Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In Summer, Hot water is a popular drink here.

Fuzhou is my destination today. My contact through Brain Transplant has arranged for me to teach a summer camp at a primary school. Fourth graders will be my captive audience. The camp starts tomorrow. Today, I go with the woman who has organized the camp. We will be picked up by the principal at the bus station. The bus leaves at 1 pm from Shanghai. I am to meet her for a quick lunch at 11 am before we head to the bus station.

Nothing unusual happens on my way to meet her. Since I ran out of milk, I have the instant cappuccino that Jo the Australian passed on to me. With it, I have a container of peach yogurt, a very ordinary sort of globally accepted breakfast. After I finish my instant cappuccino and yogurt, I take a shower. At the hotel I will be staying, I requested a bathtub, which I am looking forward to having a bath. I know after a few hours with primary school kids no matter what the ethnicity, I will need to head for the Calgon.

Once I have taken my shower and shaved, I make a checklist of the supplies that I am taking with me for 10 days – my guitar; unread Shanghai Dailys; Moby Dick (which I will probably not read); a book of Robert Cormier short stories (which I probably will read), a recent reprinting of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast which has taken 3 months to get to Shanghai by barge and bicycle (thanks SM); a collection of kid appropriate DVDs; summer clothes (which may get described at some point); laptop computer; candles, toiletries.

My travel bags consist of the laptop computer backpack, the guitar gig bag, and my silver Delsey overnight bag. First, I put on the laptop backpack; I then hoist the gig bag over my shoulder; last, I hoist the Delsey luggage bag over the other shoulder. My pack is heavy. I am a weighted down burro heading down into the depths of my metaphorical Grand Canyon.

I am set to go. I walk to the street to hail a taxi. When I pass the guardhouse, they look at me as if I am going for good. Maybe I even see some misty eyes. I flash 10 fingers in the air. They shake their heads and discuss this with one another as if they understand. I trudge on to the street.

A taxi whizzes by as I am walking up. He does not see me. Fortunately, I do not have to wait long. Another taxi pulls up within a couple of minutes. The driver is a female. Since I recognize her, I know that she recognizes me. Female taxi drivers are as uncommon as foreigners in Songjiang. I pull out my card and point to the bus station. She shakes her head and says it aloud as if I will know that is what she is saying.

The line at the bus station is long. Most of the time, the line moves fast. Again, fortunately, the line moves fast. Here, I have stopped pointing on my card to where I want to go because I have ascertained that everyone in line is going to the same place. The stadium is a popular destination.

The other busses at the station require the passengers pay the attendant on the bus the fare. Often the attendant is a woman who sits halfway back on the bus. The bus that goes to the stadium has its own ticket window. I think this is because there are many commuters who go in to Shanghai daily.

All the other times I have ridden the bus, I have not been shouldered down with bags. This time is a different story. I have three bulky bags. Surprisingly, the bus is not made for travelers carrying much more than a briefcase. When I board the bus, I find that I am sitting by a middle aged man who is none too pleased to have a pack-mule sitting next to him. He grunts when I point to my seat. He scoots over and gives me the aisle. As other passengers are trying to get by me, I negotiate how I am to sit for the hour with all of my stuff. I put the Delsey bag next to me on the floor in the aisle; I put the computer on top of the bag. The gig bag I put between my legs. I am now ready to travel. This is actually not as uncomfortable as I had anticipated.

Where I am to meet my handler is a nice walk from the stadium, but with all of my gear, I decide I will call a taxi instead. Before the bus gets to the stadium, I call my handler and tell her that I will call from the taxi and tell her to tell him where to take me. She tells me to have him take me to the Starbucks where we met the last time. I tell her I do not know how to tell him how to get there. She tells me to call her when I am in the taxi.

At the stadium, I hail a cab. The cabbie asks me where to go - or I assume he asks me that, but of course since I do not know Chinese, I am not sure what he says to me when I get in the cab. He could easily be telling me he loves blackberry jam.

I hit redial and hand the phone to him. He looks at me puzzled. I tell him ‘Ni Hao.’ He says ‘Ni Hao.’ He speaks in starts and stops in to the phone. The handler is instructing him where to go. The route he drives is vaguely familiar. In the Shanghai City Limits in a taxi, I sometimes go into panic mode since I am not that familiar with the city.

He drops me in front of a hotel. The hotel porter opens the door and helps me with my bag. I feel guilty. After saying thank you, I walk across the plaza to the Starbucks and sit down at a table outside. A few minutes later, my handler walks up to greet me.

We walk a few doors down to a Japanese restaurant to eat. Japanese restaurants seem to be like Mexican restaurants in the USA in that they are fairly common here. The restaurant is nice. For some reason, it reminds me of Chicago. I order a curry lunch box, which is blasé.

Over lunch, to kill time, I ask my handler about her family. She has an older sister. She was born in the time when siblings were allowed. Her mother is a retired doctor who is very social. My handler wants to buy her parents an apartment closer to where all of their retired friends have migrated. They will go to Australia soon with her because Shanghai is too hot for them in the summer. In China, taking care of the parents is a custom that everyone seems to follow. It is frowned upon to not follow this custom. College students, I have met in passing, talk about good jobs that will afford them the sort of lifestyle they need to properly take care of their families.

After lunch, we walk across the street to the handler’s office, a small office on the 11th floor of a newer building. At the doorway, inside her office, the carpet, grey indoor-outdoor, is bunched up. She tells me she wants to check her email before we take a taxi to the bus station.

At this point, I decide she may be the one to figure out my train arrangements for Inner Mongolia where I will teach a camp for 14 days in the middle of July. I ask her if she could call and check prices and times for me. She says she would not mind. I tell her I am going to Hohhot, which is the capital of the region. She teaches me how to pronounce it which is even difficult for some Chinese to say.

The closest I come to saying it is ‘ho-who-hut’ which is not really even close. When I have told my Chinese brethren where I am going in Inner Mongolia, after they ask me why, they ask me where. I have to spell it. After I spell it they still ask me why I would want to go there. It is all grass. I then ask myself coming from Oklahoma and the Great Plains. Do I want to see more plains?

My handler, a petite thing, then grabs a tremendously heavy box and we head to the elevator. The box has supplies for the camp – text books, binders, crayons, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, colored paper, typing paper. We make our way down to the street where we immediately are able to flag down a cab and head to the new bus station. The bus station is near the new train station, which is in the same neighborhood as the school where I will teach next fall.

The bus station is incredibly nice. It is more like a modern airport terminal. Inside the station, are a coffee shop and a restaurant along with a snack counter and a magazine stand. My handler tells me many of the passengers are students going home from college. We could have taken the train or the bus. The busses are nicer. We have an hour’s wait. I spend it people watching. Nothing unusual happens; this is just another day at the new bus station in Shanghai.

My handler shows me the tickets. We have seats one and two. She tells me you get the best seats if you buy them early. We will be at the front of the bus. She is proud that she thought ahead to do this.

We board the bus. I put my computer and guitar underneath. I keep my Delsey carry-on with me. My handler has a huge book bag that I tell her will fit on the floor. She tells me she would rather hold it in her lap. The floor is dirty. I pull out my book of Robert Cormier short stories. My handler tells me she cannot read on the bus. The ride is too shaky. As the last few passengers get on, the bus pulls out of the station.

This is a bit like being on some virtual reality death-ride. The driver pilots the bus like it is a little Italian sports car. As we are careening in and out of traffic, zipping into tight spaces meant for compacts, I come to understand those headlines that I would read over coffee back in the USA – ‘Bus in China Careens into Chicken Truck Killing All 64 Passengers.’ Those headlines thousands and thousands of miles away become immediate. I bury me head in my book for solace.

The bus ride is an hour and a half. At the station, the principal of the school picks us up. We throw our luggage and supplies into the trunk and we both get into the back seat of his late model Toyota. The school is actually in a small town 30 minutes away. If anything happened to the people I am with, I would be so screwed. I have no clue where I am or how I would get back to Shanghai. Briefly, I become anxious about this but then I act like I am tripping on mushrooms and I am okay.

We are taken to the hotel first which I have been told is five minutes from the school. Everyday, I am to be taken there on a three-wheeler bicycle, the modern rickshaw. The hotel is on the edge of downtown. The lobby at one time may have been grand when Mao campaigned. Now it shares space with a cheap eyewear counter. We take the elevator to the fourth floor to our rooms. The keys are the old fashioned metal kind, no card keys for this hotel. We have trouble opening our doors until the principal looks at the number on the keys and realizes we are trying to open our doors with the other’s key. We switch keys. The doors open effortlessly.

My hotel room looks like the set for the cover to Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ The room has the musty smell of too many egg dinners. I go into the bathroom and the tub shocks me. I am appalled and disgusted. The tub makes the Trainspotting heroin bar bathroom look Calgon fresh. I tell my handler I would like to have the tub cleaned. She calls the front desk and talks to them in Chinese. She tells me the club will be cleaned for me. She tells me Chinese people take showers not baths so they do not keep the tubs clean.

We then go to the school. The school is huge. A thousand students attend the school. This is a new four-story primary school. It is built in an open-air square with a courtyard in the middle. The classroom I will be using is usually used as a boardroom. There is an air conditioner in the corner. The conference room table and chairs are still in the middle. School officials will convert it to a classroom before tomorrow. Various trophies and vases line the walls.

We then go to the principal’s office. He is very nice. He does not know English. My handler is our interpreter. He has a son at university in Beijing. He wants me to meet his son. I tell him I would love to meet his son. Our interpreter interprets all of this for us. He gives both of us hot water to drink. Hot water is a popular drink here.


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