Monday, 4 February 2008

It was a tight squeeze, getting all of us into the van in the morning, but it worked. As we drove out of the city and into the country, I realized that the China I had imagined is much different than the China that is. I knew China had lots of people, but I always pictured them living in the big cities, like Beijing and Shanghai. Outside these big cities would be large rural areas, picturesque villages, donkey-driven carts and people working in the rice paddies. There are so many people here, even in a relatively small city like Lijiang there are millions of people. There are rural areas, we drove past plenty of people working in fields and one or two donkeys as we made our way to Dali, our next destination, but I never knew there were so many cities with millions and millions of people.

We passed some amazing scenery as we drove along a winding road, through the mountains. Huge vistas of green terraced fields that climbed the mountains, snowy peaks, and field after field after field or green growing things. Yellow flowers and many different colors of green spread out like a big patchwork blanket. We passed overloaded trucks, people pulling carts, bicycles with carts attached, and little three-wheeled vehicles that transported just about everything, from pigs to people. The driving was a little dicey, we made many passes on two lane roads, while oncoming busses did the same thing, playing chicken for a few seconds before one of us moved over. At one point we had to stop and ease around a group of twelve ducks, waddling down our lane.

The kids finished their homework and I was busy typing up a journal entry with the laptop in my lap, trying to keep it from sliding onto the floor as we rounded steep bends, and looking up every few minutes to admire the scenery, when the van stopped and the door next to me slid open to reveal a brightly dressed woman. She had a large hat on her head, with a white tassel hanging down one side, and she wore a white pant suit with flowers embroidered on it and a bright red jacket on top. She smiled and said “Hello”, I assumed we were at some sort of market and were soon going to be persuaded to buy some sort of handicrafts. Our driver could speak very little English, so far we knew he understood “toilet” and “picture” (as in “could you please stop so we could take a picture”). So, he hadn’t been able to brief us on when we’d arrive in Dali or when we’d meet our guide.

We soon discovered this woman was our guide. As I started putting away the laptop and called back to the kids to put up their games, I realized she was actually going to be joining us in the car. How this was going to happen was unclear, as we were already overstuffed. I vaulted over a duffle and squeezed next to Clay, she hopped in and propped her feet up on the school bag, and we were off. It turned out we were still about forty minutes from Dali and our hotel, Jane (her tour guide name) was going to take us to a Butterfly Garden first. When I asked if there were butterflies this time of year she shook her head. She later told us that fifty years ago, there were many butterflies in the spring that came to this garden, but then they started using chemicals and they all died. “It’s still a very romantic garden,” she said, while I envisioned the corpses of thousands of butterflies littering the path.

It did turn out to be a very pretty garden, green and lush. We passed a tree with hearts on ribbons dangling from the branches. Jane told us that couples come here and throw these hearts into the trees for good luck. She spoke a lot about “lovers” and “romance”, she’s twenty-four years old and single, so I guess it’s on her mind. She told us about her people, the Bai, who live in this region, how the girls are called jin-hua which means “golden flower” and all have a flower name. She said hers was sunflower, “Because I am not very pretty,” she said. I had to protest, she has rosy cheeks and a quick smile, and a funny way of wrinkling her nose when she can’t recall the correct English word. The government in China says that only people from the local tribe can be guides in their particular areas, which is why we’ve had so many different guides here, instead of just one who travels with us all over the country, like we had in Egypt. I know we’ll like 24 year old Jane, she’s sweet.

After the butterfly garden we visited a batik dying place, where I bought myself a batik apron and we admired the process required to make the intricate patterns. Old women cinch up the material with stitches, pulling it up into little bunches. It is then dropped into a giant vat of indigo dye, and then hung to dry and the stitches are pulled back out to reveal the design. We ate some lunch, and then continued towards Dali, stopping at a local Bai village to take a look at typical life. We walked down the streets of a crowded market, everyone buying things for the coming New Year celebration.

This was a real deal market, where locals shopped for things they really needed. Shoes, clothes, toys, food, even a haircut. There were lots of kids running around, holding their grandparent’s hands and all smiles. One little girl ordered herself a treat, a clear glass filled with water and bean starch. It looked like noodles, floating in water. Then a few squirts of sugary syrup were added. She was so excited about her special treat, she hopped from one foot to the other in anticipation.

We visited the Three Pagodas next. On the way we passed through a wind storm, Benji noticed the clouds scudding across the sky were moving “faster than I’ve ever seen them move before.” When we got out of the car and lined up to take a picture, the wind was in full fury, it blew so hard we all almost blew over on top of each other like a line of dominoes. At least the sun was shining so it wasn’t really cold. We turned to face the pagodas. The one in the middle was tall, flanked on either side by two smaller pagodas, and they were set against a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains. There is nothing to report about this particular sight, other than it was beautiful, and windy. The pictures can speak for themselves. We were all ready for the hotel by this time, and luckily it was only five minutes away. We can actually see the pagodas from our hotel room window.

For dinner that night we were serenaded by a particularly screechy Chinese singer. The tour groups on the other side of the room were delighted with her song selections, they clapped and called “shay-shay” (thank you) after each song. Her voice was so comically high, it sounded like Clay trying to imitate opera, badly. We cringed and muddled through our average but adequate buffet dinner, vowing to do better the next day in the food department.

We’re currently rationing deodorant in the Davis family, the older three members are sharing our last stick. Google has informed us you can’t buy a stick of deodorant in China to save your life. We’ve also reached a new level of bathroom lows, in our latest and greatest hotel we are not allowed to flush any kind of toilet paper in the toilet. We are supposed to deposit it in the trash can next to the potty. This is fine in public bathrooms, but not in our hotel room. We’ve all made a solemn vow to do number two in the second floor bathrooms, next to the restaurant. On the upside, Clay reached a new level of intimacy with his father-in-law when he unexpectedly met him in the hall this evening, both on their way to the second floor facilities. “I never thought I’d be doing my business next to my father-in-law while the Tennessee Waltz played in the background,” he reported when he returned.

I waited for the kids to fall asleep next door so I could hang Nate’s birthday party decorations. He bounced off the walls all day, hardly able to contain his birthday excitement. Tonight he said, “I will now say goodnight for the last time as an eight-year-old. Goodnight. I love you. Sweet dreams. Alayna?” She was asleep. “Alayna?” I told him she was asleep. He got out of bed and tiptoed to her bed. “Alayna?” he whispered. “I’m saying goodnight to you for the last time as an eight-year-old.” She grunted. He hopped back into bed, all eight years of him quivering with anticipation.

As I lay down that night I listened to the wind howling outside our bedroom window. Our window had a few leaks in it, and the wind really screamed through those little cracks, it sounded violent out there and I wondered if tornadoes ever hit rural China. I was reminded of some children we saw back in Vietnam. We had walked into a home and there were very small children playing all over the dirt floor. The second floor balcony was filled with food and other things being stored, the bottom floor had a cooking fire, one bed, and a little bit of space where the kids were playing. “Where does everyone sleep?” I asked our guide. There must have been seven or eight kids, plus several generations of adults. “Wherever,” he replied. Wow. I couldn’t imagine not having a particular bed with particular covers to tuck my child into, and as I listened to that wind howling outside, I worried about those little kiddos, and hoped someone had tucked them in safely that night.


Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Happy Birthday Nate! He woke up to red New Year’s decorations and presents to open and he was a happy boy. We took a trip across the lake that morning, sharing the boat with one other family (one boy, that one child rule is so evident). Clay tried to talk to them, but they couldn’t understand where we were from. He tried “America”, United States”, “USA”, even “George Bush”, all to no avail. So, we didn’t talk much to them on the way over to the island, our destination, and the island wasn’t very noteworthy. We were yelled at by an old woman in a Buddhist temple because we wouldn’t buy an incense stick and light it to their god. Clay said it looked like she was going to spit in my face! We walked around the slightly dilapidated village, a little shaken from the angry lady encounter. Back at the boat dock, there were people selling dried fish and teeny baby shrimp. Other items included shark fish and snails, we just looked.

Back on the boat, the mother of the other family handed us a yo-yo for our kids to play with. Their little boy was engrossed with a game on his dad’s cell phone and didn’t pay much attention while our kids attempted to do the yo-yo. The string was a little long, they kept hitting it on the floor, so they stood on a rickety stool. They were each able to get it to come up and down at least once, then Clay demonstrated his major yo-yo skills, doing a trick or two. We all clapped and yahooed his feats, then we asked to see the little boy do his yo-yo. This boy was eight years old, shorter than Nate, and he took that yo-yo and started doing trick after trick. He didn’t need a stool, and we were in a constant state of clap while he slung that thing in front of him and wound the string up into a triangle with the yo-yo swinging like a pendulum in the middle. It was really cool, we decided we needed to get our kids a yo-yo so they could start practicing. What a perfect toy for those times when you’re just standing around, waiting.

After the boat ride, we went into downtown Dali, where we found a great “western” restaurant to have Nate’s birthday lunch. The menu was huge, from Italian to Chinese to Texas Burritos, and we all got just what we wanted. We were pestered by wave after wave of little old ladies who wanted to sell us things. One little lady shoved what looked like a spoon into one of Alayna’s braids, then twisted her hair around it and bent it up into a cool little bun. I was peeved by her pushiness, but I liked the spoon things. While I went over to figure out how they worked, she shoved one in my ponytail as well. I made Clay come over and see how they did it, so he could do my hair for me. I bargained hard, and we ended up with three silver spoon accessories before lunch was through.

While we ate, firecrackers popped up and down the street, the kind of firecrackers you throw on the ground and they explode. New Year’s celebrations were beginning a couple of days early. We took a walk through the old town after lunch, and encountered countless firecracker vendors along the road. I was surprised that young kids, maybe Benji’s age, were equipped with matches or lighters and fireworks to play with, unsupervised. One little boy lit firecrackers and threw them into a canal, where they exploded, sending water shooting into the air. We all got a kick out of this, from a distance.

I had found the name of a sweets shop, called The Sweet Tooth, out of Mom’s China book. It was started by an American to help the deaf community in Dali, and the door is never darkened by the locals, who don’t really like sweets. Luckily, there are enough foreigners around to keep this scrumptious place in business. In honor of Nate we all partook of “ugly brownies”, chocolate chip cheesecake, Oreo cheesecake, and some sort of mint chocolate pie. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d really indulged in sweets, until I was reminded of the chocolate buffet in Hanoi, but that seemed like a long time ago. Josh Groban was playing on a CD, the walls had a few simple black and white photos on them, it was nothing like the mostly garish, very colorful Chinese architecture we’ve seen for the past few weeks, and it was a restful place. Restful until we began to feel the sugar coursing through our veins, got antsy, and took off for more walking in the Old Quarter.

The kids bought a few firecrackers, nice tame little things that sounded like bubble wrap when they were thrown and exploded on the sidewalk. Nate really wanted to just play on his birthday, so we headed back to the hotel a little early, skipping the museum. The kids played intricate lego games involving pillows and forts and umpteen twisted story lines. After dinner we sang “Happy Birthday” while Nate held his stolen red candle, then ate Ding Dongs, the official birthday cake moment.

Later that night, after dark, we returned to see the Old Town by night. Red lanterns lit the busy street, where fireworks popped and restaurants and stores were still open. People were everywhere, one man held a roman candle that fired balls of color into the night sky, right next to some power lines. A young guy stood in a doorway, throwing loud poppers at people’s feet as they walked by, scaring them to death. Then he and his friends would all laugh. We got some sparklers and some more poppers, this time much louder than the ones we had earlier in the afternoon.

When the fireworks were done, we headed back to the place where the young man had been scaring people with his fireworks. He was still at it, so Clay threw one right at his feet and it exploded. He jumped several feet, then he looked at us, like he couldn’t believe we did that. Then he grabbed a smoke bomb and started chasing us, and I was laughing like crazy and holding Benji’s hand and running, pushing past the crowds and screaming like a little kid being chased. I looked back to see Clay running, a purple haze of smoke bomb behind him, and that young guy just laughing his head off. It’s the first time in awhile we’ve just had fun with the locals, instead of just observing them, and them observing us, like we’re strange specimens in a zoo.

I think we celebrated Nate’s birthday in a pretty special way, I hope he’ll always remember his Chinese New Year birthday. Of course he didn’t actually turn 9, Texas time, until after midnight in China. Sometime, while we slept, he slipped from and eight-year-old to a nine-year-old, while firecrackers still popped in the distance.