Thursday, August 2, 2007
Off the beaten path
From the teak-colored wooden chair in the hotel lobby café, I have a clear view of the world passing by from my seat by the window. Traffic is a steady crush, cab drivers wait out front waiting on passengers and the sidewalks and road are still wet from the soaking monsoon rainstorm that passed through a few hours before. While some got caught in the clash of thunder, lighting and driving rain (and some hail too, although it is still hot here) I watched my first Chinese monsoon roll past outside a 13th floor window. I am packed up and headed out for a two-day excursion to Jinan, as our flight leaves in a few hours.
My Sprite (they serve Coke, Sprite, water or tea…with little room for variations except the tea) bubbles slowly on the table next to my new pair of Oakley sunglasses I picked up during the spree at Silk Street. The other tables have pots of tea and heavy smokers, all engaged in loud conversation while I type. While I am now secure behind the thick glass window, I did get a chance to venture out into the real China earlier in the day with Dr. Ben Kelley.
After breakfast we headed out together to discover the everyday, common places and people that fill this city, off the main streets and away from any other visitors. The morning rush hour keeps us busy watching for a safe time to cross the street and I spot a single blue umbrella passing in front of the throng of riders lined up like the start of the Indy 500 (should it be held on scooter and bikes and they all can pull up to the starting line) After safe passage, we first watch a father and child playing together in the morning light in an alley filled with bikes and scooters. The man smiles at us as we pause and we greet him with the same. I decide to follow some walkers into the next alley up ahead and we enter a small neighborhood; we pass a pair of women washing their laundry in a small tub on the front stoop. Yes, we catch some strange looks at first, as if we are lost. But we are greeted warmly with waves, smiles and the feeling of discovering a hidden layer of the city. While I move closer to take a portrait of a woman, fanning herself in a plastic chair outside her home, her small dog begins barking, sending her cat into the open doorway. She motions to me to come closer, I show off her photo, now on display on the display screen of my camera and we play a really bad game of charades, where she either tells me the number of pets she has (my first guess), her age (maybe…) or something having to do with numbers. My luck would be she was telling me winning lottery numbers she saw in a vision, but no way I am going to figure this out.
We wander past a seafood market (ok, not so much a market but more like a tiny booth) with fish heads, eels and other delights, which shoppers and shopkeepers engaged in verbal battle. The crowds are shopping for their daily food, or perhaps some breakfast cooked up along the street. We go inside a dark building with booths filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a sundy of animal parts on display. If it can be removed, it’s fore sale.
Along our journey we encounter people that are willing to pose for a photo, if only fleeting. Many laugh with us as we show off the photos, eliciting hugs, hand shakes or the international thumbs-up. After combing the alleys we end up on Jiashan Road and I notice a barber that has set up on the sidewalk near a large, red phone booth, with tufts of hair scattered nearby on the ground. My explorer partner decides he needs a haircut, and sits down in the chair. The barber gets out his tools, and starts to go to work, with people walking by between snips. A washcloth sits in a large silver bowl partially filled with water. The cut includes a close shave, and as the barber produced the single blade razor, Ben didn’t even flinch. I was kind of jealous I didn’t have enough hair for a cut too.
Another turn to the left and we end up in the middle of a market place that is bustling with people. Seems we decided to venture out on the busiest shopping day of the week. You can spot chickens, ducks and other poultry in all forms of life and death. The combination of smells and the intense heat of the day create a sensation that is hard to describe. Each step brings a new odor or fragrance, depending on your direction. We are soaked in sweat by now, as most of the locals are as well. The piles of rotten fruits and vegetables mix with other trash to create a walking hazard. A woman takes a handmade broom with long strands of straw to sweep her pile to the other side of the street. And we keep walking.
I happen to notice a store filled with colorful paper goods and have been searching for “red bags” (Hong hao) to bring back for Mrs. Burns’s kindergarten class to help celebrate Chinese New Year. I enter and apply my best Mandarin skills and hand them the piece of paper my teacher had written out for me. I get a nodding head and we begin to pick through a good choice of bags, all adorned with different images and characters. I need 50 and even get some play money to put in each one, as the bags are given as gifts and always include cash inside. I have a sense of pride, speaking my tiny phrases and being able to find these on my own (mostly).
Heading back to the hotel, my companion and I realize we had ventured off the beaten path of Starbucks and other comforts of home and had experienced the real China. And we have a haircut and some red bags to prove it.
Just a short follow after that long read: Greg, Ben and I extend our authentic adventure by passing on lasagna with the group and find a Szechwan place. We were taught some favorite dishes in Mandarin and now order them with flair. I worry that the servers laugh in our face and the subtler gather in the corner to point and snicker at our dinner requests. We can handle ordering a Coke, and I stick with the standby Kung Po Chicken. The tables are sort of like a southern BBQ joint – polyurethane pine picnic tables and benches pushed together, with the difference being pots of tea and chopsticks.
We knew we would be getting some hot food, and even try to persuade the waitress to tell someone we want the two-pepper level. Once the food starts being served, the dishes are filled with all sorts of fire producing and we are still hoping for something Texas hot, but not too bad…
After a few bites some begin to cough. I look across the table to look at a sweat-covered face, as if he was made of wax and then put into an oven for a slow, painful melt. My nose starts to run and I begin to lose clear vision. I notice the cook having a broad smile as he stands off near the back. Our server just smiles as she passes, making sure we don’t combust. More wheezing and a more prominent choking couch now comes to our table. We are still trying to talk about the quality of the food (it WAS good…just a bit out of my range in intensity, but the sweat is now pouring off us all and my sight is dimming. I then mistake a hot pepper for a mushroom and my gums start to bleed (well, maybe not, but that might have felt better). I let out a gasp and we are all laughing at our authentic experience. This is real China once again. It was just not as sweet as my first taste.
About one Pepsi, a pot of tea and then a bottle of cold tea on the walk back and I begin to regain feeling in my tongue.
Next time we’ll order the one-pepper special.