08 March 2008
Subject: Swirling Scenery and Familiar Faces

Daring Darlings!

Pardon my long silence, for I was on vacation. The Yunnan-Guangxi New Year's 2008 trip with Trevor! I had bundles of fun; it's a shame I forgot to take any pictures. Oh wait, I found a few:
These images tell a pretty good story, but here are some (glutenous) gratuitous words to fill any gaps you may notice.

As was prophesied, I met Trevor in Kowloon before noon, five days after the full moon. He tried to schneak up on me on the corner of Nathan Road, but I whirled around, whisker-sensing him. He was blindingly fuzzy; I couldn't look him directly in the eyes at first. He gave me a great big hug and I snuffled him until I was satisfied it was the authentic Trevor. And then he put on his cape and wizard hat. Heh, no, Jan, he didn't really-- actually he didn't bring his wizard hat at all. Well, technically, they're all wizard hats once he puts them on. But in truth he was wearing a cunning costume of hand-me-overs: a spiral knitted hat purloined from a friend's garage sale, a woven hoodie I bought years ago in Xalapa Mexico that has been around the friend carousel a few times, and the same hiking boots he's had since high school. He was also wearing the same beard he had started in high school, though a little bushed out since then. (I mention these because you will be seeing them in plenty o' pics from Yunnan. As for me, I shall be dressed in a great big coat, with bright scarves, and likely playing with some manky little dogs.)

Anyway, he passed the snuffle test and we headed off to go bird-glancing in the park. And then we ate some strange Hongkongle thingies and it was all very fascinating. Over lunch, I was possessed to record "nomnomnomCHOMP-sky" (and diagram how exactly Trevor had crossed the International Date Line somewhere over the "It's Complicated" squiggly area and was now kersrsly on an International Date, having crossed the LINE, bucko!) in the little book in which I had presciently detailed 88 Auspicious Things for Trevor to do in China. 88 Auspicious Things that not only would he accomplish with flying colours, but also that would end up guiding much of our careening adventure plans.

Our original plans were to train up through Shenzen into Guangzhou, and then over to Hunan province to climb one of the seven indicated "holy" mountains. But there was a sizable snowstorm in much of China just at that time, and we felt if it was cold and miserable, we probably didn't want to schlep up a frigid slope if we couldn't see anything. When we got to Guangzhou, we had no option but to leave the train station. Armed police prevented anyone from going to the ticketing counters or from re-entering the building. We were out in the cold with several thousand people milling around and huddled on the damp concrete, competing for tickets home to see their family members on the Chinese New Year holiday. We were es-oh-el on that count, and after discerning which way was south from locals, we lumbar-ed around lugging our luggage through the hotel touts, looking for the airline ticketing station we knew was nearby. It was miserable, cold, wet, crowded, with an air of intolerable depressive energy from the masses. From that point on, every low point in the trip would be measured in the base unit of gadawfulness: 1 Guangzhou Train Station. (ex. "Wow, that was only three times better than sitting at the Guangzhou train station"). So we clawed our way through the confusion to the airline ticketing booth, stood in line behind a mere seven people, and bought our tickets, with cash, less than 15 hours in advance. Yay China.

Next morning we were off to Kunming, congratulating ourselves on our cunning. We would arrive to a clear sunny day in Yunnan, land south of the clouds. I... was hesitant to take my coat off, but there we were, right in the middle of spring. We wandered around Kunming for a couple of days, checking out the market of auspicious round things and a carnival of dead fowl. We climbed up the western slopes of the hills outside of Kunming, to go see Taoist temples and the Dragon Gate. On our hike up the mountain, we had several cute interactions involving giant radishes as tasty as popsicles, some surprised disheveled kids left wondering at Trevor's beard and giant strawberries placed in their hands, and some thwarted ponies. We had a lunch of mysterious blossoms from buckets, and eventually made our way to the Taoist treasures. We ate Over the Bridge Soup, took walks and bus rides, and giggled over puns we recorded in our travel book: my sketch of a packing-tape elephant caressing a packing peanut in a box labeled "Schroedinger's Pack-iaderm" and Trevor's "Can of Mixed Newts". *Of course* we get along.

From Kunming, we bussed to Dali Old City, well, after we walked around in Xiaguan for a time before we realized that we weren't in the right city. But eventually, we made it to the Old City and had a wonderful couple of days experiencing a tourist-trappy walled city. We went for a bike ride out in the countryside near the big lake in Dali, where we amused local adults and kids alike with our various botchings of "ni hau" and "li ho" and "hello!" the latter of which garnered the most smiles. But also cute kids threw rocks at us and giggled. Perfect. I had always wanted to bicycle through the paddies, but I think I'd like to do that again sometime.

From Dali, we took circuitous steps to bus to Lijiang, which has a much more lived-in feel to their old town. We stayed with Mama Naxi, who Trevor describes as "the stereotypical Italian grandmother" of Naxi matriarchs. "You sleep Mama One or Mama Two? You not finish your food, eat, eat! Have some tea!" And she made the most filling banana pancakes (bananas on Naxi flatbread) that would last from breakfast well until 4:00 pm before you'd be able to eat again. Her guest houses were filled with lounging cats and little dogs running underfoot, and the friendliest foreign travelers I have met on our travels. We made arrangements through her to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and airline tickets to Xishuangbanna.

We went to Shuhe, a small town outside of Lijiang, to meet a friend Wei Wei. She is sweet artist from Inner Mongolia, recently from Xiamen, but then living in Shuhe for a month. So we arranged to meet her there to tour the town and meet her friends, which was fantastic. We spent the day in cheery sunlight, meeting all sorts of human and doggy friends, and getting an insider's view of living in a tourist attraction. We visited her Tibetan friend Shi San (Thirteen (Hundred)) at his house of fire and music, where he broke out his drum and grog, and we danced and drank and drummed together. At one point, while Wei Wei and Trevor were drinking and Shi San was drumming and I was dancing, Shi San suddenly bolted up, caught up a flower pot and threatened to throw it at the man silently taking photos of me with his professional camera. I laughed and danced harder and it was one of the best experiences on the trip. Little moments of the sparks between eyes, when Shi San took off his sunglasses to acknowledge his father, the sun, or lifting up Trevor's locks and fashioning a Buddha-bun. My fingers tracing the tanka tattoo on his back, asking how to say "spiral," or admiring secret scrolls left rolled and singing along to reggae music. Those moments, had and taken away, but left there.

We shared dinner in the house of another of Wei Wei's friends. They treated us to hot pot and an experience of a modern family balancing between old Naxi ways and ultra-modern tourism. A man named Jelly walked me and Wei Wei through the darkness and over the cobblestone streets, to the nearest miscellany store to purchase a case of plum wine. But we had to beg off early and return to Mama Naxi's as we'd be trekking up Tiger Leaping Gorge the next morning.

We left Lijiang in a duo of minivans between the ten or so in our individual expeditions, and rode out the bumpy two hours to the trailhead. We set out, three Lutheran English-teacher tourists charging up the hill in an American military march, with a French duo more laissez faire about the kilometrage vs. enjoyment of view factors, and then a friendly English bloke trailing with the vaguely-limping Molihua and the faithful Trevor. Though my nerve pain was fairly constant, I plodded up the mountainside meditatively, never resting, and made it to the crest of Day 1 before the others. We stopped at Teahorse (Cha Ma) Guest House and spent a delicious evening eating various hot dishes, sitting around the pot of coals, and chatting about how silly this or that Chinese custom was. I was definitely enjoying a vacation from China, in one of the most beautiful locals in China. It was an interesting dynamic throughout our trip, of Trevor wanting to experience all that was Chinese of China, while I wanted to enjoy a vacation from the frustrations of China, and clutched at every opportunity to speak English, French, Spanish, or German and enjoy Thai curries and European fare. That evening, we slipped into a luxurious, seemingly 100 degree bed courtesy of our electric blanket, and dreamt sweetly with no hint of "roughing it" during our trek.

We continued our hike after sunrise the next morning, and stopped again at the Halfway House, and finally at Tina's at the end of the trail. Not certain of transportation at the time close to the New Year's festival, we decided not to hike down to the level of the river, but instead catch a ride back to the trailhead while we had the chance. Back in Lijiang, we enjoyed a Chinese New Year's Eve dinner with some well-met vegetarian friends at Mama Naxi's, and ate all manner of traditional round things for good luck. While others still celebrated, Mama wished us off with amulet necklaces and we set out for the airport to fly to Xishuangbanna.

Our flight lasted a mere ten minutes, in which time they still managed to wrangle a meal service. Okay, maybe it was more like forty minutes, but still by far the shortest flight I've taken. My nose pressed to the window the whole time, I saw pockets of townships launching sprays of burning metals feebly towards the belly of our beast, but we were thousands of feet above their fiery celebrations. Despite the seeming closeness of our destination, when we disembarked it was into a steamy tropical night, a far cry from Jade Snow Dragon Mountain peak as the backdrop to our chillacious crisp cold mitten-necessitating days in Lijiang.

Thai script on all the road signs, warmth keeping friendly relations with the darkness, tropical fruits waiting for me in the markets, sweating with anticipation-- just what I had desired. Aside from the RIDICULOUS amount of fireworks going off all around us, especially those of little boys running down the street pointing hand-held roman candles at each other and passersby. Just another cultural experience for the Trevormonster.

We toured the botanical gardens the next day, where I purloined a fallen cacao fruit and ravished it there. In the market, I had met a new fruit, Salacca edulis, looking like a dryish brown snake skin over a tart, slightly medicinal tasting, orange flesh around a seed. New year, new fruit. To celebrate the end of a lovely day capped by a much-anticipated Thai food dinner, we went to the nearby town of Gasa for a night soak in the sulfur hot springs.

The next day found us in Damenglong, three bumpy dusty hours by bus away from Jinghong and a careful pronunciation away from the myriad other small towns with similar tones. We got close and personal with several stupas, and in our quest to find the White Bamboo Shoot Pagoda, we had a more cultural excursion. The first place we stopped that we thought might be it, the town elders were cleaning the temple. We watched for a few minutes, and then helped lay down carpets. I went out back to see the women holding up a new canopy with sticks while the men tied it up to the rafters. They greeted me by peering into my bag of snow peas, which also contained some candies for kids we met along the way. I only had to offer once, and each woman dug into my bag and extracted the candies from among the peas until there were none. Smiling and giggling in Dai, they returned to their holy chores and I found it fit to leave.

The next temple we stopped at, further down the dirt road, there seemed to be an organized community activity going on. Women, men, and children alike gathered around on the temple floor, traipsing barefoot back and forth from a motley collection of housewares and clothing. People would pick up pieces of finery, examine them, and either put them back or trundle off with their acquisitions. Flea market? Redistribution of temple offerings? A monk sang a sutra, and we observed, kneeling on the floor with the others. Eventually, a woman spoke to us and introduced one of the monks as her son. I spent a greater part of the afternoon chatting with him in Chinese and giving bits of English lessons in the patio of the temple. We were invited to take lunch there, and I supplied his mother with an offering of peas. The sticky rice we consumed had come straight off the temple altar, and as we sat at the low table slurping noodles, we witnessed buckets of altar offerings dumped on the ground beside us. After a time, we helped sort the goodies, separating the toothpaste and soap from fruits, candies, and crackers; emptying bags of uncooked rice into one container, and pulling out all the thin yellow prayer candles wrapped in leaves. Women came by with big baskets, and they took away weighed amounts of cooked rice for a price. It was my first glimpse behind the scenes of temple offerings recirculation, and it was surreal, to be certain.

Our stay in Damenglong was marked by a bit of a stomach illness for Trevor and some misbehaviour on my part. On our way back north, we wanted to stop at the small town of Xiaojie to soak in their hot springs. I remember asking the bus driver with extremely careful tones, "Xiaojie", concentrating on not accidentally saying "prostitute." "Ni chu Xiaojie, ma?" He waved me off, cigarette in hand, without looking up from his card game on the gearbox, saying yes yes yes. Again I asked, clearly and slowly, do you go to Xiaojie? Yes yes yes, just get on the bus, he impatiently replied. We got on, but a few minutes later, unsure that he had registered what I'd said, asked again, will you tell us when we have arrived at "Xiiaaoojiiee"? More yessing and dismissive hand motions, and we were off. About an hour into the journey, I thought we should be arriving soon. Two hours into the journey, and I was certain we'd passed or circumvented it. By the time we'd arrived at Gasa and the driver started collecting money for Jinghong, I knew for sure he was not taking us to Xiaojie.

"When will we arrive in Xiaojie?" I challenged him. "What? No, you're going to Jinghong, give me thirty yuan." "Nooo, we're not going to Jinghong, we're going to Xiaojie. I asked you several times and you said you'd take us to Xiaojie. So when will we arrive?" He was losing face quickly with the other passengers as he tried to collect their money. "You don't want to go to Xiaojie, Xiaojie is no fun. Come on, pleeaase give me thirty yuan," he wheedled placatingly. No fun?! He's telling me I'm not going where I told him I was going because he judges it's *not fun* and will instead literally "take us for a ride" to Jinghong? I stayed Trevor's hand with the 60 kuai and instead offered him 20. "Here's the fare for Xiaojie. I asked your boss yesterday and I know that is how much it is. We are not arriving in Jinghong." He refused the money and we continued towards Jinghong, everyone on the bus smiling strangely. I wasn't about to let this jerked yak meat of a chain-smoking donkey-cough congratulate himself on taking advantage of the two foreigners who couldn't pick Xiaojie out of the array of hamlets we passed. When we got to the Jinghong bus station, I offered him the money again, "ni yao bu yao chien?!" Upon his dodging response, I tossed the correct fare for two to Xiaojie down on the gearbox and stalked off the bus in a huff, pulling Trevor in tow. We walked aloofly to a motorcycle taxi and got the heck away from that scene, and it wasn't until hours later that I started to feel less icky.

Due to that bad transportation karma, we had to wait until the next day to get a bus from Jinghong to Kunming, and because of the holiday, we had to pay exactly 40 kuai more for our hotel room than we had the last time through town. I considered that just. On the upside, we had time to enjoy blind man massages, more tropical fruits, and another Thai meal.

The bus ride from Jinghong to Kunming stretched from the originally quoted nine into being an eleven hour trip during precious daylight. We stopped at just about every toll booth along the way, almost an hour at one town's where traffic was locked up. We experienced hours straight of being in the "blowing lane" where our driver indeed blew his horn repeatedly before overtaking any vehicle in the other lane. Apparently it is a Chinese traffic convention to keep your left turn signal on after getting into the blowing lane to indicate that you were actively in the blowing lane, blowing. So the soundtrack for most of the hours when we were not stopped at a toll booth, was, "tick tock tick tock WOOOOOOOOOOOONK WOOOOOOOOOONK tick tock WOOOOOOONK tick tock tick tock WOOOONK WOOOOOONK WOOOONK tick tock..." Though I was concentrating on not puking, the moments were made bearable with Chinglish signs like "Don't blow the elephants" near the elephant crossings and signs pointing off to the right saying "Existing Road" while we continued straight, apparently on a non-existing road. "Bamboozle, Bamboozle, let down your green stalks," riffs the punster sitting next to me, and I feel better. Well enough to make it to Kunming without narfing, but only that far.

A lonely night without Trevor in the bed next to mine, we are separated into gendered shared rooms. Thrice I parted ways with my stomach contents, in the most discrete way at my disposal, and found it impossible to keep down water. Trevor had tagged me with whatever it was he had in Damenglong, and the next morning I was quite delicate. We spent more hours than necessary at an Indian restaurant, where, surprisingly, spicy curry settled my stomach. Eventually we made our way to the train station to begin our overnight journey to Guilin.

For most of the trip, we had the sleeper compartment to ourselves. It was the best possible way to travel, charting out boggle boards by hand from Trevor's list of dice-letter distributions, one of us randomly choosing the squares and the other picking a number between one and six. The gentle clacking of the rail joints as we drowsed on our comfortable berths, hot water for our noodles, and a cozy radiant heater. Upon our arrival in Guilin the next midday, I felt quite refreshed.

With the help of the man, who stopped us in the street because Trevor has such an alarmingly unusual beard and took us to visit his relatives' tea shoppe, we were prevailed upon to purchase tickets to take a boat tour to Yangshuo. Most Chinese tours involve someone with a flag and a megaphone leading a group of half-aware stragglers talking amongst themselves. Our experience was only slightly different, in that it involved a forced one-hour shopping break needlessly plunked in between our bus ride to the boat and the actual "getting on the boat" portion of getting on the damn boat. But the boat ride itself was very scenic, through bright fog and dreamlike karst formations.

Yangshou was a scenic town, small enough to be charming, yet touristed enough to host scores of multi-cultural restaurants. More Thai curries made me happy, as did wandering through the cobbled streets noticing charming details. Valentine's Day dinner was had at Minnie Mao's, and the next day with the most beautiful weather was accidentally drowsed away luxuriously oversleeping. But we took a late afternoon float down the Li river on a bamboo raft, only turning around when the bats came out.

The next day we biked out into the countryside, saw some rural towns, avoided paying a lady 20 kuai to pass her homemade tourist booth on the side of the road, marveled at more karst, and climbed up to see the Moon Hill arch formation. And then we biked back to Yangshou and bused back to Guilin and flew back to Xiamen and taxied to my house and I took a fricken shower. And in case I still had any travel stains, we soaked them off at Ri Yue Gu hot springs the next day.

A week back at school while Trevor explored Xiamen. He came in one day to give our kids a lesson on American geography, in which he drew, freehand, a startlingly accurate outline of the United States and proceeded to put on the map and give a description of every city, university, or national monument that our kids could think of. At the end of our vacation, I couldn't believe that a month had passed. I was going to have to get used to not being constantly within 15 feet of Trevor anymore, so that week of school was a good segue.

The night I sent Trevor off on a bus back to Hong Kong, alone, something felt rusted inside my chest. Clanky, and rather heavy. So I walked through the night to The Jackson Turns 30 Experience, to join in on the celebration of a friend's birthday. Several rooms of friends welcomed me then, with hugs and cries of hello, and I felt that I had returned to a niche carved out of a strange land, filled with strangers who mesh and cling to form a fabric that supports us in our alienation from the culture and language we are struggling to understand. The Laowai: Swedes, Englishmen, South Africans, Australians, Canadians, Americans, Frenchmen, Germans, Filipinos, Danes, Dutchmen, and yes, even some English-speaking Chinese groupies connecting with the foreigners-- they are all my friends and countrymen. United by our strangeness and strangerhood, we hold each other to be friends and family. I remarked to Bjorn and Robert, something I realized while traveling, it doesn't matter where we go on this earth, even the most beautiful places are just scenery behind the faces we're looking at. When I think back on the brightest memories of this trip, I see the faces of Mama Naxi, Wei Wei, Shi San, Jelly, the Lutheran English-teacher tourists, the French duo, the Englishman, the pair of Canadian and Irish vegetarians, bus drivers, counter clerks, fruit vendors, and most of all, Trevor.

I have, since my vacation has officially ended, gone back to teaching at school and getting back into the rhythms of Xiamen life.

Mitch, in contrast to my droll adventures, had a really unremarkable, tiresome vacation. Let's see, he watched some T.V., played some computer games, went to Fujio, gambled with some men, smoked a lot of cigarettes, slept, moped around the internet, walked around outside, got married, got a tattoo, shaved his head, and ah yes, watched some movies. Pshaw, boooriiing.

See, since his name is Valentine, he thought Valentine's Day would be appropriate to sign legal documents and make her his "Valentine," get it? And they both got matching tattoos, he below his inner elbow and she on her breast, I hear. It is of two hearts interlocked at the bases, if you can imagine two little red band-aides criss-crossing, it looks like a little rounded "x" marking the spot. They are planning three weddings, one in Fujio in spring for Tina's family and friends, one in Xiamen in the summer for the locals here, and one in the States, for his family and friends who can't make it to the other two. That seems fair, aren't they clever duckies? Also, Mitch was in the paper again (he was in the paper last Valentine's Day as well), this time for having gotten married on Valentine's Day. I hear he's due to be in the paper again soon, an article about Laowai living in Xiamen.

Exciting news at school, the GAC program is coming to Yingcai through a cooperation with ACT, remember standardized testing? Mitch needs to be documenting his process as he effects wild and lasting changes at a connected well-known school that will easily serve as a flagship endeavor for all who wish to follow suit.

So, yes, back to edumacating spongy things. But I leave you with one last treat from vacation: Chinglish written on a soda can containing a T-shirt. Brilliant poetry!

Love you dearly,

Remove collars,shorten sleeves,
and eliminate buttons ... ...
in an enthusiastic rhythm,
the temperature rises so as to
wear out the whole summer
Put aside the trivialnsee and bondage of the city.,
Sexy,or decadent,or Hiphop,or Punk ... ...
Therefore,simple and connotative
clothing is used to decorate them.
T-shirt expresses our intrinsic desires,
Which mean persistence and individuality
and is also the expression of a life attitude.

Easy carrying
Simple and comfortable
Revelation of individuality
Fashion of Individuality
Fashionable Design
Profound Connotation

Roaming on the edge of fashion,
it does not mean blind following.
it is occasionally restrained
and occasionally exaggerated,
With a myriad of elicits,
our own fashionable brand is created"