Friday, May 20, 2011

Planes and Rubber Trees

We made it to the jungle. It took sixteen hours, two planes, and a bus but here we are. The kids were total troopers and read their kindles, played with travel toys, and every so often had a fight or a tantrum. We first flew from Beijing to Kunming where we had a delightful lunch of KFC and good humor style ice cream cones. The ice cream is very safe for me because there is NOTHING natural in it, not even milk. The five hour wait in the unairconditioned airport with not a single westerner in sight and people speaking all kinds of ethnic languages gave us the sense that we were going somewhere very far away. Kunming is a gateway city/airport to China’s southwest, which is something of a trekking center and one of few locations with an ethnic majority.

We then flew to Jing Hong which is the capital of Xixhuangbanna Dai Autonomous region in Yunnan province. And it really did feel different as soon as we got off the plane. We were met at the gate by a grad student at the garden and a driver who promptly whisked the kids and I through the evening rain to the eleven-seater van they’d brought for us and our millions of bags. As we drove down the road with the vegetation getting thicker and thicker I had the distinct impression of moving towards an episode of Lost. As soon as we got here the kids, who had been sacked perked up to go exploring. We’re living in a brand spanking new house, built by an alcoholic French architect with the explicit intention of attracting Western Scientists. It’s completely pristine including all white floors, which I imagine we’ll trash in about a week. It took us quite a while to figure out how to use the solar shower, and the woman who cleans the house quickly gave up on trying to explain the laundry to us and did it for us this morning. My favorite part is that the stove is smarter than we are. The burners only work with certain pots. So for example if you try to put your stovetop espresso maker on it, which you carefully brought with you, it simply beeps loudly and shuts down. It also comes equipped with two separate fancy tea sets. The internet is not wireless but it is super fast—faster than anything in Charlottesville.

The kids woke up early and immediately spotted the eight-year-old girl who lives next store. Veruna speaks Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese and English and was completely thrilled to see them as well. By 9 am they were bff’s enough that we brought her to town with us. The town is called Melung and is on the Mekong river. As it turns out, having the eight year old translator in addition to the graduate student was quite useful, and she was quick to lead the kids towards the hideous pink marshmallows in the grocery store. The supermarket is small and has bread product but nothing resembling cheese or yogurt. When Manuel finally successfully pantomimed , they brought him to a refrigerated part of the store and showed him some “caned fresh meat” that had a picture of a seahorse on it. Luckily, Jonathan and Eli have both taken to the milk in a box. The meat section of the outdoor agricultural market included an entire pig’s face and feet, a table full of pig liver (which Manuel used as an opportunity to explain the etymology of ), and sheep intestines. We settled on rice, bok choy, and tofu for tonight’s dinner with a cucumber & tomato salad, and oreos & Yao Me (Chinese fruit that is a cross among a cherry, a plum, and an indian strawberry) for dessert.

The farmers are largely Dai. Dai people consist of 56 ethnic groups but are recognized as one group by the Chinese people. They speak a language akin to Thai and have a 28 letter alphabet. They tend to be quite Buddhist, and the market has a calm to it that is quite unlike markets I’ve seen anywhere else. I spent much of the day yesterday reading the lonely planet’s guide to Yunnan, which made me very curious about the local culture. Apparently the Dai are known for a solo opera called Zhang Khap.

We were all a little shell shocked from the journey and from the surrealness of being here and spent much of the day inside unpacking, reading, and, of course, tantruming. The surreal part comes from the fact that the kids picked rubber off of rubber trees, played with mysterious and brightly colored bugs, and hung out under banana leafs, but we have central air and a fancy tea set. And we have a 32” flat-screen tv (cable) with an English station consisting of nothing but Chinese propaganda. Manuel’s great accomplishment today was changing the Chinese font on the house computer to English so the boys could play Ben10 Destructo.

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