Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In the cold and dark, and I need to pee: a kind of love story

        I have no idea what time it is, because the only light in the room comes from the tiny furnace unit in the corner.   The digital readout is glowing orange and reading 30 degrees Celsius.  Usually I hate these kinds of displays—visiting friends, I’ve been known to cover computer modems and VCR clocks with t-shirts and dirty underpants.  I have no pride when it comes to sleeping, and for me, sleeping means no fluorescent green or blue shadows on the walls, never mind that my eyes are shut.

Tonight, though, I love that orange glow, because it means I won’t wake up frozen and dead.  Even in bed, with something like 16 blankets on me, I know it’s freezing in our room.  Freezing.  So cold, that you want to wear your gloves and hat and stomp your feet to keep your toes from dropping off.  Alas, if only one could sleep in a snowmobile suit, we’d be just fine. 


We’re in Ping’an, two hours from Guilin, in the Guangxi province, a place known mainly for the pleasure you receive saying its name.  We’re in the mountains, on the Longji rice terraces, to be exact, and this evening when we sat down to dinner in our “hotel”—I use the term loosely because when we complained that our TV didn’t work the “staff” simply said, “It broken,” and went back to watching the Olympics—that night when we sat down to dinner in the dining room of our residence, it was so cold that steam poured—poured--off the dishes as they brought them to our table. 


Right now, though, what I’m thinking about is the fact that I have to go to the bathroom.  Bad.  Too much jasmine tea and beer, if you can imagine such a combination.  Lying in bed, Jamie’s snoring (he’s sleeping with Ellen and me) and the hum of the furnace filling the silence, I contemplate my options.  Eventually, of course, I come to the conclusion that the only thing I can do is sprint in my bare feet across the cold floor to the un-insulated bathroom at the far end of our “family room”—a gorgeous basement apartment lined in rosewood and decorated with the circular wood carvings indigenous to the region.  All of which is very pretty, but not very useful at X o’clock in the morning with a bladder full to bursting. 

So I count to 10.  And then I count to 10 again.  Then I decide that 100 is a nice round number, and that if I can’t reach it without falling asleep, then I really do need to go, never mind frostbit toes and other, um, extremities. 


The thing about Ping’an is that it’s unimaginably amazing, never mind its oddly situated apostrophe.  In the 24 hours that we’re there, the following events will attempt to destroy our pleasure: 

1)   The sun will remain hidden but for one, twelve-minute segment during which we’re all busy inside brushing our teeth.

2)   The temperature will never break 5 degrees Celsius.

3)   Jamie will throw up.

4)   My morning “shower” will consist of a trickle of water that embarrasses the word “trickle.”  Seriously, I’ve been spit on with more velocity.

5)   A bunch of old women will attempt to show me their hair.

6)   Lucy will have a chicken jump on her head. 

None of these will matter. 


Chances are, you’ve seen pictures of Ping’an, or at least of the rice terraces surrounding it and similar villages in Guangxi.  And chances are if you’ve seen those pictures, you’ve thought to yourself, “Holy crap!  I want to go there!” 

And you are right—you do. 

Rising as high as a thousand feet, these terraces are vaguely reminiscent of Aztec temples, a series of steps cut into the sides of the mountains that date  back to 1271.  Unlike the temples, though, these hills curve, causing the terraces to bend and flow, swelling at the belly and narrowing at the hips.  Hillocks rise here and there and valleys crease into the larger mountains, and the effect overall—the patterns, the lines, the way a view shifts and changes when you walk just a few dozen yards—is nothing short of amazing.  It’s the kind of place where you take a picture, walk ten feet, take another picture of the same thing, walk twenty more feet, turn and go, “Ah, damn,” and take another.  And none of these photos do the view any justice.

And Ping’an is one of the few places where the presence of the occasional building or a distant view of the village actually adds to the natural scene.  This part of China is occupied by the Zhuang minority, a group that I’m sure I’d find really interesting if I’d just take ten minutes to research on the web, but about which, at this point, I can only babble, “Their houses are really really really neat!”

Because they are:  generally deep and rectangular, they (the houses, not the Zhuang—though I’m sure the Zhuang themselves are also deep, albeit not rectangular).  Anyhow, generally deep and rectangular, these houses are wood framed, with overhanging second and third floors and wide eaves.  Often, the framing posts are left longer than needed and carved into large, pleated balls which dangle from the overhangs and are painted red.  Coal-colored shingles cover the low, wide roofs, and the effect when viewed from a distance is of a cluster of long crows hunched over dinner. 

You’d almost think you were in Switzerland.  Except for those insanely beautiful rice terraces.  And all the Chinese people. 


Of course, one would hope that the Swiss would at least bother to insulate their houses, something the used to dirt-hard living Zhuang have chosen not to do, damn their tough-as-nails souls.

So finally, I’m forced to throw back the covers and plunge myself into air so cold the skin of my fingers tightens just standing up.  Dashing across the room, I skid into the pitch-black bathroom, feeling my way to the toilet.  Once I take care of business, I feel my way back to the bedroom and check on the kids.  One of them is fine, but when I straighten the covers of the other, the bed is wet. 


Fumbling in the dark, I find the clothes this particular kid wore that day.   I won’t name names of course, because, as I’m sure you understand, I’m clinging to the hope that someday Oprah will pick my book for her club, and if this happens, I don’t want to have to spend all of my ill-gotten gains on kiddy therapy.  Anyhow, clothes in hand, I wake the little bugger, strip off the wet PJs, and make another dash to the bathroom, shivering child in arms.  Three seconds on the toilet clears out what little pee is left in this particular bladder.  Then it’s back to the bed, where I lay down a towel or two while the now severely shivering, severely wet, severely cold, and severely tired kid attempts to pull on day-old rags, in the dark, with numb fingers. 

Eventually, though, the my child is back in bed, warm and snug, already snoring. 

I, on the other hand, can’t feel my face. 


We spend the first part of the afternoon we arrived wandering through the village, trying ever so hard to avoid buying every darn knick-knack and doo-dad on sale at the numerous souvenir shops.  Eventually, toes numb, nostrils frozen shut, we stumble into a restaurant for a snack and a little warmth. 

I use the term “into” loosely here, because, actually, most of the restaurants in Ping’an are so poorly jointed that the owners burn small, unventilated charcoal fires inside with no fear of carbon-monoxide poisoning.  The particular place we choose is actually an outdoor café of sorts, with circular holes cut into the tables, into which are placed red hot trays of burning wood. 

Normally, of course, I’d worry about having three kids under the age of ten huddled around an open flame ensconced in metal so hot it leaves scorch marks on the table, but at this point in the day I’m pretty sure a permanent brand on the forehead of a three-year old is probably preferable to that same three year old shivering so hard he loses all his teeth. 

We order popcorn and fresh-roasted peanuts for the kids and bamboo rice and dried cabbage soup for us.  The soup comes in a huge bowl and is warm and salty, with just a hint of sourness to keep things interesting.  The rice is a local specialty, prepared in narrow tubes of bamboo cooked over an open fire until the wood is scorched and the rice has a sweet, almost corn-like taste to it.   

Warm and taut-bellied, we cross through the village again and into the rice paddies.  We’re not out there five minutes when Will says, “You know what, Dad?”

I consider carefully before answering.  He’s getting better with age, but Will is not so much a glass-half-empty kind of guy as a glass-is-half-empty-and-probably-full-of-arsenic kind of guy.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’d cut off both my arms for the boy (though I’m not sure how I’d do the second one), but there are days I have to fight the urge to tug down the back of his Levis and search for a gray tail, he’s just that much like Eeyore. 

So when it’s cold and wet and you’re walking outside someplace where there aren’t any books or libraries or rocks to throw at his sister, and Will says, “You know what, Dad?” my impulse is to duck, emotionally, because you just know something snipey might be coming your way. 

Today, though, I’ve got Jamie on my shoulders and I’m hiking through the famed Longji terraced rice paddies and my belly is full of bamboo and dried cabbage, so I just say, “What?”

“This is my favorite part of our vacation so far.”

I look at him.  His hands are in the pockets of his green down vest, and his face his down as he walks, his skin a pale, almost blue-white in the cold. 

“Will?” I say.

He nods, but doesn’t look up. 

“We’ve only been on vacation for six hours.”

Now he shakes his head.  “No,” he says.  “I mean our vacation this year.  You know, the whole vacation:  in Hong Kong.”

Nevermind that Hong Kong isn’t really a vacation per se—okay, okay, strike that:  it is—this statement nevertheless pleases me in ways you just can’t imagine.  I mean, seriously, the weather is crap, we’re a long way from home (our pretend home, that is, nevermind the one half-way around the world), and I’m making him participate in physical activity. 

And he’s happy.

So so am I.


Which, of course, is when Jamie throws up.

Well, not right then, actually, but very soon after.  After we’d walked a bit further, after we’d taken roughly 7 million and six pictures of the paddies, and after, luckily, I’d taken him down from my shoulders where he’d been fussing, and put him on the path, looking into his eyes as I inquired, “Jamie, are you feeling alright?”

At which point, he opened his mouth, leaned forward, and vomited.  Twice. 

“So,” I said, “the answer’s no, right?”

Luckily for us—if the word “luckily” can ever be used in the same context as “vomit”—it appeared to be the sort of upset stomach that, once emptied, went away.   Within five minutes he was skipping along the trail, yelling at his sister for racing ahead.  Almost like his brilliant parents were so busy stuffing their bellies with good food they failed to notice that he was stuffing his own golf-ball sized belly with a basketball’s worth of popcorn and peanuts. 


Which leaves only the women and the hair to explain.

If you do a Google search for “Zhuang women hair,” then hit “Image,” at least one of the pictures you’ll get is of a number of women in brightly colored dresses standing calf-deep in water, washing very very very long hair.

Very long. 

Say, 10 feet.

I’ve searched and searched and haven’t yet been able to find an explanation for it, but apparently Zhuang women don’t actually cut their hair.  This seems peculiar to me, since a lot of the younger women we saw in Ping’an lacked the Crystal Gayle on Rogaine look.  Most of the older ones, though, wore their hair in a peculiar bun at the top of their foreheads.  Some of them wore double-peaked turbans as well, but even with these hats, that single, knotted lock was always visible. 

All of which is well and good.  Except that, in Ping’an at least, apparently it’s something of a cottage industry for these otherwise dignified, self-respecting grandmothers, great aunts, and great-great grandmother’s of great-aunts, to undo their knots for tourists willing to part with a small sum of money.  I know this because, as we trekked our way through the beautiful, misty, terraced mountains of Guangxi, old lady after old lady approached us and offered to let us take a picture of her hair.

Which, if you ask me, is just so wrong in so many ways. 

Never mind that these women clearly haven’t seen The Ring.  Leave aside, for a moment, the whole question of dignity.  And ignore, if you can, the whole matter of hair prostitution—or at least hair pole dancing. 

No, these things aside, what’s truly disturbing about a woman in, say, her eighties, coming up to you and offering to let down her hair is simply this:

It’s gross.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I see hair that long, it’s all I can do not to picture what the rubber hair-catcher thingy in the shower must look like every morning after grandma gives her eight feet of hair a good scrubbing. 

And when I can’t avoid these images, I get this itchky feeling at the back of my throat, like I’m a cat about to urk up a hairball.

I’m not sure why this is.  I’m not sure why simply seeing someone’s obnoxiously long hair makes me, very literally, gag.  But it does. 

So when these kindly old women with their brightly colored woolen jackets and peculiar, newspaper boat hats come up to me on the winding trails over the rice terraces and ask me, in that husky voice used by hair strippers everywhere, if I’d like to see them let their hair down, I do what any full-blooded American boy in his forties would do:

Scream like a little kid and run in the opposite direction.


All of which has very little to do with my freezing face, the scent of urine-soaked cotton on my fingers, and that orange-black, night-darkened room in the basement of our guest-house.  But nonetheless, it’s the image that comes into my head as I crawl back into bed next to Ellen and Jamie and pull my 16 blankets back over my head:  11 separate old ladies approaching me on the trail, waiting until Ellen’s a safe distance away, and then offering to unknot their locks.  This leads me to think again about that Japanese film, Ringu, and the creepy-assed, long-haired girl who crawls out of the television dripping pond water everywhere before killing folks with her chapped lips, mossy teeth, and chronic halitosis.   Which, of course, leads me to think about every scary movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and the next thing you know, I’m pretty sure I’ll never sleep again. 

But then I roll over and curl up against Ellen, avoiding the ice-cube toes of Satan (more on this in another post).  Sliding my arm under her pillow, I reach all the way over to where Jamie is sleeping, quarantined from the other kids on the off-chance his retching wasn’t a one-off.  His hand is under the pillow too, and it’s warm and soft and I hold it in mine.


That night, after we’ve finished shoveling our dinner of curried vegetables down before they froze into multi-colored ice-cubes, the five of us race down the stairs to our room, crank up the “furnace” and crawl under the covers of the big bed.  Ellen thumbs through the day’s pictures, deleting repeats and images that show my jaw oddly elongated, as though imitating Jay Leno in a fun-house mirror, Jamie sitting on her lap, watching.  Will curls up in his down vest, buttoning it over his head to keep his ears warm.  Lucy lays next to me, asking bizarre “What-if” questions:  “Dad?  What if we were walking through the woods, and we saw a house, and grandma lived there, and she had peanut butter, and didn’t have any soap or Cornflakes, and there was a goldfish playing the clarinet?  Wouldn’t that be weird?”

Yes, Lucy. Yes.   That would be weird. 

We have every reason in the world to be miserable:  we’re 8,000 miles from our home in Virginia, and twice that distance from our friends there; we’re in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language or understand most of the customs, and where the food and water can make us sick at any moment; the weather has sucked for the last 10 weeks; it’s cold as the proverbial witch’s whatever, not just outside, but inside; and two-fifths of our family have bladders the size of shriveled raisins.

We have every reason in the world to be miserable.  

Every reason.


Najla said...

A love story for sure. Enjoyed it.

Joseph said...

I really enjoyed the essay, Paul. And I can see that you have several more photos tucked away here in your blog. All the writing work you're doing makes me feel lazy -- a not entirely unpleasant feeling. Even without the beer today, I eventually crawled back to our flat and took a little nap. Meanwhile, you were probably over there in Taipo writing the Great American Blog.