Any preconceived notions you may have about cruises and cruise ships - throw all of it out the window at this point. The sight that greets me as I step into the ship is not the Love Boat I had imagined. Dingy stained red wall to wall carpet and cheap wood paneling are the sleazy decorator touches which welcome me into this floating toilet. We enter on the 2nd floor of the ship which is where the check-in desk is located. Across from the check in desk is a counter which sells snacks and toiletries which are only slightly overpriced. Jennifer hands the concierge our receipt. Instead of keys, we are handed room numbers in plastic card cases. These we show to the clerk in charge of unlocking passengers’ doors. We are taken up to the 3rd floor to our cabin.
The clerk opens the door. Maureen and Jennifer both get bottom bunks. I throw my backpack on a top bunk. The room smells like a little league ball park toilet. On the wall parallel with the door is a large picture window which slides open. Next to the picture window is the toilet which is the size of a small square closet. On one wall is the shower head; on the opposite wall is the sink and in the middle of the floor is the hole. Non-Westerner toilets are the one drawback in China. That is if you don’t count chicken foot soup, fried goose shins, pigeon surprise (Surprise! We’re eating pigeon tonight! Enough said).
‘I got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days But I ain't got no speakers, ain't got no headphones, ain't got no records to play’
Once we sit our groceries down under and around the desk which has a small television setting on it, most of our floor space is occupied. A wheezing air conditioner blows inconsequential air under the picture window. The space between the two sets of bunks is barely big enough for one person to walk through. We know right off that we will not be spending much time in the cabin.
Someone knocks on the door. Maureen who is sitting closest to the door knob opens the door. Our tour guide is at the door. We go out into the hall to talk to her which is easier than all crowding in our room. She tells us a deck pass is 65 yuan. Yes, this is our first scam. If we want to go out of our room to somewhere besides the restaurant, we have to buy the deck pass. With the deck pass, we are allowed on the front and back deck and the karaoke room where we can sing “for free” which she tells us more than once -‘sing for free’ and you ‘sing for free.’ For now we will nickname our tour guide ‘Lo Lo Lo’. The province where she comes from, n’s are pronounced as l’s. We pay her the scam money and we go to the back deck on the fourth floor of the ship.
An above ground pool in the middle of the deck would be right at home. The deck is covered in green soiled plastic turf. A big round metal dome sticks up in the middle of the deck. This dome, the children climb and slide down. In the USA or actually many other parts of the world, this dome would be a lawsuit anxiously waiting for a hapless child or drunk adult. By the time we make it to the deck, most of the other passengers have thought of the same idea. We see an open spot near the rear to which we make a beeline. Once we get back to the spot, we realize why it is vacant. This is where the ship’s exhaust belches out. We find some cheap plastic - (torturers of Mexicans) WalMart Lawn and Garden - foot stools to sit on. Maureen sits long enough to go into a coughing fit. She says she will see us later. Everyone in the vicinity – including infants, I believe – is smoking. We are still docked. After Maureen leaves, the ship pulls away from the dock and heads down the river. Dusk sets over the city. We look behind us at the lights. Chongqing is beautifully lit from the river. At times I think we are on the Mississippi leaving Memphis, St. Louis, New Orleans. As the darkness falls over the river, families start to vacate the deck. Jennifer and I graduate from the cheap stools on which we are perched to those hideous cheap plastic molded lawn chairs which everyone seems to have. These hideous plastic chairs which clutter up the world - I am sure - were born in China.
Doing as the Chinese do, we smoke a cigarette. Last night, after we got back from the community center/ food court, Jennifer told me she does not smoke but would like to smoke a cigarette. I told her I do not smoke but I smoke in China too. We bought cigarettes at a market a few doors down from the hotel. We walked around and smoked heading into the night into all sorts of directions which we should not have headed. In one direction, an amputee was walking toward us. We turned around. We were not scared just superstitious. Seeing and amputee seems like it would be bad luck. We talk about nothing in particular while we smoke. We inadvertently take a turn down a dark alley. We remember we are near an inner city bus station where live poultry is not uncommon; we turn around and walk back to the street. But now we are finally on the Yangtze River, finally.
As we roll down the river, we look off onto both sides of the bank. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we stay silent. Sometimes lights illuminate the hillside which rises up from the river. Sometimes signs dot the landscape. The adventure has not yet begun. Most of the other passengers have gone to their cabins. Now, only a handful of people are on the deck. Jennifer tells me some Chinese superstitions and customs of which I know nothing. Various Chinese friends tell her these superstitions. Men do not wear green hats in China. Green hats signify a cheating spouse. She is not sure who gives the men these hats. When her father was visiting, he had a green hat that he wore everyday. His was an olive green so she assumed it was not as bad as wearing lime or avocado green. Fortunately, the hat I brought with me is brown.
After we talk for awhile, we wonder about poor Maureen who we think may have had to abandon ship. We walk up to the front deck. Maureen is standing alone with the wind blowing through her hair. She tells us she has been out here all night. The smoke does not blow in her face here. The smoke blows behind her. She is happy. We are happy that she has found a place where she will not be affected. We have an early day tomorrow. We are seeing a ghost town with hanging coffins. The ship will dock at 6 am. We are to disembark at 7 am. We head back to our cabin. I have a vision of Lennon’s ‘Sometime in New York City’ re-imagined/updated – instead of Nixon dancing naked with Mao, Bush is dancing naked with Hu. Bush is the new Nixon. ‘Some people never had experience with air.’ I pull out my hat which I thought was brown. I was wrong, my hat is army green.