Okay, I am very conscientious in the West of these sorts of things. If I use a restroom that is uni-sex I flush and put down the lid. However, in China, where I do not want to touch anything because of birdflu, cholera, tetanus, tuberculosis, typhoid, whooping cough; I let it ride. Besides that, this was not a nice restroom; there was a hole in the floor the size of a foot in front of one of the urinals.
Miko, of course, now thinks I am uncouth because of this incident I am sure. I cannot explain the situation to a China native. "Sorry but your country is filthy and disease ridden. I am frightened of getting a social disease when I just look at a toilet in this place."
We leave the restaurant. The rest of the group is ahead of Maureen and me. On the dock, men are selling fish and souvenirs. One of the souvenirs for sell is a little boy that pees when you pour hot water over his ceramic body, a way to test if your water is hot enough for tea. I have seen these at a few places and they are cheap, a dollar or less. I have some change so I decide to buy one. Maureen wants one, too. Before this takes place, a young pretty Chinese woman has struck up a conversation with us which is not that unusual here but then she offers to barter a deal for us. Both of us look at each other delighted. We are always wary of souvenir charlatans who try to milk you of every yuan you have.
Maureen and I stand and look at the hanging fish and the slum-like houseboats while the deal goes down. I have asked quite a few people if I can rent one of these houseboats as my getaway cabin. My friend Jessie (the Sofa Negotiator) told me if I wanted to live with a family on one, I could pay them a little bit of money and they would feed me as well. Jessie, I guess, did not understand the point that I wanted a place to get away. Somehow being cooped up with any family – Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Cuban, Mexican, Whoever – is not appealing in the least bit to me.
The extraordinarily nice woman comes back with the tea tester and tells us she got them for 2.50 rmb (40 cents) each. Maureen and I try to give her the money. She tells us no she wanted to do it for us. My, these Chinese people are so accommodating, I think to myself. The three of us are walking toward the mini-van. I am starting to feel a bit uncomfortable because this woman is asking us where we parked. We tell her. She does not look like a psychopath. We are close to the mini-van; she will be on her way once we get to the mini-van. She then tells us someone can ride with her. Ride with her?
Maureen finally recognizes her as Allen’s mom, Coco. How we missed that detail, I am not sure, other than I have never met her and Maureen has. She just seemed to walk up out of nowhere. I did not see her say anything to her husband or Allen.
Maureen hops in Coco’s new model Volkswagen. I hop back into the mini-van. Allen had been riding in the front seat up until now. When Maureen gets in Coco’s car, Allen comes back and sits by Miko, leaving Dad to chauffeur us. We are off to get yet another glimpse of the magnificent Taihu Lake.
At Taihu Lake, after we stop at the obligatory koi pond where koi fish practically eat out of your hand, we walk along the path of the shore to the dragon head. This involves climbing around on rocks and sliding through mud and generally giving my Juicy Couture jeans and Nike tennis shoes a workout.
I have formed an alliance with Allen’s dad. We are at the front of the pack. Now and then, we reach a lookout point and we see Miko, Allen and Max in the distance. However, we do not spot Maureen or Coco. Maureen, I know, is not excited about trudging all over rocks, mud, sand and shells, slipping on the occasional dead fish and discarded condom.
The last time, I communed with nature, I cannot remember. The weather is perfect. When we make it to the dragon head, which is the where a series of rocks jut out into the lake, a few groups of young Chinese couples are laughing, sitting and taking pictures. When they see me - a westerner – approach, they call “Hello, Hello.” I respond with a few hellos and follow Allen’s dad to a rock which I assume is the dragon’s tongue, or perhaps neck.
We sit and gaze out onto the endless lake which looks like the sea. The lake is dotted with little flags in different primary colors. This is where fishermen have traps set to catch fish, turtles, eel, whatever. Fishing boats lazily pass, fishing boats which are trapped in another era, boats that look as if they were leftover from the Tang Dynasty. Most of them have laundry drying on their masts.
After we take in the scene – surrounded by empty water bottles and soda cans, we take the shortcut up the dragon’s back, back to where we left the car. Coco, Maureen and I walk back together. Coco buys us water at a dilapidated miniature temple on the top of the hill – a temple that sells water, candy and incense, a temple with a pile of trash on the side.
Once we are back at the koi pond, I duck into the restroom which I smell half a km before I reach it. When I walk back out, the group has gathered in a sprawling teagarden near a waterfall. The teagarden proprietor brings me a rattan chair with a questionable back which may or may not give way while I am sitting. The group is served tea, Chinese style with all of the tea debris floating in the cup; I am used to this by now, chewing on the occasional twig that floats in my oolong or green.
Allen, the queen of food, pulls out some sunflower seeds. I approach my seeds in a western style. This prompts the whole table into giving me lessons on how to eat them. They do not fool around. A big bag of sunflower seeds can easily be ingested in 5 minutes by one person.
I am accustomed to the salty kind which I like to suck on. They may suck snails but not sunflowers. It is a quick bite on front and then a quick bite on back and then maneuvering the sunflower meat out with the tongue. This should take approximately 3 seconds. These people are like sunflower locusts. I keep trying to do it the Chinese way. I have not been this self conscious since I have been here. When no one is looking, I buck up and eat the whole seed, shell included, so that I am not given even further instruction.
After the sunflowers have been decimated and I have shells lining my esophagus, Coco grabs ice cream for everyone. The proprietor, his wife and son talk to us. His wife then pulls out a bird whistle, a bird made of clay which you blow and if it has water in it, the whistle sounds like a bird. She sells them for 1 yuan. Coco buys one for everyone. Soon a bird choir is rambunctiously whistling from our table. After we have done this for a good thirty or forty five minutes, it is time to hit the road.
Maureen follows Coco to her car. A mystery man who was sitting with us walks us to the mini-van with us. He talks to me animatedly the whole time and smiles. I respond with “Uh.” My responses just make him talk even more animatedly. He piles in with us. I am not sure who he is but Allen’s father seems to know him so I am not that worried. (New York Times Headline: American Mutilated with Chinese Family by Taihu Lake Maniac).
We start back to the hotel. Tonight, we will eat at the American restaurant. Five minutes into the drive, I realize all of the wonderful teagarden tea has gone straight through me and I need to use the mensroom. At first, I somewhat need to relieve myself. Every few minutes the need becomes worse. I think to myself we will be to the hotel soon. At one point, I was told the lake is a 30 minute drive from the hotel. I keep this in mind. To myself, I am counting imaginary seconds into minutes. By the time, we hit the edges of downtown Wuxi, I am at def-con 4. A few times, I think we are close because landmarks look familiar. By the time we get what I imagine to be close to the hotel or even past the hotel because suddenly the thought pops into my head that we are being driven on an impromptu tour of downtown Wuxi in all of its wonder, I tell Allen my plight. She doesn’t seem to really understand. I ask if we are about there. I say “I really gotta go.” She just looks at me and nods as if she understands but doesn’t really.
Finally, after several almost there’s, I see the hotel façade. The mini-van pulls up to the entrance. As I am unlatching the door, I jump over everyone. I jump out. I run through the lobby in search of my urine sanctuary. Up five steps and in the hotel’s right corner, I spot the sign. I run in and just make it. Oh, Relief. I whistle.