Half way to An Ji the bus stopped at a rest-stop.
"Did you have a rest? No? Oh, there is a lot to see in the countryside. Oh, they have famous dumplings here. Are you hungry? I will buy." Sleeping Beauty had come back to life and was babbling a mile a minute.
"Yeah, cool, thanks." I replied.
"How many do you want? One or two or more? Meat or Sweet?"
"Two and meat," I said as I headed for the mensroom.
"I will meet you here," Lanny pointed to the ground by the entrance of the restrooms. The mensroom was actually nice and fortunately it did not smell foul. I was happy to breathe and whistle while I peed. A few of the students wandered in as I was leaving. I nodded to them. They, in turn, nodded to me. As I waited for Lanny, I watched the people walking by talking animatedly in Chinese. I wondered if they were talking about the news, game shows, bad TV, work, family. Lanny appeared swinging a bag by her side.
"I have dumplings," she said as she approached.
"Thank you so much," I said and then added as an afterthought. "That is so nice of you."
"These are most delicious," she said. "This town is famous for this kind of dumpling," she said as she handed me a bag of dumplings.
Of late, I have been cautious about famous food, such as chicken feet, goose shins, tofu on a stick, barbequed rabbit.
I pulled the first dumpling out and it was sticky like carrot bread. The dumpling was larger than I had expected. It was about the size of a samosa.
"Oh well," I thought to myself, as I took a bite "Here it goes."
"Yes, this IS most delicious," I said and it was. The first bite was heaven. The dumpling had the consistence of Thanksgiving stuffing with a tender piece of pot roast nestled inside.
We got back on the bus. Roll was called. The bus pulled onto the turnpike and we headed back into the night on our way to An Ji. I thought I might read but the book I had pulled out of my bag by Zelda Fitzgerald had too small of a print to read on the jostling bus. Instead, I looked out the bus window at the darkness and wondered what countryside I was missing. Lanny fell back asleep. A digital clock was overhead at the front of the bus; I kept staring at it. Time crawled. I was becoming anxious about the next day's contest. Why I had said I would be an emcee, I was starting to question. The bus rolled on.
Finally, we got to the hotel after driving through little shanty towns that reminded me of poor rural towns in New Mexico. The hotel was on the outskirts of what I assumed was An Ji. Everyone piled out of the bus with bags and backpacks. Inside, one of the handlers passed out room keys and breakfast tickets. After I got mine, Lanny (the everpresent) made sure I got to my room okay. I started to feel as if she was the man in our new instant relationship. On the stairway, one of the students introduced himself to me. He told me his English name is Sailor. I said "Good luck." He told me "I am a little nervous." I told him he need not be that he would do fine.
Four primary school students had made the finals. They were now loose in the hotel running laps in the hall to different rooms screaming and yelling as they ran. I looked out a few times. I loved their youth and exuberance. I smiled and shut the door.
I took off my sweater vest, shirt and tie, and pants and put on my Dior sweats in prepararation for bed. I looked in the drawers and closet to see what the room had to offer. I found slippers wrapped in paper, extra pillows and an extra comforter. I put the extra comforter - because the room was chilly - and the extra pillows on the bed. I then lit a few candles that I had thought to buy at the market in Songjiang and turned on a reading light over the bed. Then I settled into start Zelda Fitzgerald's novel which was a thinly veiled portrayal of her and F. Scott's lives. After two pages, I decided I was not in the mood to read it. I got up and grabbed an anthology that Dave Eggers edited. I started it and was in hotel heaven. All I needed at this point was a Coca Cola. I decided to get up and find a machine which was easier said than done.
In the hallway, I ran into a few of the handlers who spoke a minute bit of English. I did my fantastic pantomime. The concierge handed me a drinking glass. I scratched my head. I said "Coca Cola." One of the handlers decoded my message and related it to the concierge. I was told I could go back to my room and the can would be delivered. I was then asked if I wanted ice. I said "Yes." I was then told there was no ice. I went back to my room and waited. Five or ten minutes later, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and the concierge had the can of coke for me. She pointed to the price of 5 kuai on the top of the can. I gave her a 10 and she gave me 5 kuai back. I took the 5 kuai - there is no tipping here in non-international hotels - I said "Xie xie;" I shut the door; and I returned to my anthology.