann and the bunch from Mapleleaf School. Besides, what do I need a whole turkey for? The only thing I did not find was brownie mix, but that’s OK because I still have two boxes at home.

I then stopped at the farmer’s market and stocked up on veggies. I had just bought a crock pot – got a sweet deal on it too: only 49Yuan! A nice stew would be good on these chilly nights. So now I’m toting a shopping bag full of farm fresh vegetables in one hand and a bag full of Metro goodies in the other. They’re kind of heavy. I’d like to take a break from carrying them.

Here is a good place to set them down: in front of the banner that proclaimed, in English, that Thanksgiving Day is the day to be thankful, commissioned and unfurled at the behest of the English club.

That banner stopped me in my tracks. There was no such commemoration of a purely American tradition on campus last year. As a matter of fact the kids did not know much about Thanksgiving at all! I distinctly remember introducing the subject to my students and telling them all about the festival. I also remember the feeling of loss and disconnection I felt at being a stranger in a foreign land, amidst a people whose lives bustled about while, across the ocean, families would gather ‘round their table, join hands and give thanks for all of the blessings in their life.

I picked up my bags and wondered as I walked the rest of the way home: have I made such a difference on this campus? Being the only American for miles around, and having taught the history and traditions of Thanksgiving… well, maybe I’m taking a bit much onto myself but… HAVE I made such a difference?

For the actual Thanksgiving Day I had nothing more on my agenda but cleaning my house and attending English Corner later that night. I really need to clean the house. After all the time spent preparing for speech competitions, and then participating in them, and then rolling right into my teaching obligations, and resuming my life – going food shopping and gift shopping… I haven’t had a chance to clean house for about a week. The dust is piling up and the floors look terrible.

Dinner at Aloha’s, with Carrie Ann and the Mapleleaf group will be tomorrow. Tonight, a nice soup, made in the newly acquired crock pot will do for my dinner. Sam will be spending the night on campus because he has early classes on Friday, so he’ll probably come over. He’ll most likely join me for stew and maybe we’ll have a glass of wine. In short I anticipated a nice, quiet day.

It was anything but.

After a nice, restful sleep I got up and headed to the kitchen for tea. While waiting for the water to heat up I checked my cellphone. I had missed a call, and there was a text message. Didn’t recognize the number the missed call came from so I dismissed the notice and checked the text message folder.

Scratch that ‘one message’. There were no less than twenty seven messages on my phone, all of them wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. Some, like the one from Chris or the one from Lancy, exuded deep sentiment. Says Chris: “Good Morning, Sophia. Happy Thanksgiving Day. Thanks for what you have done for us. You are a great woman, mother and friend.” Lancy: “Thank you for being in my life. Today is a nice day to express thanks to everyone who appears around me. Wish you a nice future.” Others just wished a happy Thanksgiving and a good day.

The Chinese have their own Thanksgiving Day, celebrated in June. They don’t fill their plates with turkey and ham, and they don’t watch football afterward. It is pretty much just a day, like Father’s Day or Children’s Day, where they make a small concession to thanking the gods or God for the circumstances in their life, and then get on with it. The banks and post offices stay open, the marketers hawk their wares, the vendors with their pushcarts crowd the roads. Life goes on. Nothing really remarkable about Chinese Thanksgiving Day.

But today, AMERICAN Thanksgiving Day, there is an outpouring of thankfulness and sentiment. And a lot of it is directed at me, judging by the ongoing chiming of my phone, indicating more and more incoming messages.

So… HAVE I made such a difference here, on this campus and in these people’s lives? The idea of it bowls me over. How often are we made aware of how we have impacted someone’s life, while we’re still alive to appreciate it?

All too often such acknowledgements are made after death. By then it is too late to show the person who changed you your appreciation. Depending on your spiritual bent they may or may not know how thankful you are of them from their place in the Afterlife. Again I learn from my students and my friends in China: show your appreciation now, immediately, in the light of day while the person you are thankful for is able to see and realize what a difference you have made in the world. Even if that world is a small university campus in the armpit of an industrial town in Southwest China.

Don’t we all, at one time or another aspire to change the world? Especially when we are young and our possibilities are limitless. Don’t we vow to rock that boat, roll that stone off the musty old times and dance to the music heralding the dawn of a new day? A new day that we single-handedly brought about? Don’t we idly speculate about being famous, inventing something, sacrificing personal safety in favor of fighting for a higher cause… don’t we all want to change the world?

It is hard for me to accept that I have had such an impact, even if it is just in this little part of the world.

And you, my friend? Are you fretting about how the turkey will turn out, or if there will be enough pie? Are you preoccupied with which game you will watch that day, or having to fight over whether the game or the Macy’s parade will blare from the TV? Do thoughts of Black Friday intrude, even as you join hands and give thanks for your bounty? Will you spend this evening pulling Christmas decorations from the attic?

Or are you hunched over your cell phone, sending out messages of thankfulness and love to those who have made an impact on your life?

But for lack of Internet connection I would be hunched over my keyboard, sending out email after email to let you know how thankful I am for you. I am in fact typing my thanks to you as we speak. The only interruptions are the chimes of the cellphone. Now Stephanie, now Rockrose, now April and Carol. Now Martin and Summer, then Susan and Bill. No loneliness and disconnection, like I experienced last year. The messages keep coming. I’ve lost count. But I’m grateful for every one of them.

And I’m grateful for you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Just a short note to wish you and yours a happy Thanksgiving.

With speech competitions consuming my every waking moment till now, I have not had much time to think of Thanksgiving being right around the corner. Now, with both competitions finished I find my calendar mocking me with the traditional holiday, just days away.

I should have gone shopping today but on Mondays I have a full course load to teach: from 8AM until 8:30PM I am addressing students. And this after a weekend of competitions!

No, shopping will have to be done tomorrow. I will head out to Metro to see if they have any turkeys. Hopefully headless/footless ones, although I could stand to amputate feet if I had to. Remember that in China, poultry is sold ‘whole bird’ so that you recognize you’re getting real bird, not something disguised as poultry… although I have a hard time imagining how poultry could be faked.

Or maybe I will just cook a chicken breast and pretend it is turkey. Anyone I would consider inviting is busy or out of town anyway, and I’m not necessarily a traditionalist. Especially if maintaining tradition means I have to amputate a turkey’s head.

There is secret option #3: Aloha’s, an American diner in Hanyang is offering a full Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. The price is rather high – over 100Yuan a plate, but the food is tasty. And, considering that I may well spend over that amount cooking a traditional dinner for just myself, it might be reasonable to jump on a bus and chow down on turkey and ham that I don’t have to cook. Besides, I just got off the phone with Carrie Ann, who reminded me that Aloha’s is putting on that spread. She said she wouldn’t mind extending her party’s reservation to include me.

I haven’t seen Carrie Ann since I got back to Wuhan except for one brief visit, when we had Olaf’s going away party in September. His assignment in China is over; he has permanently returned to his beloved Germany. Carrie Ann has been very busy with her full teaching schedule and working on her Master’s. As it stands, she and I might not have a chance to visit until maybe over Spring Festival time. As long as we stay in touch and catch up on the phone every so often, I can live with that. While not a good traveling companion for me she is a good friend. I do miss her.

No, I think that, after the panic and hectic of these past few weeks I can live with some quiet time. I think I’ll spend Thanksgiving alone. That grilled chicken breast with a baked potato sounds just fine. Besides, I need to get going on my Christmas shopping. As it is I’m running late for that. The gifts I’m sending back to the States might not make it there on time because I’m so late.

But I do have an idea to commemorate Thanksgiving. Every Wednesday the English department has a staff meeting. I’m not included because the meetings are in Chinese – go figure! But nothing says that, on this one Wednesday I cannot sneak into the meeting room and deliver a pan of brownies before the meeting starts, along with a note thanking my colleagues and the school’s administration for this wonderful experience I’m enjoying with them. I know they all like brownies. Who doesn’t?

Don’t feel sad that I’m stuck in China all by myself on Thanksgiving. I’ll log some video time with Gabriel, I’m sure. And I’m going to try to get in touch with Darrell too. The internet café has QQ, the Chinese chat program that Jennifer downloaded, but it doesn’t have Skype. So calling Darrell is out.

And I have you in my heart. As you gather ‘round your table, surely groaning with all of the goodies that you’ll enjoy, as you take the hand of your loved one and give your thanks for the riches in your life, I’ll be right there with you, in spirit.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Speech Competitions: Evan

Evan came onto the speech competition stage late. Just three weeks before competition the school realized that they had made a mistake. There are actually two levels of competition: one for English Majors and one for non-English majors. We’d been training Tony for the English Major’s competition when in fact his major is Engineering. Now we needed to scour our campus for an English Major to compete.

Enter Evan. After a hastily thrown together audition on a Tuesday afternoon, Hellen, Julia and I selected Evan as the best our school had to offer on short notice.

Evan, while not demonstrative, is a fine speaker. He instinctively knows how to compose a speech and somehow already knows all about the mechanics of speech writing. For a last minute audition, he shone with his ability to stay in time limits and illustrate his point succinctly. As his coach, I would not have to work much on the content aspects of his speech, like I do with Tony. With Evan, the teachings would be all about presentation and technique.

At first I did not recognize him, even though I know all of the English Majors. At one time or another they have all been my students. Only after he told me his English name did I remember him as the thin, quiet boy in my freshman class of last year. He never did say much in class but when he did he spoke very well. Other than that he was not remarkable.

He had filled out over the summer: gotten a bit taller, grew his hair out into a shaggy bowl and his face had gotten chubbier. I suppose that, along with his quiet presence in class is why I did not recognize him.

As I had been working with Tony for longer than Evan I focused more on Evan at this late stage of the game. Soon I realized that, with Evan’s natural ability to compose speeches, both boys were pretty much on par. I could coach them at the same level. Being as Evan’s strength was content and Tony’s was presentation and technique I set them to working together, instructing each other. I only stepped in to give actual instructions on how to approach a podium, use body language effectively and how to use voice for emphasis.

As with Tony’s entry I will start with dress rehearsal, and convey impressions.

Dress rehearsal: Evan had never worn a suit before. His parents had to take him out suit shopping and to get a haircut: that traditional bowl cut would not do for competition, where presentation counts for so much. The Tuesday before competition he went suit shopping. He sent me a text message telling me how exhausting the whole ordeal was. I laughed and sent him an encouraging message back. Dress rehearsal was Thursday. He arrived at my house with his brand new suit and his tie untied. None of us - Evan, Tony or I knew how to tie a tie. Evan figured it out, but then later untied it instead of just loosening the knot. At my shout of dismay he flopped onto the couch, dismayed himself. Now he was going to have to figure out how to do it again! We had a good laugh about it.

Competition Eve: While I was away at Tony’s competition, Evan trudged all over Wuhan Agricultural University, trying to figure out where on campus to register for competition and draw his seeding. As with Tony’s competition, he had to draw a number to take his place among the 32 contestants, and then attend orientation. Normally his coach would have accompanied him but I was out of town. Hellen – yes, the unpleasant one of the Daisy, Helen, Hellen and Mouse entry posted last June was his other coach. She openly declared - to Evan! – that she wasn’t getting paid any extra to do any coaching. Therefore she saw no need to put forth any extra effort.

Matter of fact, she openly complained to Evan about a lot of stuff, he later told me. The poor kid! He actually told me: “I didn’t know what I was supposed to tell her when she did all that complaining!” I commiserated with him. Being as we had that conversation at 9PM on Competition Eve, after my return from spending the night in one-‘L’ed Helen’s company, I could honestly sympathize with him when he vented about being subjected to two’L’d Hellen’s unpleasant disposition.

And how is it that I keep getting stuck with Helens – one ‘L’ed or two? But, this is about the boys. I’ll speculate about those Helens in another entry, maybe.

Back to Evan. Competition Eve just happened to be his 21st birthday. Whereas our expenses, including train fare to Xian Ning were covered by the school, no funds were disbursed for Evan’s competition. He took it upon himself to not only find where to go, and register for competition by himself but he also checked himself into a hotel near that campus and paid for it out of his own pocket. He declared it was because he is now 21; he needs to start taking care of things himself. Evan is a good boy.

And a considerate boy. He sent me text messages asking how Tony’s competition went, and then later called Tony to talk with him about it. He tried to talk me out of coming to his competition because he reasoned I was so tired from Tony’s competition. Sorry, dear Evan: that’s not how we roll. We’re a team and we are there for each other. Now get off the phone and let me get some sleep so I can wake up at 5AM to attend your competition.

10PM. Hellen finally manifests herself. She asks if I’m going to Evan’s competition in the morning. Because I’m going she decides to go as well. We arrange to meet at our campus’ main gate at 6:20 the following morning and share a cab there. In case she backs out at the last minute I have the directions to the competition, thanks to Evan who sent me the information via text message. I did not tell her that.

Competition morning: I arrive at the gate in plenty of time to meet up with Hellen. She texts that she is eating breakfast near the gate. I find her and wait while she finishes eating. Fortunately we do manage to snag a cab and arrive at the Agricultural University in plenty of time. Only while in the taxi do I tell her that Evan will be waiting for us at the gate. She seems displeased that he and I have colluded behind her back. In the end it paid off because she did not know where to go. Evan jumped in the cab at the gate and led us right to the hall. We had time to take some pictures before Evan was sequestered.

Competition rules: every contestant was to deliver a three-minute prepared speech on the topic: A Word that has Changed the World. Immediately following that speech they are to give another three minute speech on a topic given them just 20 minutes before they take the stage. With two minutes allotted for the Q&A portion of the contest, each competitor had a total of 8 minutes on stage.

Evan was #18 of 33 speakers. While his content and presentation were great he ran a bit short on the Q&A portion of the contest and thus ranked 26th of 33 contestants. As with Tony, Evan expressed relief at the ordeal being over.

After competition Evan introduced me to his parents, who invited me to lunch. That is them, in the picture. Unfortunately, the competition was to culminate in a banquet for the competitors and their coaches. Hellen had declared she was going to bow out of the banquet and had given me the coupons for it. After regretfully declining lunch in Evan’s parents’ company she changed her mind and took the coupons back. I went to lunch with another teacher, Diane from our school, and her family. Evan and I then spent the rest of the afternoon touring the Wuhan A&M campus in the company of Diane and her husband, who teaches physics there. Diane had brought her little boy who, with all respect to my own grandchildren, may well be the cutest kid in the world. Hellen tagged along. For once she did not spend much time nitpicking or criticizing, at least not to me. I do get the distinct impression she does not like me.

I confided that last to Evan as we strolled around campus and played with the baby. He averred that she is one strange woman and was just as glad as I was that she had Diane to talk with. That was the last we talked about her, choosing instead to get to know one another better.

During our chat, Evan made as touching a disclosure as Tony did. He said that, while he was onstage he really couldn’t see into the audience. But he saw a red light. As I had videotaped them in practice, he knew that my camera had a red light that indicated I was recording. He confided that the only thing he could really see while he was onstage was that red light, and that told him I was out there, watching him. He was comforted by my presence. He said that thought gave him the courage to withstand this grueling ordeal.

Evan is Victor’s student this semester. Next semester he will again be in my class. Unlike with Tony, whose company I only get to enjoy socially, and at that only when he has the time, I will have the pleasure of working with Evan again in the near future. That is something I definitely look forward to.

Speech Competitions: Tony

After a grueling, taxing, arduous and exhausting three weeks spent in Tony and Evan’s company nearly exclusively, I believe the boys are ready for competition. I do have to tell you though: the grueling, taxing arduous and exhausting time was not had by me; it was had by the boys. Not only are they preparing for this speech competition but they also have finals to look forward to, they have to do their regular homework and they have their campus programs that they have to keep up with. Evan is on a basketball team and they expect him to play. Tony is Class Monitor and there are plenty of responsibilities to go with that.

For me, these last three weeks have been pure joy. It is not often that one meets a Tony, as I believe I already told you. Evan is just as fine a young man. Maybe his waters are not quite as still or deep as his speech teammate’s but he is a good kid and a pleasure to be around.

I debated whether to write a chronology of the competitions, or just capture impressions to share with you. I feel the impressions are more significant than relating, point by point, what happened. So I’m going to go with color rather than play by play. If this upsets you, please do not hesitate to come to China and take it out of my hide. I would gladly risk a good thrashing for the pleasure of welcoming you to my home.

Taking it from the dress rehearsal: the last practice at my house. As you can see from the picture, Tony was a bit freaked out. That’s because I was trying to put mascara on him. It was a full dress rehearsal: I insisted he be stage ready. I suppose it could be freaky, for a man, to be chased down by female wielding a tube of mascara.

For Tony’s competition we had to go to Xian Ning, a small town one hour away from Wuhan by train. Helen – she of the ‘Daisy, Helen, Hellen and Mouse’ entry posted in June, accompanied us. So now the party consists of me, Tony, Helen, a boy whose home town is Xian Ning and another boy that just wanted to spend some time with the foreigner. I rather resented Helen for that last inclusion. Why would she think that I would enjoy being subjected to someone who wants to speak better English at my expense? In the end this boy, whose name I never did catch proved quite pleasant and appreciative of any conversational gambits I threw his way. Admittedly there weren’t many because, quite frankly I was most busy with Tony – last minute psyching, and with Helen, who kept trying to run my life for me.

Arrival Xian Ning. We took a taxi to the hotel all contestants were to stay at. Helen and I shared a room; Tony and the boys roomed next door. I considered briefly moving in with the boys because Helen never shuts up. I then rejected that idea. It might be unseemly to room with three boys. I endured Helen’s constant prattle and did my best to ignore it, even throwing the blanket over my head and pretending to sleep. Fortunately I had thought to bring a flashlight, so I just read my book under the covers. Helen finally quit talking, mercifully.

We had to register for competition immediately after check-in. The university was next door to the hotel so we just walked the few km it took to get to the auditorium. It felt nice to stretch my legs. During that walk, Tony slipped away from Helen’s incessant chatter long enough to tell me he wanted to share something with me once we returned to our campus. He still has not told me what that ‘something’ is.

After registration and orientation we went to dinner… on the other side of the campus. Now why, when our hotel was next to the campus would Helen choose to walk all the way to the back of the campus to eat, and then walk all the way across campus again to get to the hotel? Some things you just can’t control; we let Helen have her way. I drew the line when she tried to fix my plate for me. I’m not her son, or any other random child.

Last minute pep talk before bed. Helen is blathering in rapid-fire Chinese. I have no idea what she is telling Tony. I do know that she has instructed him to use no body language, to just stand at the podium, emotionless, and deliver his speech. I got pretty angry seeing as I had been the only one coaching him in the mechanics and techniques of speech-giving, and he worked very hard to learn. But then realized that I don’t control everything. If she feels it is vital for her to come on, last minute and tell him how to act, that is that. I’ve done what I could. I trudged behind the group, rationalizing my anger and letting it go. In spite of Helen telling us we need to be in bed by 10PM we did not hit the sheets till nearly 11.

The morning dawns: I got up at 5:30 so that Helen and I would not fight over the bathroom. Also, I needed some quiet time to get ‘in the zone’. I woke everyone up at 6:30. While Helen took her time getting ready I helped Tony with his hair and his suit. We went for breakfast, provided free by the hotel, at 7:15. Tony had to be in the prep room, the room next to the auditorium by 7:30. We got there late, but then so did most of the other contestants.

Showtime: Tony was number 15 of 30 contestants in line to give his speech. I could imagine him in the prep room, off to the side, drawing into himself, finding his core and marshalling his thoughts. In short, Young Tony was getting in the zone. That he got there was plainly evident in the way he approached the stage and took it over.

Competition rules: You hit the stage. You pick a number between 1 and 15. The topic pops up on screen. You have 30 seconds to prepare a 2 minute and 30 second speech on the given topic. Upon conclusion of the speech, the Question Master asks two questions. You have two minutes total for the Q&A portion of your speech. Then, you clear the stage and the next competitor takes over. Total time onstage: 5 minutes.

Tony is a natural born showman and a gifted speaker. He took the stage confidently, standing tall and handsome in his suit. His face expressionless, he chose his number, and then stared at the image he was to describe. Come time for him to speak it was as though a light switch had been thrown. He became TONY! Animated, graphic, using body language and gestures and facial expressions and humor. In short he did nothing that Helen instructed him to do and everything we had drilled on for the last 3 weeks. I felt a savage glee at Helen being thwarted.

Sometimes I’m not very nice.

Again, this child impressed me with his self-possession and maturity. The same boy that laughed uproariously at his own mistakes during rehearsals at my house stood in the auditorium, suit jacket unbuttoned and arms akimbo, looking composed, as if an arduous task had just been successfully completed. The intermission being immediately after Tony’s speech, Helen had leapt up to meet him as he came offstage. I hung back, not wanting the boy to be flooded. While she carried on and on about whatever she was talking about, he looked over at me, smiled and winked. I winked back and flashed him the victory sign. He had done a good job. He placed twelfth of 30. That is the best anyone in our school has ever done at these competitions.

Tony and I spent a great deal of time tete-a-tete that afternoon. I vastly prefer conversing with him to Helen nonsensical chatter. Hard to remember sometimes that he is just a child, especially when he talks like my contemporary. I’m going to miss working with him so closely. But we are not done being friends… not by a long shot.

Going home on the train my weariness started to show. Tony, protective, proclaimed himself my body guard and made sure no one bothered me. We sat apart from the group and chatted quietly. I was moved to tears when he disclosed that, after spending this intensive time in my company, he holds me as the person he respects the most.

Back in Wuhan. Helen wants us to go to a restaurant close to her house for a nice dinner. Although I’m not opposed to dinner I am quite tired, and I have Evan’s competition to prepare for tomorrow. I beg off from dinner, especially seeing as her home is in the opposite direction of our school and it is already nearing 8PM. Disappointed, she goes home alone. The boys and I take a taxi back to campus.

Tony has become Young Tony again. He’s on the phone, he’s answering text messages, he is resuming his life. We part company at the school gate, each burdened with our bags from the trip and the glow of a time well spent.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

By Gorry, I’m a Genius!

Well, no, not really a genius. But sometimes I do get these moments of pure inspiration. Like yesterday…

I had been dragging for the last month. Not in a bad mood, not depressed, not anything like that. Just so sleepy that I could hardly manage to keep my eyes open all day! But then, come 9 o’clock at night… suddenly I’m ready to clear out the furniture and turn the joint into a dance hall. I have to force myself to bed by 10. What in the world?

I was worried about my thyroid problem returning. Sleepiness is one good indicator of that type of problem. I had no other symptoms though, so no thyroid issues. I’m out of the concrete bunker and my breathing reflects the cleaner environment. No problems getting enough oxygen. I conclude that my heart is pretty healthy seeing as I’m climbing 6 flights of stairs at least two times a week and hardly getting winded anymore. I’m eating well, socializing, sleeping 8 hours or so every night. That is, since I discovered I really do need a white noise generator.

It gets so quiet here that I tend to wake up in the middle of the night because I’m not hearing anything. And then, I can’t go back to sleep. The white noise generator helps with that. I just turn on my fan and place its flat back directly against the wall. It makes just the right amount of noise. Great idea, that noise generator stuff. Now I am sleeping through the night.

But why am I so sleepy all day long?

I’ve been waking up about 6:30AM on most days; one hour later at the latest. After getting up and enjoying my tea I do my exercises, clean house, go out or stay in. On Mondays I have to teach class from 8AM till 3PM, and then I have an evening class that I host, so I’m teaching for about 12 hours a day. OK, I can see being sleepy on Monday. But dragging? For a month?

Taking a nap is out of the question, I reasoned. If I nap when I am so sleepy I’m liable to sleep for five hours or so, and then what am I going to do all night prior to having to wake up again at 6AM to teach, or 7AM to talk with Gabe? And I know this is not a liability but an actual danger because I have tried napping during the day, when I am at my sleepiest and I have in fact stayed asleep for over 4 hours. That totally messed up my sleep schedule.

And why does my sleep have to be so regimented, anyway? Well, because I’m an ‘8-hour’ girl. I have to have 8 hours of sleep to function properly. And apparently they have to be the right 8 hours.

By the time it got to where I could no longer organize my thoughts, remember my students’ names or which blog entries I’ve sent for publishing, I started getting worried. My classes were suffering. At home, I’d wander through the house aimlessly, trying to figure out what to do with myself. This is not good.

And then I got to thinking: I’m out of whack!

That’s right, Folks, I am completely off my schedule. Normally I wake up about 8 or 9, spend a little time stretching and marveling over my good night’s sleep, and then I throw back the covers and get going on my day. After this and that, maybe some teaching and maybe some going out, definitely some writing and some reading, I’m ready for bed again at about 1AM. This past month I have been operating 33 degrees out of my normal body schedule.

Contrary to what most people believe, I firmly maintain that obeying one’s circadian rhythm is of vital importance to maintaining health and happiness, and performing optimally. And, contrary to what most people believe, I aver that one cannot train themselves to become a morning person when in fact their body is scheduled to power up in the afternoon, or at night.

When I think about it, I realize I have been operating outside of my schedule for longer than one month. During my extended trip across the States I was sleep disadvantaged while on the bus and waking up earlier than usual when I was bunking down at friends/family’s houses. Since I’ve been back in China I’ve been waking up at 7AM so I can get online and chat with Gabriel. That means that, in fact, I have been out of schedule for several months and the effects are just now manifesting themselves.

To put my theory to the test, I forced myself to stay awake till midnight last night. No struggle there! Remember: I told you that, come 9PM I am suffused with energy. I read till about 1AM, when my eyes grew heavy and then I turned out the light…

And slept blissfully! Wonderfully! And woke up at 8AM, fully refreshed. All day today I have not been sleepy at all. I’ve thought up things that I want to write about and actually got some writing done without that frustrating feeling of knowing what I want to say but not being able to get the words out. This entry is testimony to that. Actually felt hungry again for the first time in a long time. Went out walking. Welcomed visitors. It has been a good day.

But now, it is 11PM. I feel myself winding down. So, I’m going to review the posts I’ve written today and then say goodnight. Sleep tight! Sweet Dreams to you and yours.

Now I just have to figure out what I’m going to do when I finally get my Internet connection back. All’s well for now while I am not connected. I can set my own schedule. But, because Gabriel now lives on the East Coast instead of the West, our time is polar opposite. 8AM here means 8PM there, at least till Monday, when daylight savings time kicks in. And then I will have to get up even earlier to chat with my Gabe-Gabe every day.

Oh, well. Let me recover from this last bout of out-of-whackness first. I’m sure I’ll come up with something.

Single’s Day

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know.
Two can be as bad as one…

Thus starts the song, and intones the chorus of “One is the Loneliest Number”, first released in 1967. That was the time of the Viet Nam war, when our young men were drafted into service and going off to die for what some still say was only a police action and others flat out call a senseless war.

Apparently the Chinese agree with the sentiment that ‘one’ is the loneliest number, and so they dedicate November 11th of each year to be Single’s Day. On that day, ‘singles’ far and wide greet each other and encourage each other in their quest for love. Conversely if the ‘single’ enjoys the single life, he or she gets encouragement in that direction. I didn’t write about Single’s Day last year because I had a different tribute for our Veterans in mind (See last years Nov. 11th post).

Yes, in China November 11th is a frivolous, fun celebration. In America it is anything but.

As always I must pay tribute to the valiant men and women who have faced combat and come back changed. My most precious veteran is my dear son-in-law, Garrett who, during his tour of duty in Iraq lost his best friend.

That was one life lost on that day, one instance that sent shockwaves back across the ocean to impact my daughter and me. Taylor’s death brought the reality of war home to Jennifer in the most cruel and vicious way possible. Till then, Jennifer had glossed over all matters concerning the war. Perhaps she just rationalized her husband’s absence as his being out on maneuvers, or off on a drill or exercise somewhere. On that one day, when her husband called, she realized this was not a case of ‘the boys’ being in the field or on maneuvers. This was for real. Lives are being lost. Loved ones are not returning home. Her husband had been standing right next to his friend, his partner, his teammate and that person died, not her Garrett. She never expressed it but I could see in her eyes the realization that, but for a few millimeters, it could have been her loved one not returning home.

Jennifer grew up a little on that day. Garrett was changed forever. Taylor’s family suffered a loss that I would not be able to endure. That is just one soldier’s fate, and the consequences that those back home, who wait with bated lives, suffer.

In no way do I pretend to understand how a mother can bear to bury her child. By no means am I conveying that I comprehend the loss a spouse or a child feels at the desolate sound of Taps being played in his/her partner’s or parents’ honor. I can only pay tribute to those with the fortitude to answer their call of duty, hoping to come back safe and sound. And I render my heartfelt condolences to those who left their innocence behind, slaughtered on the battlefield, like my dear Garrett did on that day.

I believe that no one will argue with me that Veterans are maligned. And, Viet Nam Veterans are possibly the most maligned. Their homecoming was anything but a hero’s welcome, if you’ll remember. Now, like all other citizens, Veterans are losing benefits and entitlements especially designed for them while living in the very country they fought to defend. So I find the connection between that song ‘One is the Loneliest Number’, released during the Viet Nam era, Veteran’s Day and the Chinese celebrating Singles’ Day rather eerie, don’t you?

The Chinese chose November 11th to be a celebration of Singles across the country because of the date: 11/11. This year it was particularly popular because of the year: 2011. Thus, this year’s Singles’ Day fell on 11/11/11. That is a lot of ‘one’! Apparently they feel that ‘one’ is the loneliest number too.

So what types of activities take place on Singles’ Day in China? Lone diners get their meals for free. Some coffee houses and clubs sponsor special events to encourage the ‘ones’ to become ‘twos’. Mostly it is a lighthearted time where friends wish each other a nice celebration and offer encouragement for the long and sometimes fruitless quest to find love.

Many of my friends are aware that I am single, so I got a lot of supportive text messages. I sent equally bolstering messages back. I found it very ironic when Gary called that evening to let me know he would be out of town a lot between now and mid-December, but after that we need to get together to plan our next trip… possibly over Spring Festival?

“But Gary, you have to be home with your family for Spring Festival, don’t you?”

“No, I do not want my family to ask me ‘Gary, why aren’t you married yet?’ or say other things about me not being married, so I do not want to be with my family at that time.”

How ironic is it that he called me on Singles’ Day to arrange a trip for 2 months hence because he did not want his family to harass him for being single?

I took occasion to tease him about being single and he ribbed me right back. We laughed a little bit, good friends and veterans of the Singles’ War.

Had he been a veteran of the more serious type of wars, I would have saluted him with deference and humility, as I salute and honor you, esteemed Veterans.

Making Sense of The Nightmare

After teaching my last two classes of the day I returned home to try to make sense of the bargain basement mélange of furniture that crowded my apartment and the dust that shrouded everything. Good thing I was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.

The new couch, the one I relished and looked forward to with no idea of what I was actually getting, resembles a bench seat from a Chevy truck. It is upholstered in bright red velvet with a flower pattern etched into it with small, matching cushions serving as arms. It has a black base and stands on chrome legs. It looks like it belongs in a piano lounge. At least it is of decent height so that I don’t feel like I’m squatting instead of sitting.

Being as it appears I’m going to be stuck with the world’s ugliest couch after all I decided on a face-off: it versus ‘piano lounge’ couch, with the old, shaky coffee table in the middle. I moved the TV stand to the corner by the balcony door, moved one bookcase so that it faces the other across the room and placed the couches on opposite walls, with a table in between. Except for the upholstery and style, the living room is now attractively appointed. Now: what to do about the new coffee table that doesn’t match anything?

The new dining room set is actually quite nice: lacquered blond wood with slatted chairs. And it is tall enough for me to eat from comfortably. The new coffee table matches the new dining room furniture. So, I thought I would put the new coffee table in the dining room, even though that room is not exactly large. That way I can stack the oven onto the microwave, and flank those appliances with the rice cooker and the crock pot I’ve yet to buy myself. It will be on the other side of the dining room and I’ll have to walk around the table and chairs to make use of those devices, but that’s no big deal. It is not like the dining room is huge; a few steps and I’ve traversed it. With this arrangement I’ve made good use of that extra table while handily having answered the question of crowding in the kitchen from all of the appliances. Now I have three rooms situated to my satisfaction.


The question remains of what to do with my washer and dryer. That is when I spied the quick disconnect for the washing machine water hose, unobtrusively lurking on the balcony window sill. Now there’s an idea: store the slim, lightweight washer in the kitchen next to the fridge. I could then use the top of the washer as extra storage space, say, for my vegetable bin. Come laundry day I can just move the washer across the kitchen, connect it to the water tap using the quick disconnect, plug it in where I normally have the kettle plugged in and wash my clothes in varying temperature water. The drain built into the kitchen floor would serve as a drain line for the washer. It was like it was meant to be! The extra bonus is surely that I can now wash clothes in hot or warm water instead of just cold water. Some of my clothes are looking decidedly dingy for lack of proper care. Cold water is not good for everything, you know.

I’m not going to bother cleaning again. I’ll wait till I’m done throwing furniture around.

At Sam’s suggestion we moved the old dining room set into Victor’s apartment. He’s never home anyway. Come to find out, Victor’s apartment also contained my refrigerator from the old apartment that doesn’t work anymore, as well as all of the other furniture rejects from the old apartments. Thus I felt no qualms about burdening Victor’s unused space with my rejects.

After Sam and I moved all discarded furniture into Victor’s unused apartment he informed me that Dean Tu would visit my apartment early tomorrow morning to see what exactly needed to be done to make my house habitable. Oh, great! Yet another reason to get up at 6AM: get ready for dignitaries to visit! Why is this school trying to turn me into a morning person when clearly I cannot function at that time of day?

All jokes aside, I have to admit: the Dean makes things happen. A word from him and people quiver in their boots. At his ‘jump’ command workers leap about without bothering to ask how high. I’m rather glad he favors me; I’d hate to be on the negative end of all that power.

Dean Tu’s visit was particularly well timed. My apartment had sprung a major water leak in the wall between the kitchen and dining room. The whitewash that covers the concrete was bubbling and chipping off on the dining room side, and I had a constant puddle on my kitchen counter that I simply left a bunched up towel laying there to absorb. I would be glad to not have to sweep paint off the floor every morning or wring out a rag, and besides that, mold was growing already on the wet wall.

Within hours of his visit workmen once again trounced through my apartment, tweaking, installing, repairing, drilling and affixing. By the end of the day I had two handles on the balcony door, a water tap on the rear balcony should I decide after all to move the washer there, the glass was glued back into place in my bookshelf door (I had forgotten to tell you about that), and a plumber had rerouted the misrouted water pipe that allowed my hot water to flow onto the roof instead of into my kitchen tap. The bathroom sink would not get hot water at all. It was not designed to.

I managed to hang the shower head mount. During installation the brackets were not measured, so that, when they drilled the holes to mount it with they were not properly spaced. To make up for it the installer simply angled the drill upward and widened the hole. The plastic mount, being forced into an unnatural angle, broke its upper mounting bracket. The worker gave up on installation, leaving what he thought would be a useless mount on the windowsill. Using only one screw, I wedged the still-intact lower bracket between the screw’s head and the wall. This roughshod repair is still holding today.

The next day a crew of movers took away the monster wardrobe that was blocking the hall, and all of the excess furniture out of Victor’s apartment.

At the end of this maintenance extravaganza I was left with the water leak inside the kitchen/dining room wall. The various crews had taken care of everything else that could be taken care of right now. At this point, besides that water leak I have nothing to complain about. The two heat pumps were moved from the old apartment into the new one, without being serviced at all. The living room has a large, stand up unit that has no electrical connections. None of them work. I don’t need heat right now, so I’ll wait on those.

I forgot to tell you about the fridge. I’ve never owned a brand spanking new, still in the carton fridge before. Obviously I know I have to get it out of the carton before I can use it, but I figured workmen would unpack it, adjust the leg height so that it will be level and install it. I figured wrong. After three days of prancing by the fridge carton I took it upon myself to cut the strapping and liberate my new ice box. Now that was an interesting tango! Fortunately the fridge is small – smaller than the one I had before, even. If not for the dropped ceiling in the kitchen it would have been a snap. As it was I had to tilt the appliance out the kitchen door and support it with one hand while wrestling the box off of it with the other hand.

While I had it tilted I thought I should maybe kiss it, as a dancer does with his partner when he has her dipped. But the condenser coils were showing and I don’t think that was the side I was supposed to kiss. After removing the carton and setting the fridge upright I adjusted the legs so that the appliance would be level, and then scooted it into place, plugged it in and turned it on. It would be days before I would go to the store and buy anything to put in it, but at least I now had a fridge.

Now, besides the gas line for the stove, the only thing lacking is the internet connection. Man, is that a sore spot.

The Ongoing Housing Nightmare

You’ll remember from the Idling in Chong Qing post that Sam texted me on that last day in that city. I was to teach all day Saturday. Upon my return to Wuhan I leapt into my call of duty, regardless of having slept only fitfully aboard the train. I taught class in blue jeans and a t-shirt and boots, having only changed into that classroom-appropriate footwear in the taxi from the train station. My hair was flying in every direction and makeup application was done as the train jostled and jerked into town. In short… sure! I was ready to teach all day!

Saturday morning I was to meet my freshmen for the first time – formally, that is. I had met most of them while out and about on campus. All that morning the idea was in the back of my mind: what does my little house look like? Sam had texted me while I was frolicking with Gary and Mask that my new furniture had arrived. I was nearly beside myself with anticipation. The apartment itself is lovely in spite of its problems; now I just wanted to go see it and settle into it and maybe unpack and stop living out of suitcases for the first time in four months. Oh, and parking my behind on something other than the world’s ugliest couch or those Playskool chairs also had a certain draw.

I taught my four periods on autopilot. Then, shouldering my luggage and psyching myself up for the traipse across campus toward where I am now to hang my hat, I heard Sam hail me. He teaches right next door to me and had a crowd of freshmen to initiate as well. “Should we have lunch together?” Who am I to refuse lunch? I told him I would just take a minute to throw my bag into my apartment and we could go to the nearby shopping area at the back of campus to grab a bowl of noodles.

My friends, I’m trying really hard to find the words to describe my feeling upon opening my front door. To say I was dismayed would be like saying ‘it is a little cold in Alaska’. Shocked, disconcerted, perturbed, rocked, poleaxed… none of them really fit, although poleaxed might just come very close. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I opened my door. If you do knock me over with that feather, please scrape my jaw off the ground first so that I don’t land on it and break it.

THERE WAS FURNITURE EVERYWHERE! The movers brought the new furniture in, but did not remove the old furniture. My home was now the proud harbor of two couches, two wardrobes, two dining sets, two coffee tables… and one brand new refrigerator, still in its box. Furthermore, as hard as I had tried to clean the house in that week before going out of town, it was all in vain because again there was dust, mud and dirt everywhere. And now I couldn’t clean it for all of the furniture stacked haphazardly throughout the place.

So much for my embarrassment at Sam having to remove my dainties from the old wardrobe before they cart it away.

Am I ready to roll up my sleeves and start flinging furniture into place? Why, no! After lunch I have two more classes to teach. THEN I’ll be able to attempt to make two homes worth of furniture fit into one 800sq. ft. apartment. After that I might go through my stuff and locate my giant bottle of Tylenol. Or maybe before.

You’ll remember from “The Morning After” post that I had at least gotten the living and dining rooms cleaned and organized. Also, I had the bed ready to sleep in and the office furniture placed. Still didn’t know what I was going to do about the dryer and wasn’t wild about the washer being on the balcony, on the shady side of the building, at that. The new kitchen doesn’t have the cabinet space or room for everything that the old apartment’s kitchen housed. The bathroom only has a tiny cabinet supporting a sink. That would do for toilet paper storage but not much else. And the mirror, the only one in the house is hung to ‘Chinese height’, cutting off the top of my head.

Other things wrong: no hot water anywhere in the house, even though I have a hot water heater in the bathroom, suspended high on the wall, that I nearly bang my head into every time I get up from the toilet. The showerhead bracket, broken during installation, lay on the windowsill. The showerhead itself, at the end of its flexible hose, was draped across the taps. Presumably I was to hold it over my head with one hand while washing with the other. Bathroom windows are plain glass, offering everyone who wants one a view of all of my bathroom activities. Glue stains left on the floor throughout the apartment from the workmen while they were putting things together in the apartment like doorways and windows. While the glue has long since dried it prevents to smooth and easy slide of furniture across the floor, and it attracts and harbors dirt. No handle to open the living room balcony door with. No water tap installed for the washer yet. No internet connection.

Nah, Nothing insurmountable here, just small aggravations.

And no one to vent to but you. Thanks for listening. I’m ready for your suggestions. Next post… next post will be time enough.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chong Qing: Final Thoughts

As I’ve said before: traveling with my new friends proved enlightening and fun in ways I never anticipated but always dreamed of. Part of this vagabond movie that plays in my head involves roaming around the countryside with a companion or two, talking with locals, enjoying the sights and not really worrying about anything. That is exactly what this weeklong sojourn with Gary and Mask was like.

Yes, we went to new and interesting places. I’ve already told you about them. What I can’t tell you about was what we talked about during those 7 days. Not because it is a big secret but because the conversation flowed so easily and naturally that the whole trip stands out as a pleasant experience, not just an isolated conversation or two.

Well, there was that one day we spent laughing. We laughed so long and so hard my face and stomach ached. So did Gary’s. Mask made no such disclosure, but judging by the way he was guffawing right along with us and, toward the end of the day, was holding his stomach and massaging his jaws, he had to have been feeling the same thing. That day stands out.

So does the subtle change of attitude after the giant crater expedition. I make no bones about myself and I put on no airs with these guys. They know I am several years older than they are, and I believe that was part of their solicitousness toward me at the beginning of this trip. At the outset there was a muted deference toward me that, at first I ascribed to us being not quite such good friends yet, but later believed had more to do with my age. After matching them step for step first into, and then out of the giant crater their attitude changed for the better and I felt more of a sense of solidarity from them. More like being on par with their whole idea of adventure and physical exertion.

My goodness but these guys can eat! Most Chinese assume that, because I am so big I must consume a ton of food. That is not the case. The Chinese, for the most part, tend to eat way more than I do. Even when my stomach started behaving I could not keep up with the guys’ food consumption, let alone match it. Yet they are both skinny as rails, and energetic as…, well, as energizer bunnies. I am in no way upset about that. I enjoyed being on the go all day, every day, especially after the giant crater experience. It felt so good to get out, stretch my legs, move and do something every day. Maybe I should take note of that.

These guys are attractive, intelligent, handsome, successful men. Why they are single is a mystery to me. They can be silly or serious, and they both have a great sense of humor. Gary, having traveled the world, is more cosmopolitan that Mask, our ‘tradition man’. Gary’s English is very good and Mask is working hard to match Gary’s ability. Communication with both of them was no problem. They took turns helping me with Chinese, giving me what could be termed daily lessons. I asked the questions, they gave me the answers. I did the same for them with regard to English and to Western culture.

I learned a lot on this trip. I learned that Chinese people talk to each other. I watched and listened as my friends, usually Gary because he is more outgoing, simply approached strangers on the street or in restaurants and asked them questions. He would start with “Excuse me Friend, could you tell me…” and pose his question. Somehow he was able to wrangle not only the information he wanted but tons more that he didn’t even ask for. Or, when we rented private cars and taxis, the guys would just start talking away,
‘hail fellow well met’ type of talking with the driver. When I think about my experiences in the States, how people are so often afraid to talk to one another that they barricade themselves into their cars and their houses, or they walk away from you if you ask for directions I must declare that I vastly prefer having this type of encounter in China. And I wouldn’t dream of getting into a total stranger’s car in the States!

I thought of all these things both while on the boat and on the train, being gently rocked in my berth. This trip was what I wanted every one of my sojourns into Chinese countryside to be: merry, laid back and with a couple of good friends to share it with. The prospect of going on explorations alone has lost its shine because this trip has been sublime.

Not only do I have the difference between traveling with companions versus by myself to consider, but now I have the added worry that not every hotel is able to accept foreigners. Granted that is not much of an issue when I visit the larger cities because there are hotels everywhere. But what about when I start visiting the smaller towns? Let’s say I approach a cabbie and ask them to take me to a hotel. I can’t chat him or her up like Gary and Mask did, and I’m likely to be cheated, like I was when I visited Yi Chang by myself. Nor can I bargain for a cheaper hotel room rate. Quite the contrary: being a foreigner, I would likely be charged the highest rate possible, even when I indicate that I am capable of speaking Chinese and I understand the pricing guide, thus implying there is no use in trying to cheat me. I have actually been told, on one occasion, that those rates were outdated.

I was able to be myself with these guys: raucous and serious, daring and daunting, quiet and affable, as the mood struck me and them. I liked that part. If/when I hit the road again, I would want to hit it with them. But it is not fair to expect them to be able to travel when I want to, nor is it fair to expect them to always want to travel with me. They had lives before I came along, and they have other friends; probably ones that they do not constantly have to change languages to communicate with. And they maybe even have friends who are closer to them in age that like to micro-blog and do things that they like to do.

Our little trio has at least two more trips planned together: Xiamen and Xi’an. I’m already looking forward to them. Should I wait for those trips? Only in the sense that I do believe that they will come to pass. Much as I do not want to do things by myself all the time anymore, I can see myself going on a trip or two alone in the meantime. Why, just this morning I woke up thinking of Nanjing. I’ve never been there and it is only 6 hours away.

And then there’s the speech competitions, held in a small town outside Wuhan. We’ll have to go there on Friday night to be ready for Tony’s competition on Saturday morning, and Evan’s competition is on Sunday. So it appears that soon I will be taking at least a weekend trip with company. Maybe not the company I would like to travel with – always risky traveling with students, and both Helens are going (see Daisy, Helen, Hellen and Mouse entry, posted June of this year.) Sam will also go, but it would not be fair for me to monopolize all of his time. And, I daresay that I probably will not be able to fully be myself – the rumor mill runs rampant on campus. Unless I want my sterling reputation ruined, no occasional glasses of wine or that after dinner cigarette for me.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if my new reluctance to travel has to do with the fact that I’ve tasted how sweet it is to travel with such perfect companions, or if I like my new apartment so much that leaving it is harder to do, or if I’ve had enough of traveling this summer to last me for a while, or if it is just that it is starting to get colder and I really don’t want to brave the elements in favor of frisking about here and there. It could well be a combination of all of these factors.

Some vagabond I am… right?

Idling in Chong Qing

As I alluded to in Three Cities, One Boat Ride, we spent the last 3 days of our sojourn in Chong Qing, in a 4-star hotel. We really didn’t want to spend the money for extravagant accommodations but no others were available, seeing as National Holiday is one of the peak traveling seasons in China. Again Mask makes good with the bargaining; his government employee status earns us a hefty discount. Can’t say we were slumming at all while in Chong Qing.

Presumably Gary did his homework while planning this trip for us. He knew of Ancient Town, a part of the city not at all redone. It was in fact the original city, surrounded by a moat and protected by a winding staircase, once you cross the bridge. Everything about the houses there is small: windows barely a meter square, doorways I have to duck into, floor space that only just accommodates four people and ceilings that nearly graze the top of my head. The alleys match the houses in proportion, thus, this being one of the three yearly occasions the Chinese travel on, Ancient Town was filled to capacity.

About those stairs: we had had enough of stairs with our giant crater experience. Matter of fact, Gary was so sore I offered him some Tylenol. Most Chinese do not take such medicines; indeed he felt the medicine wasn’t helping because it only masked the pain but did not alleviate the cause of the distress. Sorry Gary, Tylenol will only help you forget your agony for a while. Your sore muscles are going to have to work themselves out.

So here we are, back on a staircase, gluttons for punishment. The castigation was well worth it: Ancient Town proved delightful. Artisan shops lined the alleyways and the walkways were filled to capacity with shiny black heads and pressing bodies. We bobbed along for a while, carried by the tide but soon grew weary of this exercise and found a tea shop to settle into.

Having met Gary at a Starbucks I was worried that he fancied that mega-eminent brand. Turns out he prefers eclectic shops and off the beaten path dens of refreshment, like I do. We sat in that tea house for quite a while, comparing pictures and telling stories. We stayed till we got hungry and then, led by our noses went to find the snack stands.

While you can find such standard fare as noodles and jiao zi anywhere, every region in China has its own food specialties. Wuhan’s is hot, dry noodle – Re Gan Mian, my favorite breakfast treat. Being located in the Sichuan Basin, Chong Qing likes spicy, crunchy food. I’m not a fan of food so spicy that all you can taste is spice and not the food itself, but I am getting used to food that has a pleasant glow to it. That is the minimally accepted standard of spicy in Chong Qing. Mask, on the other hand, is on a permanent quest for food spicy enough to make him break out in a sweat. This whole trip was a disappointment to him in that respect. Early in the trip he bought a jar of crushed peppers, and said jar made its appearance at every meal we ate. It was 1/3 empty by the time we boarded the train home. Gary sat squarely in the middle where spice was concerned. He likes things spicy enough to make him sweat, and finds it easily.

Have I told you these guys can put away some food? I think I did, in The Guys post. Mask especially. The smallest of us three, that man can chow down like an entire army of recruits and then eat again an hour later. Gary and I poked fun at him for this. Long after he and I had put down our chopsticks Mask was still eating. Each time we ribbed him he would sheepishly mutter: “I was hungry”.

So, emerging from the depths of Ancient Town it was no surprise that Mask would be the first to err off in search of food. He returned laden with skewers of succulent meat, unspicy for me. He and Gary wolfed while I nibbled. By now, deprived of my yogurt for several days, my stomach was not behaving well at all. Our breakfast, provided free by the hotel, was still sitting. I was not ready to eat again. I was ready to laugh though, and I did as Mask returned again and again with his hands dealing out meat skewers like some sort of flesh-dealing poker player.

We ate hotpot several times while in Chong Qing. Although fun, that was not the most remarkable dining adventure we had. This city, like many others in China boasts a Snack Street. Gary, in the mood for food, decided we should spend a day there, sampling indigenous foods. First a stop at the grocery store where I finally found my yogurt, and then it is off to snack street with us!

Besides spicy, deep fried would best characterize the food in this city. I am decidedly a fan of deep fried so, after my yogurt did its thing, I was ready for whatever golden treat there was to sample. Gary wanted some rice noodle soup, a dish indigenous to that region. Mask treated me to a frozen shaved mango concoction that I would gladly eat every day, or several times a day. Seeing my enjoyment, he went to buy one for himself and Gary to share.

And so we ate, and then we walked and then we ate some more and then ambled further, until Gary cried Uncle and demanded a rest. Chong Qing being a very cosmopolitan city, there were no funky little tea shops to be found, only Starbucks. That is where we parked ourselves to watch the world go by and the sun set.

In Chong Qing nobody rides a bicycle. The region being too hilly, the streets are much like those of San Francisco. Walking is the extent of physical exertion the inhabitants partake of; otherwise there is an excellent bus system and plenty of taxis. With everyone out and nobody riding bikes, we tourists found it hard to nab a taxi when confronted with locals who had all the tricks down pat. Getting back to the hotel proved a challenge on several occasions. Once or twice we rented a private car to ferry us home.

Whereas Gary loved Chong Qing and expressed a desire to live there, Mask and I didn’t care for the atmosphere. It felt like a city of nouveau riche, filled with people who were trying too hard in flaunting their fortunes. Its urban sprawl seemed disorganized and chaotic. Even those out for pleasure adopted a frenetic pace, as though there were a goal that they had to reach within a certain time.

Our second day there Sam sent me a text message asking if I was home. My new furniture had arrived; would I be there to greet it? No, I was over a thousand miles away. “Never mind” he replied. He has a key to my and to Victor’s apartment. He would let the movers in. Briefly I agonized over his having to move my unmentionables out of the old wardrobe before they move it out, but then I reasoned that everything was discreetly folded and thus would not embarrass him too terribly. Now I had something to daydream about: what would my new furniture look like? In jubilation I thought about being shut of the world’s ugliest couch for once and for all. As I didn’t particularly care for the sights of Chong Qing, I mostly turned inward those last two days except for when we went to the museum. There I plied Gary and Mask with thousands of questions regarding Chinese history, literature and culture, addressing the exhibits on hand. Marvelous how neither of them got tired of my incessant questioning! Gary even remarked that he must improve his English in order to better be able to slake my thirst for knowledge.

Our last day. We were to catch the afternoon train back to Wuhan, arriving early Saturday morning. I woke up to the chime of a text message. Wondering what the guys had to say, I rolled over and read: “Are you back yet?” from Sam. “No, I’ll return on Saturday morning” I replied. “You know you have class on Saturday, right?” Sam fired back. In a panic I leaped out of bed.

He had originally told me that Saturday’s classes were to make up for Thursday’s, and Sunday’s would cover Friday’s, missed because of the week-long holiday. At some time during National Holiday that got changed and Saturday’s classes now covered Monday’s. I have a full course load on Mondays, so now I was staring an entire day of teaching in the face, after a night on the train. I tapped “I thought you told me…” and described the course arrangement he had discussed with me prior to my engaging on this 7-day trip. “I made a mistake” he typed back, but then added: “never mind, you can make up the day”.

Being a consummate professional, I was uncomfortable with this arrangement. My teaching obligations being minimal as they are, how could I permit myself to miss so much as an hour of teaching?

Mask was holding our train tickets so over breakfast I again asked him assurance that our train would pull into Wuhan at some time reasonably prior to 8AM, when class starts. They noted the concern on my face and expressed their dismay and outrage over the situation. Regardless of outrage, I had to go teach bright the next morning. I would not be dressed or psyched up for it.

And that is how I came to spend a day teaching in blue jeans, tee-shirt and boots, having hastily changed from my flipflops while riding in the taxi back to school the next morning.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Am I Ever Going to Tell You About Where We Went and What We Did?

Well, of course I am! We went to a lot of places and enjoyed a lot of things. That’s it, end of blog entry.

I see those lessons I’ve taken on writing short blog entries are paying off. TeeHee! OF COURSE this is not the entry in its entirety! I have to tell you about the giant crater. It was the most exciting part of the trip. Well, as far as sights we saw goes, anyway.

Nature made, with man’s involvement restricted to carving the mother of all staircases into it, this cavity drills nearly 2 km into the ground. At the bottom lies a culmination of several waterfalls, spectacular when viewed from the depth. The river, product of the four waterfalls, channels through a cave opening to form a natural pool. Once at the bottom, the hardy explorer experiences not only the drop in temperature but the damp from all of that water cascading down.

We started out a little past 1PM, primed for adventure. Taunted by aromatic smells of deep fried potato cakes and roasted corn from the vendor stands Gary, Mask and I clomped down the gentle slope to the rim. Once there I asked if we could leave our bags at the security checkpoint. Whereas the guys had mildly loaded backpacks, I was carrying my side-slung black bag, and it was getting a cumbersome. Especially because Gary thought it would be a good idea to buy some fruit along the way, and we were each carrying our share.

Permission granted to leave our bags at the check station, we started down the first of the stairs. I drew a lot of looks because I was the only foreigner there. Luckily, no one disrupted my downward momentum to ask for a picture, although some did snap a photo of me and them in the frame on what they thought was the sly. Gary and Mask, still not used to that phenomenon, commented on it. I have had a year to get used to it so it didn’t bother me.

Climbing down presented no problem. There were stairs, lots of them but they were mild and interspersed with a lot of downward sloping, flagstoned lengths. “Not too bad!” I thought to myself as we paused for a picture by a cavern. The guys expressed their concern for me. None needed, Guys! I can do this all day long.

And I did. We did. It took nearly two hours to make it all the way to the bottom. At the midway point there is a small refreshment stand, and many choose to end their journey there. They take a tea or maybe have a bowl of noodles and then resurface with their knees barely worked out. They enjoy the fools walking past to further depths. Some such fools rent bamboo canes and continue down.

We neither stopped nor rented. Blithely pounding pavement, we kept going. Beyond the midway point the hand railing changed from simulated gnarled wood woven together but actually made of concrete to something that actually resembled an intentional handrail, made of concrete and painted in a blond wood pattern. We weren’t using the hand rail anyway, but I did find the difference between the handrails pre-and post snack stand remarkable. It was almost as though the grips were saying “OK now. You’re getting into some deep stuff here. Do you want to reconsider?”

Oh, no. not at all. The guys skipped along and I marveled at my joints not even creaking as I prevailed, step after step. I wasn’t even breathing hard! This was GREAT!!! The guys were worried about me though. They kept saying I should hang on to the handrail, or maybe, if I wanted a break… I took no breaks on the way down.

On the way up is a different story, but we’re not there yet.

I think, by the time I got down to 1,700m down I was starting to feel weakness in my legs. It might have been that the air was closer, or cleaner or more moist. It might have just been the exertion of going down stairs for over an hour. With only about 300m to go to the bottom, I wasn’t about to stop. Mask, frisky as he is, made it to the bottom first and recorded Gary and my descent for posterity. I couldn’t see Gary having to wait for me, so I shooed him on down. By the time I got there, he and Mask were taking turns posing for pictures first against this backdrop and then the next. Once I got there we broke out into a chorus of “We are the Champions!” people looked at us like we were fools. We were just giddy with our success.

It was short-lived, as it turns out. Going down approximately 4,000 stairs is vastly different than climbing them. My knees weren’t overexerted but I got winded very quickly. After making it past the first set of switchbacks – this staircase is set up like a steeply banked road up a mountain, my heart was pounding. Trying for deep breaths I found I had to stop every so often to get my ticker back into the normal range and force my lungs to function properly.

I am no athlete. I’ve been done in by improper breathing during any athletic venture I’ve ever taken part in, from basketball to simple aerobic routines. I’ve never been able to master the ‘breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth’ technique required by most strenuous activities. My endurance is pitiful.

Now the guys are really worried. They are seeing my red face and my trying to breathe and they are wondering if they are going to have to carry me out. Or, if they are going to have to hire someone to carry me out.

That’s right, there are porters with litters fashioned of bamboo to carry those out who cannot meet the challenge. Genuinely concerned for me, Gary inquired on the price of such a service. It was over 400Yuan… and that would probably be for a normal, Chinese sized person. I weigh twice what someone 4’10” with barely any meat on her bones weighs. They would probably charge double for me, or go charging back up the stairs in terror at the prospect of having to carry me. Besides, I don’t need porters. I just need to get my wind back.

I told the guys they could go ahead; assuring them I would be fine. They weren’t comfortable with that. I think, if the situations were reversed, I probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with it either. I appreciate their solicitousness, but really, it wasn’t necessary. I was going to make it out of that hole in the ground on my own power, even if I had to pause a little more often than they did. Much credit goes to them for trusting my judgment; they did leave me to my pace and pick up theirs, but they kept me in their sights from above.

Left to my own tempo and with no escort, I found other climbers very encouraging. ‘Jia You’ they kept saying, which means “Keep going!” We were all adventurers in the crater, didn’t matter if I was foreign, big, worn out, gasping for breath or massaging my knees – the one thing I did NOT do the whole climb. The Chinese had to stop and massage knees. In our various stops we encouraged each other. That is the important part. Many asked where I was from and the usual questions I get, like about my age and my family. Rather hard to make entertaining conversation when you are trying to catch your breath, but I managed.

Every so often, Gary and Mask made sure I was OK by shouting a greeting or encouragement to me. I waved at them and tackled another set of stairs. At some point I did think that this adventure might have been a mistake on my part, but that was only once, toward the end of the concrete handrails painted to look like wood.

One interminable switchback after another. I rounded the current one and there was Mask, waiting for me. Groan! Did they resume their former worries about my passing out? Is that why he’s waiting for me?

No, he just wanted to formally escort me to the snack stand at the halfway point, where Gary sat waiting for us with cans of Red Bull and a glass of hot tea. HOT DOG!!! I made it to the halfway point! I am invincible! Nothing can stop me now!

Let me try to describe how I felt at that moment. I was conscious of every cell in my body expanding, filling with joy and the power of being alive. I could barely contain myself, having to observe decorum for the sake of all those others who were resting. I wanted to shout and sing, I wanted to dance and embrace my friends. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I felt feather light, as though, were I to spread my arms I would fly away. Greens have never been greener and have never more beautifully contrasted with the browns of the rock they grew from. The sky, turning to dusk now, appeared silver rather than dull grey. The feel of hot tea going down my throat, the thrum of my muscles… for that magical moment I KNEW how it felt to maximize my potential as a human being.

And that was just the halfway point.

Finishing the climb with Gary who, by now, was feeling some pain we rewarded ourselves with a hot, stuffed potato snack. Mask had gone on ahead to retrieve our bags before they got locked in that office overnight. Gary expressed concern over how we would get back to town. We were back on level with the Earth; mundane concerns again intruded.

So what was the coolest part of this adventure: being the only foreigner there, descending and then ascending on my own power, that tasty potato cake, the company I keep, seeing that woman walk her pig down the road?

NOPE! The coolest part was the 10 minute motorcycle ride back up the hill to the main road! The guys on one scoot and I on another, the bikes piloted by expert riders sped us the rest of the way up the hill, our laughter tossed to the winds.