Saturday, March 13, 2010


Back in college, I had a friend named Andy who was a guitar genius: we’d be sitting in the practice room at St. Aidan’s College in Durham, taking a break from rehearsal, and he’d rip off some killer lick that made every one sit up.

“Play that again!” we’d say, picturing our first gold record, our first fuzzy-sweatered groupies.

Andy would give us a look half-amused, half dazed: “I can’t,” he’d say. “I don’t know what I did!”

After he graduate from university, Andy moved to London and went into advertising. His major triumph was an award-winning Virgin Air advertisement in which the grim reaper comes to collect a man sitting on a bench. Everything goes just as planned: a stone gargoyle breaks loose from the building just above the man and begins to plummet straight toward his head. The grim reaper looks pleased.

And then the man’s life begins to flash before his eyes: we see him as a child, as a teenager, on his wedding day. We see his vacation in Bali, his holiday in Barbados, his trip to Spain. Flash, flash, flash, scene after scene after scene.

Next thing you know, the grim reaper is looking at his watch.

More scenes flash: skiing in the Alps, white-water rafting in Utah, hunting big game in New Jersey, etc., etc., etc.,

Now the grim reaper is eating a pizza.

And still more scenes, flash flash flash: a cruise in Alaska, parasailing in the Bahamas . . .

Then the punch-line from Virgin Air: Life is short. Do lots of stuff.

This ad is perfect for Yangshuo, China.

I have to admit, we went to Yangshuo over the Chinese New Year only because the tickets for our first three choices—Bali, Borneo, and Thailand—were so overpriced we would have had to body parts to go—not that we didn’t consider it.

At first glance, Yangshuo was something of disappointment. Sure, there was that karst topography, those crazy, fairyland mountains you see in paintings of China, rising suddenly into the air. But I’d already seen karst in Ha Long Bay—and they’d been surrounded by deep blue waters while I was floating on a junk and sipping Vietnamese coffee, three things that are difficult to compete with. Especially in the middle of winter, in China, when everything looks dead and dusty.

It didn’t help that we woke up our first full day there to find the sky dull with clouds, temperatures somewhere in the range of autumn in Antarctica. We were staying at a small resort about ten minutes outside of town and alongside the Dragon River, a place that had been recommended to us by friends. One of the ETAs had also gone there, and told me, just before we left, that her favorite memories of the place were wandering through the rice paddies in the morning mist.

Since we had plenty of mist, we decided this plan was as good as any. So after breakfast we tossed some snacks in a backpack and headed out the door.

Within minutes, Will and Lucy had disappeared.

I don’t know how else to describe it: we walked out the door, crossed a small bridge, came to some rice paddies, and—Poof! They were gone. It was almost like they’d spent most of the last year living in a huge metropolitan area where concrete and walking at an adult pace were the norm.

Ellen and I followed as best we could with Jamie, scrambling through vine-strewn thickets and what Ellen said was a briar patch but what I identified as a giant Venus man-trap. I wanted to offer Jamie up as a sacrifice to appease the thorn gods, but Ellen insisted that this was illegal, and that if we tried to leave mainland China with one less child than we arrived with, there would be problems.

Eventually we made it through, and eventually Will and Lucy appeared again, their foreheads greased with gray mud and their faces glowing.

“It was great—“ Lucy said.

“There was this pit—“ Will went on.

“And we jumped over it—“

“Using our sticks!

“And there was this one place—“

“Lucy was scared.”

“No I wasn’t! There was this one place—“

And on and on.

We spent most of the morning out there wandering through the dry rice beds, sitting on a little bridge over a small brook. A boat was moored along the river, and a woman inside was baking small round cakes and selling them to the rafters crossing the weir. I bought one, figuring if I was going to get Mao Tse-Tung’s revenge, I might as well get it for something involving potatoes and green onions and ham cooked in butter. They were so good, Ellen made me go back and get another one.

Eventually we grabbed a taxi into Yangshuo itself. We didn’t know what to expect, other than that “West St. “ was mentioned in almost very tourist guide we’d read. Soon enough we found out why: it was a pedestrian walkway lined for more than a half-mile with crafts shops and souvenir shops and fancy restaurants. It was tourist heaven.

But here’s the thing. The tourists?

They were Chinese.

Sure, we saw the odd white folk, pasty skin glowing through the throngs of people. But for the most part we were surrounded by real Chinese people having a real Chinese holiday at a real Chinese tourist destination. Which was nice, quite a change from Vietnam were we felt like all of Hanoi was set up for white folk looking for creative ways to spend their money.

Okay, maybe I’m overstating it just a little: there was plenty in Yangshuo that served white folks. At the China Café, for instance, you can dine on an amazing tofu and mushroom claypot—the tofu nicely braised, the mushrooms and vegetables soaked in a savory broth so hot it’ll burn your tongue even ten minutes after it was brought to your table. And when you’re done, if you still have room, you can order apple crumble.

How cool is that?

The next day we repeated our routine: up in time for a breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate (I’m not making this up), pack the bag full of snacks, and into the wood.

Again, Lucy and Will disappeared. Again, Ellen and I did battle with flesh-eating plants, again I tried to explain to my wife that offering up Jamie was both economical and practical, ensuring more suitcase space for souvenirs on the return trip. Finally, though, we made it through the thorn-patch, emerging into an open area that was—again, no kidding—filled with flowers.

Were I a better writer, I’d be able to tell you exactly what kind of flowers these were. I’d know the latin names, the family to which they belonged, their medicinal uses, and the greek goddess after whom they were named. I could also describe them in a way, other than to say, “Gosh, they were pretty,” where you could picture them in your head, and, in doing so, experience a slightening of tension in your chest, a departure from, at least momentarily, the daily stresses of life in the modern world.

Unfortunately, though, I’m a hack who, at this particular moment, is still so distracted by the phrase “banana pancakes with chocolate” that he can’t even remember what color the flowers were, much less engage in an extensive Google search to give you a bunch of information that only your inner dork really needs to know.

Suffice to say: Gosh, they were pretty.

And there were a lot of them—say, half a basketball court’s worth. And they were purple and white and yellow (mmmm, bananas).

“Wow,” I said, when I first found them.

Ellen came up behind me, wiping the blood off Jamie’s face and arms. “What?” she said, then looked up. “Oh wow.”

I used to want to be a rock star. I just want you to know that. I used to have long blond hair and wear boots and big shirts and scream into a microphone and pretend I was Bono with a Midwestern accent. I wrote pretentious lyrics and got blisters on my fingers trying to learn the chords to “All Along the Watch Tower.” I avoided hard drugs and too much liquor, but only because I’m a control freak and can’t stand it when the walls breath and my cat starts talking to me—but even so, I wanted to be a rock star. I had aspirations. And they were big aspirations. I was not a man to be satisfied with small, simple things—small simple things that, really, if we’re honest with ourselves, can also be classified as “stupid” and “boring.”

All of which is important for you to know because, standing there, that second morning in Yangshuo, the mountains rising up around me, the sun on that small field of flowers, Ellen and Jamie beside me, the bestial screams of Will and Lucy echoing in the distance—standing there, two things happened that made me feel like I was eight, and it was Christmas, and someone somewhere was making cookies with frosting that I would get to eat all by myself.

First, I heard a buzz.

Second, I saw rats.

It took me a minute to figure out what the buzzing sound was. But then, of course, it was obvious: bees. Going from flower, to flower, to flower. I don’t know what the best part was: that they were there in February, invisible until you took the time to really look for them, or that it was so quiet I could hear them.

But there they were, and like the flowers, they were very pretty. And like the flowers, as I watched them, I experienced a slightening of tension in my chest, a departure from, at least momentarily, the daily stresses of life in the modern world, blah, blah, blah.

Then there were the rats. I was positive they were rats, weaving darkly between the stems of the flowers, flashing gray-black as they passed in and out of sight. I even turned to Ellen and said, “Look: rats.”

She tugged a strand of hair from her face, leaned forward. “Where?”

I pointed, waiting for another flash of dark. Finally it came. She frowned, then looked at me, frowning.

Okay, so they were butterflies: big, dark, blue butterflies. That were flying above the flowers. But they were flying very fast. And quick. Really quick. Flash! Just like that! Looking for all the world like little rats, racing between the stems of the flowers. Rats with wings. And antennae. And pretty little patterns on their backs.

Eventually Will and Lucy showed up. They were streaked in mud again, their foreheads scratched and sweaty. Both of them were buck-naked from the waist on up.

“Where are your shirts?” I said.

Will and Lucy looked at each other, then at me. Will frowned, then said, “What?”

“Your shirts,” I said. I tugged at my own. “Remember? The thing you wear so that you have something to wipe your nose on?”

They looked at each other again, longer this time, as though considering. I noticed for the first time, that they were both carrying different sticks today, longer, and thinner looking, much straighter. From where I was standing, the tips almost looked as though they’d been sharpened into points.

After a moment, Lucy give a little shake of her head. Will nodded slightly, then the two of them looked at me again. “We’re hungry,” Lucy said.

We spent the rest of the morning lounging about by the small stream again. Afterwards there was an incident involving two Poptarts, three children, and a six-year-old with that sort of attitude that leads to stories in the National Enquirer about kids who are locked in the attic with nothing to eat but small spiders, emerging 17 years later with luminescent skin and an uncanny ability to sense movement behind their heads. As a result, Lucy was forced to abandon her spear and she and I headed back to the hotel room. There I spent half-an-hour reading Martin Booth’s brilliant book, Gweilo, and Lucy spent half-an-hour breathing loudly through her nose.

After lunch, we caught a taxi upstream and floated down on 20-foot long bamboo rafts guided by muscular Chinese men with long poles and chapped hands. (That sentence sounded much less kinky when it was in my head).

Anyhow, the rafts were only four feet wide, just enough to hold a park bench that they’d strapped to the bamboo with a couple lengths of bungee. The rafts barely floated above the water, so everyone wore bright orange plastic grocery bags strapped over their shoes to keep from getting soaked.

Lucy and I were paired together, for weight reasons, and though she’d stopped the heavy breathing, it was easy to tell we were still a little annoyed with each other. Eventually, though, we came to one of the many weirs that stretched from one bank to the other.

“How’re we going to get across?” Lucy said.

I shook my head. “Don’t know.”

And then the raft in front of us, holding Will, Ellen, and Jamie, was guided toward a small narrows where the wall was lower than in other places. The man with the pole leaned low, lifting the front of the raft over the weir, and then WHOOSH! down they went.

“Daddy--!” Lucy said.

“I know!” I said, and then we were going over too, the front of the raft stretching, stretching, 5, 10, 15 feet into the air in front of us, until a point was reached, momentum changed, and the raft dipped radically, straight toward the water, and plunged forward.

And I do mean plunged: when the front tip of the raft hit the water, it went straight in, and under, and the entire craft was essentially submerged for a good four or five seconds. After that, almost instantly we were afloat again. But even so, on a cold February afternoon in Yangshuo, this is a crazy ride for a little girl and an old man, and we took great pleasure in screaming, every time we went over a weir, like, respectively, a six-year-old and a four-year-old.

Four or five moments like this, and we were friends again. I even asked our raftsman to guide the vessel over to the spot on the bank where I’d made Lucy abandon her spear earlier that day. He did so, reluctantly. I think he thought she needed to pee, and he looked a little startled when she reemerged carrying a six foot spear, replete with a few small, bloody feathers on the tip.

Between these moments of screaming bliss, the journey is nothing short of a Gainsborough wet-dream: a broad, lazy river, plumes of bamboo, wide-horned water buffalo chewing winter grass, row upon row of wind-smoothed mountains rising into the afternoon sky.

That evening was spent back in town, watching a lightshow choreographed by Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern and the genius behind the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Set in a natural amphitheater along the river, the show uses the mountains off in the distance as a backdrop, lighting them with huge spotlights so that you can see them even though they’re miles away. Zhang also uses every inch of the harbor, extending and retracting floating platforms back and forth so that his dancers and actors seem to appear out of nowhere, floating on black ice. I’d say it was brilliant, but that would be like saying Michelangelo’s David is a big naked guy. Zhang is a genius clearly not of this world.

The next morning we returned to the rice paddies, the children disappeared, Ellen and I debated offering James to the thorn gods. The weather was warmer, now, slightly balmy, even, and the rounded mountains rising out of the flat plains looked familiar and green, somehow more hospitable.

We arrived at the little bridge, relatively unscathed. Will and Lucy were nowhere in sight. Settling in, we opened some granola bars, took about 38,000 cutesy shots of Jamie playing in the water, read a little. By 10:00 I was starting to get a little worried. By 10:15 I suggested maybe I should go look for them.

“They’ll be fine,” Ellen said. I noticed she'd warmed to the idea of clearing luggage space since we'd bought a load of tablecloths and wall-hangings as souvenirs the night before.

At 10:30 I was just tightening the laces on my shoes, when Will and Lucy emerged from the brush, hunched over, naked but for a pair of loincloths, their faces and arms and chests caked with mud and something darker, more ominous, that I couldn’t make out from a distance.

“Where the hell—“ I said, and then stopped. Dangling from the handle end of Will’s spear was a necklace of human ears.

“What the--?” I began, and then stopped again. While Will wouldn’t meet my gaze, his eyes glancing back and forth over the surrounding thickets of bamboo, Lucy was watching me carefully, head down, eyebrows pinched. She wasn't glaring, really, but I could see her fingers tightening around the grip of her spear.

“Never mind,” I said.

There’s more I could tell you about the trip. I could tell you about hiking up Moon Mountain. I could tell you about how, from the huge, crescent shaped hole in the hilltop, carved by millions and millions of years of wind and rain, you can look around for miles on either side and see wave after wave of mountainous peaks.

I could tell you about how, on the hike up the mountain, one of our number (who shall remain nameless, due to her tender years and—well--other tender parts) needed to pee so badly that she squatted in the woods. Unable to get our attention to bring her a wipe, she grabbed the nearest leaf and cleaned herself up—not realizing that the leaf was covered with tiny, little prickers.

I could tell you how I let Ellen take care of cleaning that one up, not because of gender roles, or even gender delicacy, but because I couldn’t stop giggling.

In short, we were able to Do lots of stuff in Yangshuo, hopefully holding his deadliness the reaper at bay for at least a few moments longer as we remember these things when our time finally comes.

After all the images have flashed by, though, and the reel-to-reel is beginning to flicker as the film winds down, I’m pretty sure that as the grim reaper checks his Blackberry and takes the time to floss his teeth, all my memories will culminate in this one particular moment:

It’s the last full day of our stay, and we’re hiking a back-route to Moon Mountain. We’re on dirt paths, cutting through palm groves and patches of garden where you can still smell the charcoal fumes from when they burnt out the ground cover at the end of the growing season.

We’re not entirely sure where we are—the instructions we’d received from the hotel said something about a fork, and we hadn’t found any such thing—but eventually we stumble into a small village. There’s a basketball court there, and small red hens running around pecking grain from the tarmac. On the flat stone wall outside one house, someone has laid out a head of lettuce, one leaf at a time, each glistening with water, from gate to gate.

We move on through the village, passing mud-brick houses washed with yellow paint. There’s a small shop on our left, with a girl in a pink raincoat and black boots chatting on a rhinestone covered cell phone; behind her, a group of men play cards on a plastic table.

Will and Lucy are ahead of us. They’re running. Past the mustard-colored houses, past the girl with the raincoat, past a pair of roosters eyeing each other near a water pump. The path we’re following is cobblestone, and as old as God, the rocks uneven and slippery even when dry.

Our instructions tell us to take a left between two watering holes. We’re not sure what that means. Were the pumps watering holes? Are those big cisterns? But eventually we come to a bend in the road that passes between two large, muddy, hollows and we think, Ah, yes, this is it. So we turn left and continue on.

And Will and Lucy are still ahead of us, sticks in hand, striding confidently through this place that is as foreign as anyplace they’ll ever be, conspiring together, plotting out forts and surprise attacks on chickens and parents and their little brother. It might be they don’t even see the watering holes, the mud-brick buildings, the low gray sky, the water buffalos in the barns, those crazy peaked mountains bursting out of the earth all around us. It might be they’re so locked in their heads, in whatever game it is they’re imagining, that they see none of this.

But I do. And Ellen does too. And what we see as well is our family, deep in rural China, wandering through a village in the middle of nowhere. What we see are our children, kids raised in Virginia and watched like hawks by their parents and their day-caregivers and their pre-school teachers, watched so carefully they never learned to ride bikes until they were 8 and 5—we see our kids, moving beneath that sky, past those ragged palms, toward those glorious mountains—we see our kids running along, hair tousled, clothes dusty, heads full of adventure, the whole damn world open before them.

1 comment:

Sandee Mc said...

Beautiful. Made me cry. You have to turn this into a book, because the world deserves to read it!