Friday, April 14, 2006

Weekend in Wuxi Part V Before the alarm goes off, I get up and take a shower. Max is up and dressed when I come out. We round up Miko and Allen. The four of us go to breakfast. Maureen is not having breakfast. At the elevator, I kick Miko in the butt with the side of my foot. She screams and jumps and says “Wo sha le ni…You You You!”
As she is getting ready to kick me back, a very traditional looking straight laced Chinese family walk up to the elevator and give the four of us a look. I try to look as innocent as possible; I do not think I succeed.

At breakfast, I have another three cups of the fine luxurious hotel restaurant coffee. Allen’s grandfather makes an appearance at breakfast. Allen ignores him. I would like to talk to him but he does not know English and I, of course, do not know Chinese other than a few derogatory phrases the students have taught me which I assume would not be appropriate conversation with gramps.

We finish breakfast. Allen’s phone rings. Her dad has pulled up at the entrance. We walk down and get in the mini-van. Again, Maureen rides with Coco. We are set to go to another part of Taihu Lake today. If I had my preferences, I would have preferred to stay near the hotel and shop at the old town market but we are being shown the sites so the sites are what we will see.

We drive for twenty minutes. We pull into what looks like the entrance to an amusement park. We get out of the van. The Dad leaves. Maureen tells the kids (which may or may not include me) to act proper, we are in a public place. After I flick Max, I add “Yeah!”

Coco buys us tickets. We go into the gate. A long line is waiting for the bus. I am not sure what we are doing or where we are going. Allen says the line will take 45 minutes. I tell Maureen I do not want to wait in a line for 45 minutes because I know none of the kids have the patience to perform such a feat.

We start walking along a walkway along the lake to the unknown (to me) destination. A horn honks. We get out of the way to let an oversized golf cart full of people go by. A horn honks. We move out of the way to let a car go by.
“Isn’t this supposed to be for pedestrians?” I ask Coco.
A horn honks. And, a full size bus passes. I am stunned, as is Maureen.

We walk, and as we walk several busses go by. The sidewalk seems to be the detour while they are resurfacing the road or doing something Chinese to it. Which of these two possibilities, we do not know. Maureen, says to me privately, we could have been on a bus if we would have patiently waited five minutes.

For some reason, Maureen is carrying her backpack. I have learned to travel light. Later, she tells me her toilet paper is in her pack. Women can go nowhere without it here. I told her from now on let me know and I would stuff some in my pocket so that she wouldn’t have a pack to carry all day.
After walking for 30 minutes, we reach our destination. We are taking a boat to an island on Taihu Lake. As we get on the boat, I remember being thirteen and getting ill after several other passengers got ill on a short boat ride to Catalina Island from Los Angeles. I pray that I am now seaworthy. The ride is nothing special. We dock and the one or two hundred people climb off of the boat onto the dock. Allen is sulking. Maureen and I wonder what is wrong. Coco tells Maureen, Allen is impatient. She says Allen must learn to be patient.

Max and I skip rocks into the lake once we get to the shore. I feel a bit cocky because Max’s rocks do not skip at all. Soon thereafter, a Chinese guy in a suit – perhaps he is in a wedding party – skips a round rock the size of his fist. The rock skips out onto the lake 4 or 5 times. The others are sitting on a ledge resting. I walk over to them.

I tell Maureen I am off to find a mensroom. I go into a structure which I think is a restroom. I am mistaken it is a mini-temple. Thankfully, I am sober these days or I would have perhaps urinated on a monk back in my ‘peeing on carpets in South Tulsa’ days. They tell me there might be one at the top of the hill. I walk the steep steps to the top and I come face to face with the Fairy Castle which is a large structure with another temple enclosed. I find the toilet with incense burning in the entrance. The toilet looks like a place where Confucius may have once relieved himself. I then walk back down to the group. We then all walk up the steep steps back to Fairy Castle.

After watching some monks chant and do monk things, we walk on. Soon, beyond the castle, we come upon a row of shops that sell trinkets and knick knacks. A beetle enclosed in a necklace for 10 yuan immediately draws my attention. Sure, it looks cheap but I think there is something high school cool about it. I debate buying it. I almost buy it but then I see a flaw in the acrylic casing. I walk on.

After we walk along the row of shops we make our way back down the hill in a different place from where we climbed up. A speed boat taxi is docked at the bottom. We look in the distance where we got off the bigger boat. An extremely long line is waiting for the next boat. A next boat is nowhere in sight.

Coco mentions that the speed boat costs extra. I can not see precisely how much extra but I am guessing somewhere in the $20 range at least - for our whole group. She talks with the woman at the ticket booth. The next thing I know we are getting in a speed boat - Maureen said she would get in front – heading back across the lake. For the first time all day, everyone looks like they are enjoying themselves.

Once we get back to where the big boats and speed boats dock, we climb out and head into a restaurant near the dock for lunch, a land locked restaurant. We are seated at a Lazy-Susan table. Coco talks to the waitress. We are moved to a non-Lazy-Susan table. Coco explains to us that the Lazy-Susan table is for lots of food. We are only going to order a few things. The students and I all order Coke. Maureen and Coco order tea. The waitress brings us a 1.5 liter bottle of Coke and puts 4 glasses on the table. She pours Maureen and Coco tea.

I get the idea that we are all ordering our own dishes. I tell Coco I would like a dish involving beef. She discusses something in Chinese with Allen. Max and Miko are having their own Chinese conversation. After living a life hearing English, I somewhat enjoy being blissfully unaware of what is going on around me. I look at the floor which is littered with chopsticks, napkins, empty 1.5 liter soda bottles, various bones and food castoffs. A large family is sitting next to us. What a bunch of slobs, I think to myself.

Dishes of food start arriving. We are sharing the food which is fine. Silverfish soup arrives first. Mystery tofu and fish dish comes next. The beef dish, pepper steak, comes next. After that the dumplings with the soup inside - which I quite like - arrive. Then assorted scary dishes, such as bony chopped eel, arrive. I mainly dine on the pepper steak and the dumplings.

With everyone I have dined with, the rule seems to be you can just reach across anyone to nab portions. When I notice the dumpling dish is dwindling to a few dumplings, I grab one with my chopsticks. Dumplings can be a precarious foodstuff to pick up with said eating tools, especially when you are chopsticking them across the distance of a table full of dumpling nabbing veterans. I have the darling dumpling inches away from my plate and it develops a life of its own or perhaps, for a moment, gravity takes a holiday. Whatever the case may be, the dumpling shoots straight up into the air and lands with a somewhat audible ‘splat’ on the floor. I hope no one notices.

Fortunately, at our table no one does. Unfortunately, at the next table, the kids (wearing their meal) seem to think the dumpling trick is quite fantastic and are quite vocal and uproarious about this fantastic trick. And, much more unfortunately for me, since I cannot speak Chinese and I do not have the slightest idea what they may or may not have been uproariously saying, I thought it best to put forth every dumpling misdemeanor out into the open. Max is the first to be curious. I point to the dumpling on the floor. He points it out to Miko. Miko points it out to Allen. This turns into a Faberge shampoo commercial. Finally, the whole restaurant seems to be interested in me and my unfortunate dumpling.

Once, everyone has looked at the unfortunate dumpling, we each eat a bowl of rice which many times is served after the dessert – which is melon at this restaurant, orange slices at most others. Coco ushers us to the next activity. Again she paid for the meal without telling Maureen and me.

Now, we are going to hike around on the paths which wind around the side of the lake. We climb around on boulders and strike poses. Coco has her camera. She tries to shoot photos of the students but none of them want to have their photos taken. Miko is the most vocal of them about this. Photos are instead taken of Maureen, or me, or me and Maureen, or Maureen and Coco, or Coco and me. After the photo session gets old, Maureen and Coco walk leisurely on the sidewalk which is along a plateau near the top of the hill around the lake.

The students and I climb around on cliffs and up and down hills. At one point, Miko twists her ankle. She tells us to go ahead. I envision her in a movie like ‘The Poseidon Adventue.” She is the Chinese Stella Stevens. She is heroic.
Today, I am giving the Juicy Couture’s even more of a workout than yesterday. The commercial, I can imagine. When others are falling around him; he and his Juicy’s still keep going.

We are having a nice time but it will soon be tea time. We are to meet the adults at the teahouse which looks over the lake. We climb and we climb up from the shore to find the teahouse. We think we find it. We find another miniature temple near a parking lot. I have to pee. Miko asks for me. We are pointed around to the back of the temple. At first, I assume they want us to use the side of the building but then we see toilets circa Ming Dynasty. These have no incense burning in the entrance. I hold my nose while I am inside.

We walk again. We find another alcove of shops but no teahouse. After looking for 30 minutes, we finally find them. The time is 4 pm. The two of them are sitting on a picturesque balcony with an amazing view of the lake.

The tea attendant is mopping. I would love some tea but too bad. We are too late; the teahouse is closing. The students and I sit inside where there is no view because the attendant is bringing all of the furniture inside. Maureen and Coco continue to have a merry time on the balcony enjoying the view. They finish their tea. The students and I have had a rest. We step outside; Maureen spots an ice cream vender and buys everyone an ice cream. We sit and eat our ice cream where a swarm of mosquitoes are holding a convention.

We then make the descent back to the bottom of the large hill. We are at the bottom. We see civilization. Coco tells us that the mini-van is waiting for us. We are ready to come back to Songjiang. We assume we are where we started. We are not. We have to take a bus back to the entrance because we are nowhere close. We get into a Six Flags style corral which does not seem to make any sense because there are several openings for people to exit onto a bus. To make it even more confusing, busses keep pulling up to a circle drive where people who have not corralled board. All of us are tired. All of us are impatient.

Eventually, we realize the non-corralled bus boarders are employees leaving work, because the busses they board are a different color. This eases our mind minutely. Nevertheless, there seem to be no busses coming. By this time the line has become quite long. Finally, we see a bus. We hope we are next. Logically, we should be next. But, this is China.

A corral controller starts to let a group which has just formed go. The people in my line raise Chinese hell. The woman corral controller in charge of our corral yells to him and motions to us. He tries to stop the crowd who has already started toward the bus as the line I am in simultaneously charges for the bus. I get to the door of the bus in a panic like a scene from ‘Soylent Green’ and it suddenly turns into the line for a Who concert. (New York Times Headline : American Crushed at Lake Theme Park In China Boarding Tour Bus.)

At this point my Chinese patience has expired, the expiration date was starting to go during the faux steak dinner last night. I am shoving and hitting and clawing and pinching and trying to make my way onto the bus. The only other person I am worried about is Maureen because she is the frailest of everyone in our group. If anyone got in Allen’s way, she would probably wallop them or take a big bite out of them.( It had been awhile – the ice cream a half hour earlier- since she had eaten.) When I find a seat on the bus, I look around. I see Miko; I see Allen; I see Coco; I see Max – we make eye contact and he smiles; and last, I see Maureen. Everyone is accounted for. We get back to the entrance. Our driver – the one who brought us to Wuxi and who Maureen and I assume works for Allen’s father – is there waiting. We tell Coco goodbye. We get into the mini-van and we are on our way home. Oh, yeah, I have to pee again.


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