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Friday, March 4, 2011

A Foreigner

March 1. I awoke stiff necked, bleary eyed, and troubled this morning. It was strange to wake up knowing only one person near me. I showered for what felt like the first time in a week. It brought a new feeling of warmth and comfort to my body and I felt a little better as I waited for Leung and David to wake up. I sat down on the uncushioned sofa with a groan and watched TV to take my mind off my discomfort. There are 50 channels in Kunming and over half feature a military program. The rest are either soap operas or plays that seem slightly silly to watch, from the eyes of a foreigner that is. The only channel I felt some relation to was the one playing Spongebob Squarepants in Chinese, which took no less enjoyment out of the show.
                When Leung and David finally awoke, I greeted them only halfheartedly. After they were ready to leave, we headed downstairs for breakfast. We walked down at 8am and the concierge told us we didn’t need to check out until 11am, so we had some time to kill. Striding out the door, Leung, David, and I entered the morning world of China. There were masses of people going this way and that. Some were conversing with shop merchants; others were working outside their perspective shops, and the rest rushed furiously to begin their day jobs. Leung knew the city surprisingly well and led us through many back alleys and side streets where we came to a small, but friendly American cafĂ©. He explained that we would have plenty of time for Chinese breakfast later on and that we should enjoy some bacon while we can. I ordered eggs, bacon, potatoes, a bagel, and chai tea. It was all delicious and brought even more life back in me than the shower had.
                After breakfast we walked slightly in the direction of the hotel, but zigzagged through many streets with makeshift shops. We learned to bargain from Leung and he taught us the best way to communicate with the shop owners. The world has one universal language: numbers. He handed us both a pen and paper and told us to bargain whatever item we wanted down to a quarter of the price. Since I had forgotten my sleeping bag in the Hong Kong airport (the first item I have lost all month) I entered an outdoors shop. The owner rushed towards me and asked what I would like (or at least I guessed he asked that). I pointed to the smallest sleeping bag I could find and asked for the price. His asking price was 100 yen (roughly $17 US). I wrote down half that on my pad. He seemed to consider for a moment then nodded. I took out my money and faked to show I only had 25 yen. I showed him the money and he shook his head in disgust. In response, I turned and walked straight out the door. He yelled me back furiously and snatched the money out of my hand, while at the same time shoving the sleeping bag angrily into my hands. Grinning to myself, I walked away with Leung and David.
                We spent the rest of our time peering into several shops, while rarely buying anything because we would feel terrible if we asked for more money on our first day in China. I came back to the hotel feeling happier then when I had left. I had one idea formed in my mind: “China might not be so bad after all.” So we packed our things together and walked out the door. We looked ridiculous as we walked down the streets, with our backpacks on the front of our bodies and David and I staring suspiciously at anyone who passed too close to us. The bus stop to Dali was a 45 minute walk, but we decided to take cabs instead. Even cab prices can be bargained in China. Leung passed up several expensive cabs (taking much longer than 45 minutes), but then came to a completely ordinary car, parked on the side of the road, and asked for a ride. They bargained a price and Leung agreed. Perplexed, I threw my luggage into the trunk and slid into the car. Only when I asked did Leung tell me that some people are private taxi drivers who sit on the curb all day looking for fares.
                So we came to the bus stop and were immediately greeted by Anna, the Rustic Pathways China director. You could instantly sense her good nature and her innocent demeanor gave her a motherly aura. She hugged us both, waving our handshakes away. Leung caught us off guard as he said goodbye to us and we shouted why he had to leave. I had grown accustomed to his presence, even in the past day. His bouncy attitude and constant smile were infectious. He said not to worry, however. That he would see us within 2 days because he needed to pick up Christen and Erik. Relieved, I started to feel hunger pangs again. We bought local Chinese snacks for the bus ride while Anna bought our bus tickets. The snacks were exotic and I was willing to try most, except for chicken feet and packaged eels. We bought vanilla tootsie rolls, fake Oreos, crackers, bread, and corn chips. We met up with Anna and she looked over our snacks with an approving gaze. Then we walked through the ticket barrier and security machine.
The station was just as packed as the city had been. People still wore flu masks, while some led sheep and caged chickens around. So it seems understandable why some people would wear masks. The security checkpoint was a joke. The metal detector didn’t work (I know because I had my phone, my belt, and my camera on my person when I walked through) and the security officer didn’t even bother looking at the screen for the x-ray machine while our bags were passing through. In fact, I doubt there was even anything on the screen. We piled onto the bus, but it wasn’t crowded. I was able to stretch out in the back and before I knew it, I fell fast asleep.
I was awoken by the bus as it came to a screeching halt directly in front of the hotel we were staying at tonight. It was called Sam’s Hotel in old Dali and was surprisingly rustic, yet comfortable. Sam, who knew very good English, welcomed us with 3 steaming cups of green tea as we dragged our luggage into reception. The warm liquid felt welcome after a long bus ride and was unsurprisingly bitter. When I asked for sugar, Sam just laughed at me and strode away to get our keys. He was nice enough to see that we were not in the mood for any talking. Even though we had done almost nothing today, we were drained from the travels. He said he would order noodles for us and have them sent up to our rooms. We thanked him graciously and lugged our baggage upstairs.
The room resembled much of our previous night’s room. The shower was slightly moldy and there was no shower curtain. The beds were as stiff as ever and the TV had not one American friendly channel. I talked with David for the rest of the night and we stopped for a while to eat our noodles, which were good enough to make up for the room. David fell asleep mid conversation and I cracked one of the first genuine smiles since I had left New Zealand. It was time for me to go to sleep as well and with that, I crawled into bed and tried to make an adequately comfortable mattress. I didn’t succeed however, and fell asleep grimacing.


  1. Ok now you have to pick up the book Three Cups of Tea!

  2. Extraordinary writing, sir!