Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Last Mad Dash

In light of the latest travel regulations for foreigners (see last entry), I vowed I would curtail my travels so as to not incur any more expensive hotel charges. However, I had promised Alan, a dear young man I befriended via ChinaDaily's blog page, that I would visit his home town this summer. Never make a promise you can't keep being my motto – well, one of them, I made arrangements for a 3-day stay in Guiyang (pronounced g'way yahng), even though I didn't particularly feel like traveling or visiting, after hearing those outrageous disclosures of Sam's.

You might be interested to know: I am a contributing writer to ChinaDaily's op-ed and blog page. If you are interested, here is the link:

Alan offered to put me up at his sister's house. I could have avoided paying for a hotel by staying there, but it was of paramount importance to me to find a room. You see, I'd done that before: accepted an invitation to someone's home, only to be taken prisoner, even if the cage was gilded and my keeper most solicitous and well-meaning. (see Country Chicken entry, posted August, 2013). Also, it is difficult to endure the scrutiny of a people who have never seen a foreigner, up close and personal. Everything, down to bathroom habits, gets observed and discussed.  

NOTE: that's when I called around, and found that foreigners can only stay at 4- and 5-star hotels, as reported in the Touchdown in Beijing entry.

I was able to find lodging in one of the 2 hostels that city boasts. I 'let' Sam help me arrange everything including train tickets, seeing as he was going to report in anyway. After all, he has a virtual wallet and can pay for everything online.

Can you tell I am very angry about that?

Alan was dismayed that I would not stay at his sister's house and attempted to cancel my room reservation. Only disclosing that Gary had paid for the room with his business credit card and would be able to write my trip off on his taxes kept Alan from ensuring I would have no choice but to occupy a room at his sister's.

Ok, so the bit with Gary paying for everything was a lie (but the part about him writing my travel off as a tax deduction is true. This is not necessarily dishonest because I have traveled for Gary's business in the past and, apparently it is acceptable to help somebody's business). I feel justified in telling this lie because otherwise, I would be under fire and uncomfortable.

It seems China and her people have put me on the defensive. How sad!

In spite of the overall disappointment in my staying elsewhere, everyone was happy to meet me, and all of the standard questions and preconceived notions about foreigners applied. That first evening, only immediate family came to the luscious dinner prepared by Alan's sister, the lovely Olivia, and I was treated to an argument between Alan's parents because Mom had not heard her phone when Dad called. It was funny and touching all at the same time, to watch them go at it. Obvious concern on Dad's part, irritation on Mom's because Dad always calls, and woven through their harsh sounding words, evidence of the deep love they share.

I say 'harsh sounding words' because Alan's parents speak only their local dialect. Whenever they engaged me, Alan or his sister had to translate. I got what I did of their disagreement from body language.

The next day, the whole family would turn out for a barbecue at a nearby park. Although the distance was not great it took forever to get there because the road was either too narrow and potholed to be careened down, or it was under construction and we constantly had to stop for heavy equipment or oncoming traffic. I worried that the food Olivia's husband had prepared – a lot of it meat, would spoil in the heat or get coated by the dust flying around the open-windowed van.

Olivia and her husband raised the family from poverty single-handedly. She ended her schooling after compulsory requirements were met, when she was fourteen years old. She then left her village to make her fortune in the big city. For several years she sent most of her money home from whatever work she could find: cleaning hotel rooms, clerking in shops, selling vegetables at the farmer's market.

That's where she met her husband. He had a fledgling business, supplying one hotel restaurant with fresh fruits and veggies. They soon fell in love and married, and now service 4 major hotels. They both get up around 2AM to get the best picks from the farmer's market where Olivia used to work in order to fulfill by 6 AM the orders the hotels call in the evening before.

This is a woman of valor. In telling this story, Alan confided that, prior to Olivia's hard work, they lived in a one-room dirt hut, deep in the country. He acknowledges that he would not even be attending college were it not for his sister. She deserves the pedestal Alan puts her on. I am honored to know her.

And the family enjoys the wealth and status this couple provides. Olivia's husband, a cheerful, rotund man, amateur chef, purveyor of this bounty, returned home from his deliveries with several kilos of meat and fish, which he marinated prior to leaving the house. In typical Chinese fashion, a shopping bag serves as both a mixing bowl and transport container, without the benefit of a cooler. Thus my concern for the meat getting contaminated before we had a chance to eat.

My fears proved unfounded. The amateur chef cooked while the rest of us cavorted. The first few portions went, of course, to the foreigners: Jared – Alan's friend, and I. Once assured we were enjoying our meal, the rest of the family tucked in. A few even enjoyed my contributions: potato salad, corn bread and peanut butter cookies, carefully conveyed from my home in a cooler.

The park boasted many wonders: a dam, a playground for kids and even a temple, high atop the mountain. Another, less pleasing wonder was the garbage being strewn about. In fact, a group that was leaving the picnic area as we arrived actually left all of the garbage from their meal on the ground and on the tables they occupied!  

As is my habit, especially when out in nature, I started picking up litter. Not from that now forlorn looking area, but from the paths we were walking and around our site. Immediately, the bag I was collecting garbage in was taken from me: “there are people whose job it is to clean up. You don't have to do it!”

How can China expect her youth to learn respect for the environment if the adults treat it that way?

We had 5 children in our group. I thought this would be a great teaching opportunity. I took Alan aside and explained why I was picking up garbage. He agreed with me, vowing to explain my actions to his clan, and offering to help me clean up.

I don't know if he actually did reveal my mindset because he spoke in his family's native dialect. I do know that, come the end of our time at the park, I was ushered away from the picnic area with reassurances that everyone else will do the clean up. As we left that area, Alan's hand firmly on my back – presumably to keep me from turning around, I noticed the pigsty area from the first group had yet to be cleaned up. And, when the rest of our group appeared at the parking lot mere minutes after we got there, I couldn't help but doubt that our area had been policed at all.

“When in Rome...” and all that is not a valid excuse for tolerating environmental abuse. But there was nothing I could do about it, except savor the bitter taste the experience left me with.

That, and look forward to Monkey Mountain, tomorrow's planned excursion. 

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