HEROES OF HAINAN (2007)
Just arrived at Airport Garden Hotel for the night. Had some dinner at a local xiao fanguanr, ate rou si mian, then bought some snacks at a liquor store and came back. Slept mostly on the bus, though read a little of Japanese Lessons. Learned that if you don’t see what you want, keep walking; likely you’ll find civilization pop up in the oddest places. Very glad to have found local cheap restaurant, as hotel restaurant insanely expensive.
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Last night Robert and I watched some pretty silly Chinese shows on TV while vegging out on potato chips, plum candy, and Orion bars. Eventually happened upon a really strange Richard Gere and Juliet Binoche movie about a kabbalistic spelling bee and a fractured family, but it got too depressing so we both went to sleep. Looked out hotel window, saw ugly dirty snow, but don’t care because had a really, really cool dream that I’m sadly forgetting.
Arrived at Beijing airport. Clean, mopped floors, a couple flatscreen TVs with imperial soap operas, in general it feels not like China at all… or perhaps the China to come? Rob, Paul, Jeanne, and myself all have books and we are reading them – Rob has a history of America told from worker’s perspective, Paul a devotional, Jeanne a Clive Cussler novel, and I am reading Japanese Lessons. While I was exploring this area, saw a Chinese girl reading a nice volume of Sherlock Holmes. Like all airports, still can’t understand the speakers – like somebody is talking through a mic with a towel over their mouth.
Finally on the flight, in my seat (next to Paul). It’s weird how everyone on this flight has assigned seating, and yet coming out of the airplane shuttle (after we were crammed in like fish) everyone surge toward the stair ramp, pushing and shoving to get on the plane. Must be a mental block or something. Or something.
Really good lunch for airline food. Sichuan Airlines does a good job. A hot beef, tomato, potato and rich dish, along with a compliment box of: a muffin, a roll, a box of cherry tomatoes, a box of some green bean vegetable, and a small bag of pickled vegetable. Everything was good, plus they rolled by twice to refill drinks and even offered extra hot dishes to people who still wanted to eat more.
A chicken just walked past by leg. Some guys bought a pack of cigarettes and went outside, back to work after about an hour game of Mahjong. I’m sitting on a weirdly constructed bamboo chair, in a run-down concrete gaming hall somewhere in the farmlands that surround the Chengdu airport. After arriving here, Paul and I left out bags with Jeanne and Rob and walked a bit in the general area, eventually going off-road and wandering around some farms and backyards and creeks. Tons of dogs here, of every kind. Think I even saw a pit bull just walking around some radish fields. There’s some kind of factory beyond the field near us, with two suspended silos and an elevated ramp. Birdcalls in the banana trees.
Back at Chengdu airport. Took a couple pictures on the way back, including myself with a (too) fat smile and a dog, and a picture memorializing this time at Chengdu. Sitting now on second level at “teahouse” restaurant overlooking lobby. It’s weird because they are selling fresh fruit and luggage side-by-side, in a building that looks extremely similar to the SF Intl. terminal, complete with future-faux twisting ceiling beams and immaculately shining mopped floors. Apparently, Rob and Jeanne have been nursing two cups of tea for the last three hours, and reading various books, while Paul and I were out scouring the countryside for farmdogs, sheep, and interesting weeds.
Waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to our flight to Hainan. An “Athost” and “Hanlinhua House,” two stores down here, are selling general foodstuffs and stuffed animals, the other selling books. Pretty noisy. Funny story – as Jeanne was going through security, she was stopped and her bags searched three times, turning out every pocket, they swore there was a knife. Finally, they found a tiny, tiny blade at the bottom of some pocket – and then gave it back to her (after her totally being embarrassed) and said: “Just don’t use it.”
At Hainan. My goodness, but how Great. First, off the plane to notice how clean the air is. Second, that stuff in the distance could be seen clearly. Third, the air felt fresh and because we’re the farthest south you can get, it’s warm down here. Sitting on my hotel bed now. Rob and I on our beds, Paul putting out his sleeping bag. Firecrackers on the beach. Constant droning sounds of motorcycles along the road, ratt, a ratt, a ratt. The wonderful sound of waves brushing against the beach. In the distance, the lights along a wharf or shore (too dark to see) blink for a uniform or so, a constant series of alternating bright colored lights, lining the ocean with color, while even farther away, winding white lights twirl up an invisible mountain, a path into darkness. A fresh and crisp breeze flows through our open window. I stretch out my now free toes, feel the muscles stretch, recline on my bed, and dream of tomorrow when the horizon is clear. We have two full, maybe three, of pure exploration and beachside bliss. Although there was a bit of confusion when we first got here with the room rates (they wanted all eight nights upfront), we settled on three nights and thankfully, I still have about 500 kuai left to save for the remaining eight days. Can’t wait to take pictures tomorrow and explore some of the sidestreets around this area, find the nice little food spots, etc.
The name of the city is Sanya. We wandered down a street full of roasting street food. Rob and Paul bought some convenience store food, but we roughly decided to go back there in the morning for breakfast. Sounds cool to me, as long as somebody else wakes up and wants to go. Otherwise, I’ll probably just read in the morn, and wait till lunch to get some street food or simple dish, at a small fan guanr. We walked on the beach a bit. The sound was soft as silk, the waves heavy with sound. It was almost like a dream, with the South China Sea before us, not having to worry, and then a lady walked up to us with three boxes of fireworks in her arms and asked us in a rather demanding voice if we wanted to buy some. She then intended on setting up shop, setting and opening boxes even as we walked away quickly. As we made our way down the beach, we encountered another, and then another, until we left the smooth sands and opted for the sidewalk. As we proceeded, we saw the whole beach, even at 10:00pm, was full of these firecracker salespeople, cluttering near the shoreline with their boxes. So there seems to be a dark side and a light side to everything here. We remarked with some cynicism, jokingly though, how it would have been nice to have such a nice, sandy beach and peaceful waves, without the merchants shoving gunpowder in your face and following you down the beach as you fled in terror. Such is China, it seems. All’s not lost though. Roasted whole squid!
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Washing the dirt of yesterday off in our shower felt great. I am the only one up now, and the other two are not giving any signs of even wanting to get up, even though I have seen Rob stir and shut his eyes after he woke. It’s gorgeous outside, the beach opening onto a blue ocean, with high hills, like green mounds of rock, framing both sides, as if we were in a valley. I had a wicked dream last night; it started out good, but ended quite badly, so the light of Hainan was a welcome beginning to the day.
They ran out of doujiang just as we came for breakfast, but they did have some packaged soy milk. We had you tiao (fried breadsticks) and soy milk, then walked around. Very busy here. Was surprised that pedestrians share the sidewalk with motorcycles. Saw a beggar boy with his arms or legs cut off. Walked by a cafe next to a garbage dump. Rob bought some tea at a small enclave by the beach, and we talked to him for a bit and sampled some tea. Complicated procedure he had for preparing it. Paul is looking at maps now, deciding what to do today.
Sitting cross-legged on some strange cement-tiled floor about the size for a good dance on the side of a mountain. Our two bikes are propped up near the road. Sun is still high in the sky, about three quarters down. The mountain to my right has a roller coaster winding up, around, and down, while on my left Paul is taking pictures. We rented two bikes for the day, walked up a ginormous mountain road lined with old cement coffins and tombstones, which was a no-admittance road (but we went to the top, until we got nervous at the sign of a red and white striped gate). We coasted down the mountain with full brakes, then rode some more around the island. Had a green island mango (really good, sharp, tang, juicy, easy to eat), and found a hotel up in the hills for 50 kuai a night, though it is a bit of a hike. Probably going to head home, get some dinner with Phelans and Rob and Jeanne. Riding up and down these steep hills is quite tiring. At one point were walking nearly forty-five degrees up, and probably forty degrees coasting down. Felt like I was going to topple over. Good experience though. Paul is checking bikes now. He got the not-so-good bike from rental shop, while mine is as smooth as you can get.
Realized I got ripped off for a pair of ugly clip-ons that I bought in a hasty and tired shopping mode, after riding down the mountain. Twenty kuai for a robotic set of plastic clip-on sunglasses, which I now will dub as my “mistake of Hainan.” Back in the room now, after touring the east side of Sanya, and taking a detour to a funny looking footbridge that’s reminiscent of the Great Wall (in its gently sloping hills). The east side is filled with fat, white Russians, and seems to be in a constant state of development, with half-built beachhouses and dusty bulldozers, along with pale northerners with dyed red hair and loping bellies, along with skinny old women and the heavy accent of Russia, with many dark-skinned Chinese laborers resting and working tirelessly in the shade. We also saw a military truck rush down that “forbidden” road, filled to the sides with crisply uniformed naval officers. Good thing we didn’t go further than the gate.
Finally, ten pictures. Not the most fantastic, but they will work as a short testament of today. Just saw a fireworks show on the beach – only about a minute. Paul and I, after dinner at “the Oldest Restaurant” took our bikes for one last spin, going down some of the inner canals surrounding various islands and going over lighted bridges, riding quickly through the cool wind along wide boulevards under the nearly pearl white full moon and yellow streetlights, along the streets with lamp shadows of palm trees and couples hand-in-hand pacing along the waterside, neon reflected in small waves, shimmering like sparkling night clouds. Now, the television is glowing, a Chinese drama playing itself out as two men, one dressed as a blind man, the other a passerby, act out a comedy skit to a small audience of applause. Tomorrow, Paul wants to go to Five Finger Mountain. We will discuss it over breakfast.
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Ah, another beautiful morning. Had another weirdly scary dream (which I have already forgotten). There is a lone junk out in the sea. Some people are in a rowboat going out to it. The sky is dusty blue (though I wouldn’t say “dusty” as the air feels very clean), and in the distance, near an outcropping of a small island are two white ships, one looking to be a yacht, the other a cruise ship. This place is definitely a vacationer’s paradise. I would love to hang out with a local fisherman for a day though.
On the bus to Five Fingered Mountain. It’s a small dirty bus, with rumpled and patterned curtains wrapped in a knot, ripped leather seats, a metal beaded floor, and a tiny rotating rusty fan near the driver. The lady sitting in front of me just spat out the window, while Paul just bought a loaf of sweetbread from a wandering woman standing outside his window. There’s a queer clear plastic tube coiled like a snake in the cramped luggage rack. Rob and I had some spiced noodle soup for breakfast, and although it wasn’t bad, ten kuai for two was overpriced. It’s Hainan though – the veil of cost is strangely blurred here. Bus is leaving now, pulling out of the station.
Still going up the mountain. Basically, the whole trip we’ve been going up. Just finished Japanese Lessons. Take a bit of time to reflect on it before I start Rape of Nanking. Lots of green. Gorgeous, terraced hills. Very bumpy ride. Farms, farms, and sharp green peaks.
On Wu Zhi Shan (Five Finger Mountain). The trail goes, or went (I am resting on a rock in a break of sun, right now) nearly forty degrees up, footprints deeply embedded into hard packed soil. So many sounds up here – insects, butterflies, birdcalls, the sound of water silkily rolling down mountainside rapids. We are following trail markers up the hill, though we are not really sure where we are going. Paul is scouting different trails to see where they lead. There is a little campsite at the bottom, where we left the Chinese teacher couple we befriended on the road to the Park Reserve. We can’t stay the night though, and need to get home tonight. The sun is nice. Cool breeze.
At the top of Five Fingered Mountain. Sun is going down, so we will need to buck it. Climbing up was like climbing up one massive tree, a jungle gym of hard as rock tree trunks and branches growing horizontal to the earth. Most of the trail was about forty-five degrees up, while others were straight ninety, pulling yourself up branch after branch. The air is more chill now. An airplane engine in the distance, along with the rustle of bamboo. The pearl white moon is high above another hill (higher than us). A thick haze hangs over the island, the white fog buried between mountain mounds and wild trees. We’ve had our dinner, and are going down the hill now.
Basically, we came down the mountain, and I’m sitting on a guardrail on the 3 km road to the only town in this area. Moon is really bright, a dog barking, the sound of crickets plying their bows and the trickle of water. A motorcycle just drove down the road. There are little chirps and frogsongs from the creek. Half or more of the hike down in complete (or moonlit, when there were no trees) darkness. Very steep, precipitous, several parts of the trail eroded to thousand foot gaps to the bottom. Imagine climbing down a 5,000 foot tree in darkness and you will get a sense of the thoughts that ran though our head. An experience I am glad to have, but would not want to do again. Going to walk to town to try to find somewhere to sleep, and get back to Sanya in the morn.
On the way back to Shuiman, we detoured up to a pig and duck farmer’s house, where Paul asked if they had any extra food to spare, as well as a place to stay. Apparently, he’s done it in Guilin (in the mountains) before and had a positive experience. The farmers were Li people, a Hainan minority group, who had an exodus from somewhere in 1983 to the middle of the island where we’re at now. They gave us some cold rice porridge (actually quite good, with real fresh mountain water) and the leftovers of their pork supper (intestine I believe, but cooked quite well). We talked for a bit afterwards, Paul gave them a 5 kuai bill (initially they refused, of course), and then I took a picture of them. Right now the local Shuiman KTV hangout is playing loudly down the street, while Paul is washing up in our hotel bathroom. My feet are started to feel better now. I would describe what we did today as climbing nearly straight up a 5,000 foot tree, and then climbing down it in darkness. The experience so overwhelms me, that I’m sure it will come out in my writing later. The whole Five bloody Fingered Mountain must have had half a million trees on it, at least, growing like hair, everywhere; our trail, well, that was all it was, was interconnected and wrapping ancient roots. Amazing. Tomorrow we leave at 8.
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At a streetside bus stop in the main city of Wu Zhi Shan. Found on the little bus from Shuiman that Wu Zhi Shan (the mountain) is the tallest on the island. Passed by some beautiful terraced ride paddies, and drove down the mountain – just got on the bus to Sanya. Kind of chaotic in here. Anyways, bus is going up a hill now, so it’s getting harder to write. Very shaky. If I had known yesterday we were going to climb the tallest mountain in mountainous Hainan, I might of stayed home Paul is always wonderfully challenging though. We climbed to the top of a 1,867 meter mountain, which was more a giant interconnected tree, and then back down under the shade of darkness, a canopy of immense ancient trees, and a full, bright morn. In the morning after we woke, we wandered Shuiman a bit, going down to the bridge out of the central downtown, seeing a pig sniffing the streets, and a young men with seedy opiates in their mouth the color of blood, while birds, small swallows, dove down into the lake near the town and back up towards the mountains. We are now making the long trek down the hill, back towards the white waves of Sanya, and the bustling boardwalk of cracked cement sidewalks and beachside coconut and tea shops.
At a small restaurant in Sanya. We had one of the maids at the hotel open the door for us, as Robert wasn’t there. Changed clothes, repacked some things, washed hands, and on the way down for lunch ran into the Phelans, who were thinking about visiting the tourist trap for the Li minority. Yesterday they went to the West Island, which has some swimming areas, snorkeling, and speedboat parachuting; they enjoyed it a lot. Not my thing though. So I ordered a dish at this little restaurant. Two minutes later they ask me what I want so I point to it again and two minutes after that he asks me again, so I go back to the counter but it is gone. I guess he’s a little scatterbrained. Oh well. I’ll get some street food after I’m done journaling. Restaurant is very empty, one other couple here. A computer near the wall, some wall fans which are not turned on, a picture of a street covered in fallen golden leaves, and on our table two boxes full of bagged chopsticks. Tonight is check-in, so all the teachers should have arrived by then.
Drinking pu’er tea with Robert at a teahouse. Apparently 30 kuai for a pot, but you can stay for hours and hours. they give you unlimited tea. I’m taking this time to write before I dive back into The Rape of Nanking. On the bus from Wu Zhi Shan, I read about a hundred pages, and after I arrived at Sanya, I was in quite a daze. I was moody and troubled, and snapped a couple times at Paul for stupid, inconsequential things, and after I realized this after being angry that the restaurant we went to didn’t have the dish I ordered, I grumpily stood up and wandered a bit. Got some noodles at a street food place, then followed somebody for a few blocks, then wandered in a maze of shops with thick overhangs in the open air, until I found myself following the railroad tracks (old, not used) into what I thought was a side street, but I realized was actually a poor residential district butted up between the fancy beachside hotels. Saw a couple dogs, some chickens, and a rat. I think my brain has calmed down though, so I can start reading again. Very peaceful and subdued in the teashop; some guys are smoking at the table in front of us, and the road has an ever-streaming party of vehicles, mostly motorcycles and trucks.
Back on my bed, reading through In the Night Garden. Rape of Nanking shook me up a bit. I’m glad for some fantasy, so that I am not overwhelmed by Chang’s narrative of the brutality of the human soul. Valente, though grim, writes with a joy for language, spilling her words out in melodies original and harmonies lovely to experience. The whole group tonight is going out for dinner, for our first group experience. 18 people, so it should be quite fun. I took a hot shower, and though the pain in my legs is still critically aching, it has subsided somewhat. I’m glad we have meetings all day tomorrow. Today in my walk I tried to get a taste of ordinary Hainan. This will likely consume my time here, as I try to find ways to discover the soul of Sanya. Being a tourist city, the veil is much thicker, but already I can feel the edge, and only need to push myself a little more until I can breathe its air.
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Woke up with five gigantic welts on my forehead. A couple mosquitoes flying around this room fat with my blood. Probably Rob’s too. We’ve discovered that our mosquito coil charred the table in the room, which will undoubtedly be added to our bill. With our luck, the table will be more expensive than the room. The road outside the hotel is as noisy as the day. Life doesn’t seem to end here. What does one do in Hainan after the sun falls? I guess a lot.
Had huntun for breakfast. Legs hurt a lot, so exercising them in walking helped a lot. On the way back, invariably found myself walking in one of Sanya’s red light districts, complete with tall, slim hotels, red lanterns, and a block-length wall with repeating graphical images of how to put on a condom and what to do if you find yourself pregnant. At some point whenever I aimlessly wander cities, I end up stumbling upon these places. Maybe they are engineered to be stumbled upon. I will say, one thing about Sanya that makes me happy is all the streets go through. No gates, guards, hastily built brick walls or barbed fences in the middle of an avenue; if you head a particular direction, it probably goes through to the end. It’s been a joy to wander it’s hidden, if not seedy, alcoves and shadowy nooks.
Someone is playing a saxophone on the beach. Chinese smooth jazz, or something reminiscent of Kenny G. The haze was a lot heavier and gray this morning, which for the most part thankfully, has burned off, though the horizon is still steeped in dull cement-white; the few scattered junks on the southern sea seem to randomly bespeckle the layered ocean, silent and unmoving spots on a hue of sky-blue waves. Today’s session was about writing, so I got a lot of great tips on how to teach a writing class, including using a program called Teacherease which at command, will send by email progress reports to everyone in the class. In addition, Patricia gave an excellent perspective that correcting and grading papers, as difficult as it may be, and as frustratingly time-consuming, is one of the most rewarding gifts a writing teacher can give a student, and ends up making all the difference in the end ability of a student. Robert and I are just resting now, until the next session at two. Paul is another room with one bed, better for him anyhow, because he was tired of using his sleeping bag and having to deal with my socks (I really need to find a laundromat…), which I am dangling over our balcony right now to spare Rob from their scent. It’s not terrible, but to a sensitive nose they can be quite disarming. A solitary bird is flying in the sky. Tour buses, oil-sputtering trucks, over-crowded motorcycles, waxed taxi cabs, and fancy sedans crowd the busy street below.
At the teahouse again with Rob. He is reading A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, which is basically an alternative history than what you normally find in history books. Talking about the Christian dogma/rhetoric used to approve the Indian Removal movement put into massive action by Andrew Jackson, and the similarities to today. Myself, I’m quite a bit into In the Night Garden, which is fascinating, in that Valente seems to be utilizing a form taken from the Arabian Nights, but using instead of all different stories, story rings, diving in and out of them as she weaves an exquisite narrative of a weird land of magic. Very similar to some of the forms I’ve previously created. Rob and I got the “back” room this time, so instead of the normal pu’er wooden tea table with bubbling Buddha, we have a kind of stone cairn with circling groove depositing into a large, clay jar inscribed with various Chinese characters. Rows of tea discs wrapped in paper or thin slices of trunk are stacked on shelves that rise to the ceiling, while a bamboo foldable curtain separates us from the rest of the teahouse; a recording of a zither plays over the hidden speakers. We have had various flavors of tea today, from a goldenrod sweet tea, to a thicker, dark brown, pungently spiced tea.
Roasted fish on the beach tonight. One small pink fish, two fat fish, one corn on the cob, and one chuanr of dofu – spoked with lajiao (pepper sauce), along with a handful of oranges and dwarf bananas, under a deluge of smoke and fireworks streaking into the night sky, backgrounded by surging high tide waves – really nice. The fish tasted great, punctuated with taste, and on one particular fat fish, the meat came right off the bone, as smooth as butter, as sharp as spiced, grilled meat. Although at some point, the cooks freaked out after a couple police bikes raced down the street, sirens flaring and lights blazing. They collected their grills off the sand, folded up the tables, got our group to hastily leave the area (luckily we had finished and were just talking at that point), and a minute later had disappeared from the beach. Quite humorous. Rob and I are in the hotel flipping channels. A lot of variety shows and imperial dramas, but nothing really good. Picked up some creme cookies at a grocery store down by “the oldest restaurant”; generally we are just relaxing. At some point we’ll probably read a bit and then go to bed. Ice skating is on.
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Just had a wacky dream about completing (in my dream) the world’s hardest jigsaw puzzle in twenty minutes, a floor length rendition of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. At the end I (along with someone else who seemed like Rob) finished it on a pool table, though I finished it mostly by myself, mostly to my own amazement. Twelve bright lights on Sanya Bay. Must be the junks sitting out on the water. There is also a buoy that changes color. The junk lights are ethereal – the lights on the bay are as bright as lighthouses or stars, and combined with the nearly full yellow moon, and finally a road devoid of any activity (the trucks and motorcycles seem to finally have gone to sleep), the only sound are the loud waves and two slow boats gurgling along, their headlights combing the calm waves.
Morning session finished. Talked about language; basically told stories about our experience with language. Good chance to share with John and Chris, who are beginners, and it was nice hearing from Deb and Rob about their unique perspective. Fog has burned off again, so we will have a pleasant afternoon.
Had lunch at the Archaic Bathe restaurant. I think everyone here is a little tired. I will be happy this afternoon to just find a nice piece of shade to sit under and read. Yesterday John spoke of forgiveness, but today he spoke of confrontation and group cohesion – it’s weird, because ERRC teachers are such a wide variety of personalities – though we all have a shared vision with Martha about working with the intellectual community in providing the best possible learning experiences for our students, our personalities are like night and day. I am glad we are spread throughout China, and not centralized in one city or one school. We are not that alike, and the differences are so wide that frustration would probably soon begin. We are smart enough, though, and feel free enough, that if it got to a breaking point we would find out peace elsewhere. So I think it’s good, especially in times of fatigue, that we are so far apart. The sun and the breeze are a nice compliment to a tired body and mind. Robert is right though – this is really best as a vacation spot. Sanya is too expensive anyways – things here are twice the cost of most other places in China. Closing my eyes, I imagine myself a fisherman on one of the solitary junks at sea, with only the quietude of the sea to surround me.
Hundreds of extravagantly clothed beachgoers line the shoreline. Speedboats criss-cross the waves, and young children beyond the edge of sand dip their feet into tidepools. The heavy shadow of an airplane floods the pale, cluttered beach, passing overhead with a roar. Thousands of people meander among gardens of bushes sculpted into smiling, toothy whales and colorful, flowered fishes. On the sea, yachts stacked to the brim with hopeful sightseers flash cameras at the weirdly displaced boulders that line the beachend, jutting into the sand at all angles, and umbrella laden pacers wander between rocks, slipping in and out of hidden paths. Tianya, the “most remotest place on earth,” is a literal hub of Hainan, the buzzing sound of boat-rotors and loud, shouting peddlers with pearl necklaces and sharp seashells filling the calm, restful waves with thunder. Kids do cartwheels over the soft sand, backgrounded by bent coconut trees and hasty tour buses.
Tianya is a giant, glorified beach rock garden. Long swaths of grass stretch between the parking area which is littered with shell and fruit stalls, sculptures of ancient Chinese philosophers, legendary heroes, and historical luminaries dot the green landscape, while minority vendors by the hundred scatter the beach and stonewalk with fake pearl necklaces, variety of shellforms, and helping services such as offering a hand to climb up a boulder or take a picture with beautifully dressed girls under a perfect tincture of makeup and jewelry. Bush sculptures of flower-embroidered dragons, whales, and peacocks line an immaculately trimmed garden, and beyond, giant boulders streaked with the flattening marks of shoesoles bath in banyan shade and sunlight. Now, reflecting on all this, I sit on cement steps embedded with colored rocks, in a grove of norfolk pine, coconut, and a gathering of foreign imports planted into a beaten-down and trimmed grass field. I reflect on the ideas as parts of a mysterious whole, strangely fragmented by the almighty coin and scent salt air.
A madrigal is singing to our table. We are on the roof of a restaurant, finishing up a meal of cut chicken, pepper beef, wild weed, you cai, and coconut rice. Everyone just suddenly up and let the restaurant, leaving me alone at the table. How considerate… they claimed the madrigal was too loud, but I think it was one of those weird group decisions that just happens. The meal was really good, including the coconut rice. Sweet, honey-sticky rice, and after eating the coconut shell, I am fairly refreshed.
God, I miss her so much. This is the first time I’ve written about it. It feels strange – as if before I felt I couldn’t write about it, because I would be expecting a response from my own sadness, which I feel and felt is unfair; but tonight it thundered all around me. My brain is all mixed up; it’s like the one absolutely wonderful most glorious thing in my life has been snatched away by forces impossible to hate as they are to name, and unfairness seems to be a poor cry, even if it truly is. This experience is now new, but for some reason I felt compelled to spell it out, to lay claim to my grief. My wishes are my dreams, which lay clouded in a valley I do not feel permitted to enter, as if doing so I would desecrate the holy order of growth, transformation, or balance, and for some insane and evil rule, I am forced to wait for something to emerge. For the bird to fly back. If she does. God I hope she does. Fireworks are exploding across the night sky. Carts rattle over the grooved sidewalk. Robert turns pages on his bed, as he reads through Lolita. Festivities color the sound of the night, singing voices, single-string bow instruments, car alarms, and of course, waves. Always waves.
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We took a break in our prayer meeting. After we broke, I hunted around the top floor of the hotel for some nice pictures, but nothing jumped out at me. Sanya seems to be coconut palm trees, sun, beach, and blocky buildings shielded by high, green mountains lost in a misty and humid haze. The whole area over, it seems. This morning I woke at seven and read In the Night Garden, and am half-way through it. Again, fascinating read. Valente is a bit haphazard as she plow through the first part of her story, and I got lost a couple times with her “puzzle narrative,” but it was an enjoyable romp. The way she puts flesh on words is beautiful to me; something I will no doubt try to incorporate.
I have rarely experienced a holy communion, but this morning I may have. We did a non-traditional thing, by serving each other. John, in his little sermon before serving, almost cried (not showy), and something inside me really struck a chord with the sacrifice enacted and the community of faith that supported him during that time, even with all their failings. In truly hearing the story and hearing it reflected on the eyes of our group, and being there… it did affect me, and I felt the necessity of action, remorse, and hope. Afterwards, we broke into smaller groups for individual prayer, which was especially wonderful given my state last night. I received a lot of encouragement and empathy from Patricia and Cheryl, who shared similar experiences and helped me see a bit clearer. We are sitting in the lobby of the hotel now, waiting for the rest of the group to come down. We are going to eat at the “Essence of Europe” restaurant, a western place with “really, really good” food (according to Rob). Almost to the bottom of the page. Deb is talking about making homemade pizzas in Jinan, while the Arringtons just came out of the glass elevator.
I will not be a foreign monkey. After watching a television show on BTV with foreigners in a contest singing and performing Chinese culture, and being thoroughly embarrassed though sitting alone on the sixth floor of a Hainan hotel room; I will not be a foreign monkey. One contestant, Elizabeth Williams, did a near perfect job at singing Peking Opera, but the rest I winced through. It’s a tough challenge – to truly understand Chinese culture, you must dive headlong, full-body, everything you’ve got, and still in the end, you are just a talented outsider. I am content to sip tea in a Sanya teahouse, lu cha on my tongue, the lyrical dreams of Du Fu in and out of my eyes, my pen versifying English into a menagerie of blossoms and designs – as, unless I am willing to don Wu Kong’s hat of shame, perhaps I will never see the light of the Chinese jade throne. And perhaps that is fine. I am happy to be an active observer of time, as if I were one more fish flowing from the Three Gorges to the mouth of the Yangtze, reveling in the sights and sounds of the whistling reeds, shadowed fishermen, and prowling dream-tigers hunting smoggy streets.
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Robert left this morning, so I moved and slept the rest of the morning in the meeting room, 712. When I woke up, I turned on the TV to see what was on, and found two Americans (a guy and girl, looking to just be out of college) expounding on the hypocrisy of American sex education, and saying how there should have been more freedom and that there was too much repression in the schools and not enough experimentation. They said that STDs were used to frighten kids from having sex, condoms and pills weren’t really free (they claimed they were discouraged and hard to get) and that private anatomy was held up as if it were full of shame. Going to Carlmont, where one girl in my debate class praised the vagaries of sex (even going so far as to write a speech about it) and where most of the girls (that I’ve found) are either unwed mothers or pleasure seekers (not all mind you; some escaped), I might disagree with them a bit. One woman who spoke to us in our class told us she had been really active when young, abused the pill, and today couldn’t even dream of having children, her ovaries damaged so much. I appreciated her honesty and story. These two Americans spoke to the Chinese audience as if they had all these answers… it makes sense though. Societies that adopt sex as a tool for self-gratification have a remarkably lower birth rate, which might be contributed to having incentive for not having a nursery of toddlers; so it makes sense that if China is concerned about birth rate, they might go in that direction. The danger always, is the emotional and spiritual affect unconstrained sex as birth control has on a person’s mind, as we are built naturally to be self-determined to duplicate and grow, and when that is taken from us we collapse, especially if given the medication of death and sorrow as our primary sources of input (which are engineered quite well using television).
Couple things of interest: refrigerator doesn’t work (drinks are warm), toilet doesn’t flush, bathroom shower doesn’t drain (floor fills up with water), trickling water pressure from nozzle, and hot and cold knob is switched up, and the windows to the room are chest level which means if you actually want to see anything but sky, you need to stay by the window and look down; good thing is the room is really big, which means the television is far from your eyes, although the television is sitting in front of the mirror, which obstructs half of the view. This must have been one of those rooms the engineers screwed up with, or maybe converted extra space. Either way, I’m glad to have had a shower and washed the dirt of yesterday off. I’m not even sure if this hotel would qualify for two of their reputed “three stars, four star service” motto, however.
At our new hotel room. We left the windows and curtains shut when we took our last group meal, and even though it is roasting outside, the room was nice and cool. Paul, John, and myself are about to take a walk to the bus station to see how long it takes to get to the Stone Forest, and maybe catch a ride to the local rainforest. I’ve been taking pictures like mad today, of anything that caught my eye. Some good shots in there. I’m about 100 pages to go of In the Night Garden. Hopefully will finish it today, or at least get close to finishing it. After lunch we all ate ice cold mango shakes at The Windmill. Fresh.
Exhausted. Went to bus station. 7:30 tomorrow. Stone Forest. Nanshan Tourist park is 150 kuai ticket price. Has “Leisure Villas” and Buddhist pilgrimage. Bus driver smoked, chewed betelnuts, spat, and talked so loud swore he was deaf. Honked at any living thing on or near the road. Ears ringing. Falling light on mountains. Goats herded into harvesting fields. Water towers, white stalks on terraced hills. Powerlines stretching across valleys and black curtained farms. Cement block peasant houses dreaming beside colonial balconies and half-raised apartments. Bulldozers, mouths full of dirt, rusting in groves of pink and purple weedflowers. Signs which lead nowhere pointing backward. Mounds of broken rock and banana peels beneath ancient, unused train rails. Child laborers returning with bags of unsold jewelry, clothed in school windbreakers and bare feet. Puttering hitch-wagons with wind-blown seaside dwellers, teeth bared against fragrant cow pastures. Chewed cobs of corn thrown aimless on a grooved bus floor; pieces of dried orange peel and half-smoked cigarette butts beneath hastily sewn seat-covers, blue strips of flap jumping at the mount of a shaking motor.
I am discovering myself. Paul and I are sitting in an empty dumpling house. A loud dance on the beach pounds its rhythm with the waves, while small children at the sidewalk throw firecrackers into flame. I am discovering that inside I am a quiet man. I am not a crowd person; the hectic energy of the constant surge which pervades this time and place. I need my peace and my solitude. Only today, after experiencing this week of people, people, people, without the time I naturally allot myself instinctually, I became exhausted, tired out by the mad strain of talk, movement, music, etiquette, and the art required between two people, or three or four, or twenty, or a hundred. Naturally, I have always given myself movies, computers, books, meditation, as a salve to prepare myself for the next wonderful encounter. The man who served me dumplings, as it turns out, is from Tianjin, a former student at Nankai. Such excellent encounters. I could not have asked for a better meal at the end of an exhaustive, tiring day; plain dumplings, with a mild, light vinegar sauce, and a hot but cool dumpling soup, pleasing as mint to the tongue, hot as steam to reinvigorate the mind.
* * *
At the Sanya bus station, ready for another adventure. Paul and I (mostly Paul) will be meandering ourselves through a labyrinth of buses to get to a stone forest somewhere in the interior. We know we need to get to the city of Baocheng, but from there, we take another non-descript bus west, and hopefully land near or at the forest. Snap a few pictures, eat lunch, and head back, to make our ten o’clock flight back to Chengdu, to wait another five hours in the dark of night. I finished In the Night Garden; the ending wasn’t very satisfying. Valente writes like I will, except I would never dream of going so dark – my stories always end with some form of hope, whether it’s big or small. My stories also aren’t quite so feminist and politically/socially layered, as traditional forms are fine with me, as long as a good story is told and told well. My next juggernaut: White Man’s Burden. I’d like to get through it before I get back to Tianjin, but I’ll likely only get half, and need to finish it in Jiangsu. I’d rather not though. Bought two baozi, one you tiao, and a sealed cup of doujiang for breakfast. I am refreshed and ready for adventure.
These words will in no way entail or fully or even partially describe this day. We boarded our bus. I read White Man’s Burden as we charged up into the interior of the island, and finally we arrived at Xiangshui, where we began to walk. We marched past a grisly, blocky stonemill, breathing great mounds of white dust into the blue sky. We paced up a hot, mountain path, full of cracked stones and dying insects, past twig forests and black boulders, until the sun sank on our skin and burnt it bronze. We boarded a rickety bus and charged over a half-built road into the mountain rainforest, home of the Miao people, who thrive on their dog, chicken, and pork, walking their water buffalo to mirror-perfect rice paddies, into a vast valley surrounded by evergreen coils of vine and hanging trees. In the 8,000 strong city of Maogan, we hired a tractor to pull us into the deep of the green, roaring its fiery open-air motor, and I took the crow’s nest, standing in the back with a 360 degree view of glimmering terraced fields fed by heavenly streams and carefully plowed irrigation; raging motorcycles booming past roadside curves, and fat, stomach-slouching pigs, aimless among animals, their flat noses against weeds in ditches and wild grown flowers. Into the deep, into the deep, past dripping waterfalls and ramshackle bridges of cracked stone, around a red mountain with green trees sprouting the top like hair, hanging down its sheer, mahogany face. We faced a forest cut into a rock, climbing up thousand year old steps into the writhing roots and giant, yellow-black spider nests, and ascended a sheer cliff face, gripping iron roots and sharp stone handles naturally shorn by time. We raced through the valley of stone daggers, the rubber of our soles meeting the tips of sharpened granite crags, and gasped as if the world had shuddered and shattered a thousand blades of hardened steel, rained down on fertile fields and bounteous jungle. We hunted for dark passageways below the earth, lit by no light, finding ancient symbols etched on the walls of cavernous depths, slipping through crevices and opening into rough jungle havens. We swam and danced on a hidden lagoon festooned and gilded with silver waterfalls lowered into a fragrant, clear pool, and finally we trekked back to the beach paradise of Sanya, the way we came. My hair is matted, skin matted with sweat, eyes struggling to recall those fields of rice with reflections of mountains and the flitting shadows of sparrows. In the secret lagoon I attempted to wash the grime of the Stone Forest from my nails, and slipped into the river, drenched from foot to chest, destroying my camera and nearly my pictures. The memories were saved though, and as I head to the airport for the long voyage home, Hainan brims with humid dreams and long-drawn glances at distant mountains, and I hope to return one day.
* * *
At an airport hotel in Chengdu. Turns out the airport closes at night, and everyone is kicked out. The second floor is barricaded (where you check-in), and as there are no seats at all on the first floor, red-eye arrivals with connecting flights are forced to hunt for hotels. Lucky for us, a sharp-looking young man dressed in black found us an offered a triple for 150 kuai. Sparse, clandestine, spartan, but a nice place all considering, as long as we can leave tomorrow as we came. Community bathroom, no heater, dog-eared television. Quite colder here, given where we came from. I’m glad to finally have an excuse to wear my scarf again.
On the Beijing to Tianjin airport bus. I’m in the back, which has extraordinary leg room for a Chinese bus. I told Jeanne and Paul that finally, we were going home. It’s strange, you know, calling Tianjin home. Yet it feels that way. When we got off the plane, Paul said he could feel Carolyn in the city; his voice seemed to glow with excitement. I know I am coming home just for a couple days, but it is nevertheless refreshing. As soon as we stepped outside the plane onto the tarmac, the cold 15 degree winter weather surrounded us. I was immediately thankful for my hat and scarf. But going from humid, 80 degree sunlight to the dim and coarse muck of Beijing, the darkening pale sky and the empty trees, reaching to the fabled blue sky above; for some reason, it feels both ordinary and surreal at the same time. But I cannot be too negative – the industrial smog is a cocoon, society beneath in transformation, shuddering, shifting, stretching, and when the skin breaks China will emerge, a new creature ready and grown to embrace the light and glimmer of a new world.