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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Racing With Time

March 21. A hectic day was what I had to look forward to when I awoke this morning. I immediately dressed and showered, then set off into the markets to buy various souvenirs for my friends and family. I bought scarfs, ninja stars, incense, tea and several other items. The time I had spent practicing my bargaining skills had paid off, as well as my Chinese lessons, for I was usually able to cut the price down to a quarter of what the merchants originally gave. However, the bargaining took longer than I thought and it was almost noon before I had bought all the items I needed. I scarfed down a breakfast of eggs, bacon, bread, and cheese (which I made into a classic bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich) and drank a Chai tea, which brought new life back into my throbbing head.
From there I scrambled up my items and, with Leung’s help, shipped a package home. Even last month I had realized that my suitcase was bulging with unnecessary items so it was necessary to pay the 180 yen ($30) to send a package home. Almost an hour and a half had passed when the postwoman finally cleared all my items to be shipped away. I tore out of the post office with Leung on my heels and came to a barber shop. This took more time than normal because I was wary of the barbers in China, but again with Leung’s help I was able to get the exact cut that I wanted.
I ran back home and sent a few emails and had just finished when Erik told us that we needed to have dinner before heading to the monastery. We ate at Café De Jack again, which we eat half our meals from. I ordered a massive dinner, partly because I had only eaten one meal today, but mostly because the monastery only provides vegan food. I shoveled down a 9 inch pizza, a beefsteak with fries and an egg, and finished it off with a fresh oatmeal cookie from the bakery.
Beyond bloated, I lugged my suitcase onto a taxi and set out towards the monastery. It was only a bumpy 15 minute drive from Dali, but it was as secluded as any Buddhist temple. It was slightly dark when we arrived so I could only make out the outlines of the temple and the surrounding area. We walked down several steps and came through the opening of the large front doors. A boy no older than 13, wearing a headlamp, greeted us upon entering the temple and I introduced myself in Chinese saying Wo xing Mack, Wo jiao Jimmy. He laughed at my pronunciation and in good English said “Come this way everybody, you need to sign in.” I was slightly embarrassed to notice that his English is better than my Chinese. However, I studied for only 3 weeks where he has probably been studying for a few years.
The boy led us over to the sign-in book and we wrote down our information near candlelight. I even signed my name in Chinese, which pleased the boy. Then we were handed the temple etiquette, which was simple, yet strict. For example, it stated that no food can be left in your bowl; if you drop food you must eat it, no sexual contact, and above all no insulting the master. Leung and Erik wouldn’t be staying with us on this leg of the journey, though they probably will visit from time to time. So we said our farewells and it amused me to see Erik’s look of longing as he gazed around at the outlines of the surroundings.
 Then the boy led us to our rooms separately because the girls are not allowed to be in the boy’s dormitory and vice versa. As you may have guessed, there is no power in the temple and obviously no Wi-Fi, which might make blogging a bit tricky, but I will figure out something. The boy gave us a thermos of water and said goodnight. Thirsty, I gulped down some water, but gasped and sputtered when the boiling liquid ran down my throat. I guess that must be the way they purify the water here. I’m not going to complain. Better safe than sorry. We are now stretching out on our beds, eager to sleep so we can experience tomorrow, though the vegan meals might prove to be a heavy obstacle to overcome for 5 days.

The Little Things

March 15-20. For this post, I must start on the 20th, for the days beforehand were as continuous as ever, although I do need to explain why I never followed through with my taekwondo lessons. When I consulted with Erik on the subject, he explained that 5 days of this trip are dedicated to learning either Kung Fu or Tai Chi at a Buddhist temple. Therefore, I decided that since I had already paid for martial arts lessons I might as well not spend my money learning an entirely separate martial art. It was, however, the loss of another unique experience, but I’m sure the time spent in the temple will make up for it.
So the 20th was our last full, free day before the monastery, and I made sure it was worthwhile. Waking up to the bustle of the Saturday crowd, I awoke Christen and David and had a scrumptious breakfast at The Sweet Tooth. Breakfast consisted of savory blackberry pancakes and an enormous blackberry muffin. I was also able to stomach some coffee, which I have grown fond of since New Zealand, although plenty of sugar is a necessity.
Afterwards, our plan was to meet Erik and Leung at some stables a few blocks away from The Sweet Tooth. Leung, Erik, a raggedy, old man, and 4 small horses met us at the stables. Only Leung wanted to join on this ride, for it was his first time riding and Erik was busy with other demands. The old man greeted us with a toothless grin and, wasting no time, ushered us onto the horses. The horse stood no taller than my shoulder and I swung myself easily into the saddle. The “saddle” was a crude impression of a seat. It was made of wood and cushioned with a thick layer of Styrofoam. I felt that it would be cruel for the horse to have to bear my weight with only wood to comfort it. When I looked down I saw a layer of Styrofoam between the horse and the saddle, though it looked worn enough to be of barely any use.
When we were all situated on our horses and the toothless old man had comfortably loosened the stirrups, we set out on a leisurely walk towards the mountain. It was soon apparent that the horses weren’t bred for riding and I suspected they were mainly used as packhorses. The horses were hard to control as a rider, but the toothless old man barked orders every few seconds and they obediently followed them. Only David seemed to have full control of his horse, though he has been riding for 6 years.
We walked until we came to a dirt road. Then the toothless old man bellowed a command in Chinese and the horses sped off in a steady gallop. It caught me by surprise, but I had ridden before and I switched my rhythm without hesitation. Leung, however, was thrown off balance and nearly toppled over his horse’s neck. He screamed and tried to reign in his horse. The horse didn’t even respond and kept at its ground eating speed. The toothless old man boomed with laughter and ran to keep up with us. When he stopped the horses Leung was in a towering rage and almost walked home from there, but we were too far from home.
Contrary to what I believed, we only rode to the base of the mountain and then veered back towards the way we came. The entire ride took only an hour, but it was fun nonetheless. We passed through much of what we had seen when we had hiked the mountain with our teacher, but riding atop a horse made the journey much more exciting. We soon came back to the stables and patted our horses down before setting out to our next destination. From there we met Erik at a massage parlor. Our original plan was to relax and enjoy cheap oil massages, but that was until Erik pointed out their special on cupping.
Cupping is when a masseuse takes an ordinary, glass cup and, with the cup upside down, fills the cup with a flame. This in turn consumes all the oxygen inside and the masseuse quickly places the now flameless cup on your back, giving it a slight twist. As the suction causes your skin to try and fill every inch of the deoxygenated void, your body supposedly expels all its toxins through that suction. After 30 minutes of the hot cup sucking on your skin, the masseuse takes the cup off, leaving large, circular bruises that refuse to fade for days, or even weeks.
This special was only 25 yen per person. Erik suggested the idea, to which I responded “Party.” When else will I have the opportunity? Besides it was my last full day before the monastery. So our group, excluding Christen, was led to a room consisting of 3 lounges. Christen was led to a separate room for her cupping, for obvious reasons. The 3 of us, Leung didn’t want to try it, lay shirtless on the lounges. We talked excitedly, eager for the cupping to begin. 3 masseuses walked inside and lay 12 cups on the table beside me. I watched with slight apprehension as the masseuse grabbed the first cup and lit the inner air. He shoved it on so suddenly, I let out a groan of surprise and pain. The hot cup felt unpleasant and my skin immediately was taken up into the cup. He repeated the process 12 times until my skin was stretched so tight over my back, I thought it might split open. Then he laid a blanket over me and walked away, leaving me to squirm uncomfortably for the next 30 minutes.
As I lay in throbbing pain, I thought how uncomfortable it must be for someone to have an itch while they were feeling the sting of the suction. No sooner had the thought entered my mind when I yearned to scratch every part of my back. It was torturous to lay there unmoving, for if you moved, your back would change its posture and the suction would cease. Finally, after I had tried everything to distract myself from the irritation, the masseuse came back in and took the cups off my back. Afterwards, I sprang up and shook around, though I felt different than I had before. I felt full of energy and felt no pain anywhere on my body. I believe the sensation was caused by the pain I had felt earlier and not because my body was suddenly toxin free, but it was a pleasant feeling.
Erik and David stood up and shook themselves, but neither had expressions of relief on their faces. On the contrary, they both seemed disappointed. When I asked them how they felt, Erik replied “Well that was a rip-off.” Neither had felt anything during the cupping, yet both their backs looked as if they had been beaten. Pulling our shirts back on, we left the parlor. With sullen faces, the pair of them walked out towards the town and flagged down a taxi. David, for one, was eager to wash down his disappointment with the next scheduled event.
Last Saturday we had signed up for a baking lesson at the café. It was being taught by the American family that ran the place so it was easy to relay directions back and forth. We made the dough, kneaded the bread and churned out several dozen cinnamon rolls. It was a welcome change to laugh and joke with kids you are barely acquainted with. I had grown so accustomed to the presence of Erik, Leung, David and Christen and only then did I realize that it had been almost 3 weeks since I had met an English speaking person, save last Saturday. We again played cards and Apples to Apples while we enjoyed our cinnamon rolls.
As I licked the icing from my fingers, I pondered the happenings of today. I replayed everything that had happened and, subconsciously, I ordered them from favorite to least favorite. Surprisingly, my top choice was the present moment. I realized that I had forgotten to enjoy the small things in life and I was bent on enjoying momentous events. Of course, the last 2 months have been fun and momentous, but if you look back at all you can remember it’s the jokes you tell, the emotions you feel, and the people you share your life with that make those memories extraordinary. Sometimes, there is nothing better than enjoying your friends’ company while biting into a freshly baked cinnamon roll.