Sunday, May 14, 2006

Yangtze River Cruise IV

“Space Oddity” plays in my head as I walk through the rest of the zoo. “Here am I sitting in a tin can.” We walk past ducks and geese floating in a pond. Some cranes touch down. The day is hot and muggy. We realize we have had enough of the zoo. (Later someone will ask “Why would you go to a zoo in China?”) We decide to walk back by the pandas. Maureen says they will still be sleeping.

To our surprise, the pandas are up and eating bamboo. They look happy to have their bamboo. They look as if they are smiling. Jennifer is clicking picture after picture. Behind her, groups of Chinese are clicking pictures of her clicking pictures. We hang around the pandas long enough to let their disposition cheer us up. We then leave the zoo.

Outside the zoo, we wait for the bus. Next to the bus is a dilapidated modern building which queerly reminds me of the last scene from ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.’ I think of ape slavery and deodorant.

The bus comes. We board. We ride back to the hotel with the idea of sitting in the lobby and resting until it is time for us to take a taxi to our ship. The bus ride back to the hotel seems quite a bit shorter than the ride to the zoo.

Back at the bus station by the hotel, we buy supplies for the cruise. We were told to bring our own noodles because the food may not be very good on the cruise and it may be overpriced at that. In a dusty open air convenience store, we buy tubs of noodles, liters of Pepsi, several liters of water, cookies, crackers, vacuum packed tea eggs, dried sugar coated apple strips, Chinese beef jerky. I am tempted to buy the chocolate muffins that I like but the store is so disgustingly dusty that I do not know how long the muffins have been sitting on the shelf. Actually, I do know because I look at the date which reads August 2005. I put the muffins back.

Maureen and Jennifer buy fruit. I am at the end of my tether with the buying of supplies. They ask me if I am buying any fruit. I tell them no. We leave the disgustingly dusty market and walk back to the hotel lobby.

A cloud of smoke greets us when we walk into the hotel lobby. Maureen starts coughing. We tweak our plan. Sitting and relaxing in the air conditioning in the hotel lobby is not to be. Since we have not visited the swimming pool and rooftop garden, we decide to take a stroll up to the roof. We get into the elevator. A man who was sitting in the lobby joins us. He is smoking. Maureen is not pleased. The rooftop garden is not on the top floor but on the 4th floor. We press 4 and inhale the smoker’s smoke.

On the 4th floor, the doors open. Maureen takes a deep breath. We exit. We walk through double doors into a hallway of condemned rooms – the Chinese Shining. Maureen who knows some Chinese characters tries to read what the signs glued to the doors say. The only word she can make out is ‘death’. We go through another set of double doors which is at the end of the ‘death’ rooms and walk out onto the rooftop garden which has plants thriving amongst industrial hotel equipment of exhaust equipment. This exhaust equipment goes on and off. I feel like I am in the French film ‘City of Lost Children.’ I am amazed at the care that is taken with the plants. Maureen tells me it is because the plants get plenty of water. No one cares for them she says. As a former gardener who tamed many a wild garden, I tell her someone is caring for the plants or the whole rooftop would be overgrown. All of the plants look well pruned.

We scan the roof and we do not see the pool. We see a snack shop which looks as if its glory was during the start of the Carter administration. A shirtless worker is watching TV in the snack shop. Maureen says there is not a pool. I see a staircase at the far end of the snack shop. Jennifer and I climb the staircase and we do not believe what we see. Maureen tells us the pool is probably drained. We tell her oh no the pool is not drained. The pool is full. Along the perimeter of the pool are pairs of chairs which are bolted down to the concrete. On the chairs is a layer of dust a half an inch thick. The pool water is a Swamp Thing green. Although the sun is out and the day is bright and cheerful, the pool evokes a feeling of a treacherous mysterious past. Jennifer and I unnerve each other because we talk about how a creature could be living in the pool. No one knows we are walking around on the rooftop near the swimming pool of death. We beat a hasty retreat back down the staircase to where Maureen is sitting. We make our way to a planter ledge and sit. Jennifer and Maureen eat sunflower seeds. They off me some. I decline.

After we sit and ponder the roof top garden for fifteen or twenty minutes, we become bored and go back to where there is life in the hotel. Once more we walk down the hallway of the death to get to the elevator. We ride down in the elevator with a man carrying bricks from an upper floor which seems to be under construction. Once we are in the lobby, we go to the desk and ask the clerk if we can leave our bags of food supplies with our luggage in the room behind the front desk. She looks at us less then enthused and takes the bags. We head out onto the street to find supper. All of us agree that we would like to have a supper where we can sit down. The moment we walk out onto the sidewalk, a cruise hawker nabs us.

Jennifer tells him we already have our tickets for the cruise and we have already paid for the side tours. He does not listen or he does not understand. He drags us next door and has Jennifer sit down at the window he is manning and he goes into his spiel about how we are just paying for the actual cruise. Jennifer tries to explain that we have paid for the side tours we want to take. He is still going into his side tour jargon. He is telling us we only paid for the cruise. Finally, Jennifer, exasperated, digs into her backpack for the itinerary which shows what we have paid for and shows this to him. He looks at us and we nod yes. Maureen asks for a map of the Yangtze. He sells her one for 5 kuai. We leave and go get something to eat.

Every dive we walk into has an unpleasant odor or just an overall unpleasantness to it. One of the places at which we stop looks like it might be okay but then we all get a bad feeling about it. We walk around the corner from the hotel and walk into a place that has a passing resemblance to the Coney Islander on Capital Hill in Oklahoma City. We all have noodle dishes. I have to laugh as the old men loudly hawk phlegm.

At 5:25 PM, we go back to the hotel to grab our bags and grab a taxi which will take us to dock 2 where our ship is waiting. A line of taxis are waiting at the bus station. A driver jumps out of a taxi and he and Jennifer start negotiating. She asks him how much to take us to the dock. He tells her 30 kuai. She says that seems expensive since our cab rides so far have not exceeded 5 kuai. He tells her he has to charge for both ways because he will not be able to pick up a fare at the dock. She tells him this does not make sense. Or I think she tells him this does not make sense. She is speaking strictly in Chinese. Finally, he says he will take us to the dock for 28 kuai.

Jennifer and Maureen put their bags into the boot and get in the back seat. I get into the front seat with my large backpack, my pillow and my two large bags of supplies which include two large jugs of water. After we get into the car, we have a misunderstanding. I am not sure what is happening. The driver wants to open the boot. Maureen and Jennifer do not want him to because their passports are in their bags. Several illegal motorcycle taxis are in close proximity. They can imagine their bags getting nabbed by a quick thinking motorcycle thief. Arguing commences. I am still confused.

Finally, a pudgy friend of the driver crowds his way into the backseat. We are given the explanation that the driver may get lost without him. The driver pulls away from the curb and takes a shortcut through the parking lot missing a string of pedestrians. I have never seen so many near misses in my life. I am so unnerved that I start laughing which I cannot help which makes the driver even more manic. Jennifer and Maureen are petrified in the backseat. The driver is laughing with his friend the whole time. He points to my pillow and acts like he is going to sleep and laughs. He dials the phone, says something and hands the phone back to Jennifer. Jennifer puzzled says hello. The driver laughs maniacally and narrowly misses a truck full of chickens. After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, we pull up to the curb. We have reached our destination. We are near the top of a hill. The driver points toward the top of the hill. Maureen and Jennifer get their luggage out of the boot. The driver pulls away in search of his next hapless victims.

Now, we are confused. We have been dropped off in a concrete plaza area. We do not think that the dock is at the top of the hill. It does not make sense that the dock is at the top of the hill. Jennifer leaves her bags with us and runs up some stairs to see if she can see anything. Maureen and I stay with the bags and scan the immediate area. We see no dock clues. A bamboo pole bag jockey comes up and tries to grab our bags to help. We tell him no. Jennifer returns she has no information. The bamboo pole bag jockey is adamant. He will not leave.

Maureen and I tell Jennifer that the cabbie pointed toward the top of the hill so we should perhaps head that way. We start in that direction with the bamboo pole bag jockey nipping at our heels. We walk down some stairs and find that we are in the entrance of a performing arts center. We ask an usher in a white tuxedo shirt and bow tie if he knows English. He does not. A map seller joins in trying to help. She does not know English. A business man walks up who sees our distress. He knows enough English to help. He tells us the dock is at the top of the hill. He recommends we give 5 kuai to the bamboo pole bag jockey to carry our bags.

We give the bamboo pole bag jockey the okay. First, he sets Jennifer’s rolling bag on bottom and ties one end of the rope around it. He puts my oversized Diesel backpack on top. On the other end he puts Jennifer’s and Maureen’s backpacks and Maureen’s carry on bag. He then puts my pillow on the top of my backpack. He then loops - in intricate loops – the rope around Jennifer’s and Maureen’s bags of grocery supplies. The map seller joins in. She grabs my two grocery bags which are fairly heavy and puts them down on the ground by the pole. He then loops more rope around them. I am a bit awed by his bag securing expertise. I am anxious to see him pick this up. I know with our bags and groceries put together our load has got to weigh over 100 pounds. He is a small guy. He is smaller than me. I would guess him to be 5’6”. With some effort, he is able to pick this load up in one slow graceful movement. I am impressed. Even more impressive, he weaves in and out of the tourists on the crowded sidewalk. He goes up and down stairs with little effort, as if he is not even carrying a small load. We walk into the dock area which is like the gate at an airport. Jennifer runs back down a sidewalk a little ways to buy some binoculars which we passed. The bamboo pole bag jockey goes with her. This takes longer than it should. After what seems like fifteen minutes of waiting for her, she returns. She tells us she was going to buy a cheap pair and then she decided to buy a more expensive pair. The bamboo pole bag jockey picks his pole up. We all get into the lift. The diagonal lift takes us down to dock 2. The bamboo pole bag jockey tells her for 10 more kuai, he will take our bags to our cabin for us. I give him the additional 10 kuai. We get off on the dock and almost go onto the wrong ship. A crew person points us in the right direction. We enter our ship. We are finally ready to begin our voyage down the Yangtze.


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