Thursday, October 4, 2012

Return to Wuhan

When we last left off I was on a train, leaving Qing Dao and a typhoon behind. Since then I have been visited by a serious bonk on the head and my arm in a cast… but that is the subject of another whole series of entries. I only mention it here to explain the huge gap between entries. It is decidedly difficult to type with one’s arm in a cast.

But now the cast is off and I am prepared to tell you all about my return to Wuhan, and how I dallied twenty-one hours away on the train.

What does one do when confined to a narrow seat for twenty one hours? What can one do? The trip from Qing Dao back to Wuhan is longer than a flight from China to the States. In flight there are several entertainment options: movies and games provided by the seatback entertainment system. There are kindly hosts and hostesses who bring food, drink, pillows and blankets. There are fellow passengers to hold discourse with. You can bring a book. You can get up and walk around, maybe even do a few isometric exercises. Sleeping is also nice.

There are no movies or games on the train unless you bring your own. There are no hosts or hostesses providing complimentary food, however there are vendors that will sell you anything from snacks to full meals. I’ll get to those vendors in a few minutes. There are fellow passengers and I’ll get to those in just a few, too. I had a book and I did read. I also had a notebook and pen – invaluable, in the situation I was in. Getting up and walking around is out of the question, the train being so full of passengers they and their luggage crowd the aisles. I did do some isometric exercises but slept only poorly.

Train seats, as opposed to airline seats do not recline, nor to they consider any type of ergonomic theory. Essentially a train seat is much like a dining room chair: hard, straight-backed at a ninety degree angle. One hundred and eighteen seats crowd each car. Passengers battle for leg room and larger passengers like me get very little squirm room.

Back to the original question: What did I do for 21 hours on the train? The first five hours were fully occupied by drafting blog notes, and then recording curriculum notes for the entire year. When Sam was planning class schedules he made sure that Victor and I switched classes mid-year, so that each of us would only need to come up with thirteen weeks worth of material to teach. We could then recycle that material to the fresh batch of students. Class scheduling has since passed to Hellen, the Unpleasant One. She did not switch Victor’s and my groups during the 2011/2012 academic year, so he and I had to expend all the material we would normally have explored over the two years we teach the same groups. There was a strong likelihood that I would have the same students for their sophomore year as I had for both semesters last year. So, to be prepared for that eventuality, I came up with all new material.

I wonder if Victor is prepared to teach the same groups he taught last year?

That was just a fleeting thought and occupied only an iota of the 21 hours I had to kill on the train.

What else did I do?

It would have been great to use my new, fancy android phone to play games, surf the ‘Net or get in touch with friends but the minutes were expended and the battery was close to dying. Matter of fact, when I received that last message from Gary about the typhoon I had to borrow my seatmate’s phone to call Gary back.

Seatmates! There’s a way to pass some time! I could talk to my seatmates, right? WRONG!!! This being the end of summer break, the train was full of students. The very last thing I wanted or needed was a train full of students, all bound for Wuhan wanting to practice their English, so I continued the little deception I had refined in Qing Dao: I am French and don’t speak a word of English. However, if you’d like to converse in Chinese… no one was interested in conversing with me in halting Chinese when they could converse fluently amongst themselves. Thus I achieved near total isolation in a train car filled to capacity.
Now, here is something I simply do not get about ye average Chinese traveler: instead of streamlining their packing to a single piece of luggage they will carry several small bags, some of them maybe even just plastic shopping bags. And then they struggle for space in the overhead luggage racks, or they put their collections of bags in the already limited legroom space.

Inevitably one or two of those bags will be filled with food: fruit, bowls of ramen noodles and vacuum packed delicacies like chicken feet and pickled fish and spicy sausage and something sweet for dessert. Most bring sunflower seeds, a standard in China. The part that I don’t get is that they will spend upward of 50Yuan buying these snacks at the train station concessions when, aboard the train, around mealtime a vendor will sell complete hot meals consisting of rice, some kind of meat and several vegetables for only 10Yuan. Why go through the expense of buying the food and then the discomfort of lugging and storing the food when, for a fraction of the cost one can buy a hot meal on board?

I admit that I too had thought about stocking up on food before boarding, but at the last minute reasoned that the caterer will come through in the evening and again come breakfast time. I did not bring any snacks on board. To my misfortune the prepared meal that night included fish – what did I expect with the train originating in Qing Dao? I skipped the fish but everything else was tasty and substantial, well worth the 10Yuan I paid for it.

After all the writing and some reading and eating, I dozed. By now my posterior was not happy and my legs were cramping. Spend some time standing up, do some exercises… find some comfortable way to sit. By now most of the passengers had dozed off; I was hoping to do the same. I finally found a comfortable if unconventional position: knees in the seat, butt on the edge of the table and head on the seatback. In that position I was able to relieve some of the leg distress and most of the rear end agony, and I did sleep more or less well for a couple of hours. Come time for the breakfast food cart, I paid my 10Yuan for a hardboiled egg, some congee, some sort of breakfast meat and rice. A nice tea and I came more or less fully awake.

The train skated into the station, right on time. That would be a few minutes past noon. Thinking of my phone woes and the fact that I had no food at my house I debated the best way to remedy all those situations before going home. We had pulled in to Hankou train station, not the one by my school. There is no bus to take me directly home, and even if there were I needed to recharge my minutes and buy food before I went home. Breakfast having long been digested I was hungry again. Even though I did rest on the train it wasn’t quality sleep, so I was a little drowsy.

Striding out of the station purposefully I considered my options. Here we have bus 601 that will take me to a shopping center that features a cellphone store and a Walmart. There is also a Starbucks. I can reload my phone and buy some of that delicious sausage at Walmart, and then sit at Starbucks for a while, recharge my phone battery and read or drowse. Afterward I can take bus 777 to connect with bus 34 that will take me directly home. The selected buses traditionally have a lot of empty seats so I should have plenty of room for my legs and bags. There it is: everything I need, engineered in one fell swoop. 

As bus 601 wended its way around the train station and into mainstream traffic I thought about how I now know Wuhan so well that I can plan my way around town with no qualms whatsoever. The bus system, once a daunting foe is now my ally. The streets, once so rough they couldn’t even be called proper streets glide smoothly away beneath the bus’ tires. The quest for food that once left me so desperate that I resorted to eating at McDonalds’ is now so easy I know exactly which store stocks whatever particular item I desire. Looking out the window at the familiar skyline, watching people scuttle about, I reflected on the feeling of…

Of finally having found my home. 

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