Wednesday, August 17, 2011


We are hanging out at my parent’s house in Alexandria, recovering from the journey and visiting with family before heading back to Charlottesville. It’s funny how a three-month trip to another planet defamiliarizes the familiar. This process began as we boarded the United Airlines flight. On Chinese airlines safety precautions are suggestions rather than rules; so if the flight attendant says buckle up and stow your baggage only about 1/3 of the people bother to do it. If there is something worth looking at out the window everyone gets up to check it out; no matter what the seatbelt sign says. On United they mean business and because so many of the passengers spend more time on Chinese airlines the flight attendants were pretty busy getting all the bags stowed and passengers buckled. The only time they didn’t carefully check each row was when the pilot made the somewhat alarming announcement “fasten your seatbelts and flight attendants sit down wherever you are.”

The soundscape feels radically different here; modernization performs a kind of evening out. Cars all sound the same; no more radical difference between truck, toktok, motorbike, tractor etc… The bugs, even Virginia Cicadas barely seem audible compared to the natural cacophony that underscored everything we did in the jungle. And the breeze is a treat to hear. It also feels amazing to be clean, and I mean really cleaner than I’ve been since May. I took a long hot shower in soft water that actually rinses the soap off, and we are washing everything that came to China. Once the clothes came out of the washing machine, the grime we’ve lived with for three months seemed repulsive. And what a delight to walk into a public restroom and find both toilet paper and soap. Potable water is the best!

As I mentioned in my last post, our exit was a study in what could possibly go wrong. The first problem was that on Tuesday I got really sick; tropical virus that made it impossible for me to get out of bed for two days—two days that ought perhaps to have been spent packing, organizing stuff, finishing my syllabus etc… And I basically felt crappy the whole rest of the week. Manuel then followed this with some sort of hacking disease that made enough noise to wake up all the ghosts who reside up the hill from the house. When we finally both woke up two days before we were to leave, and Manuel went to the bank he found that it was completely out of money. Our account was in fine shape, but the bank itself had no money. The second bank in town was simply closed because it was August 13. Luckily I’ve embraced the Chinese cash economy and had a few piles of cash stashed away in my underwear drawer and my wallet so we were fine.

The real excitement was the journey from the Garden to Beijing. We have never had a problem with a driver from the Garden. But sure enough on our last and perhaps most important ride the guy was almost forty minutes late. There is only one morning flight from Jing Hong to Kunming so if you miss that it’s possible you won’t get to Beijing that day. And we wanted nothing getting in the way of our getting on that precious United flight out of China! Manuel convinced himself that we would certainly miss the flight and when we called the guy who made the van arrangements all we got was “oh my god wait a minute…” The driver arrived and neighbors tossed our bags and kids in the van and off we went on a ride that felt more like an amusement park stomach turner than a drive. It usually takes 75 minutes to get to the airport we did it in 45 and that included driving through a few sections of road that had been washed out by mudslides. By some miracle no one puked. We made it to the gate halfway through the boarding process with the kids running through the airport and Eli falling every few minutes. We arrived in Kunming and found that one of the two new bags we bought for $1 had busted leaving Rebecca’s bathing suit and Manuel’s underwear dragging along the luggage dispenser. Luckily, both bathing suit and underwear were of a style not tempting to other passengers (& there’s almost no petty crime in China) and this sort of bag explosion happens so often in China that the airport has a place where they wrap and fix bags. I had also learned the night before we left that Kunming is a center of child-snatching in China. So while we waited on line I used my iPad to read up about said snatching, which inspired me to yell at the kids every time they got more than two feet from me and conclude with a stern lecture about staying close to us unless they wanted to be stolen and sold into slavery. They were totally unimpressed and informed me that there is no slavery in the modern world. This is another one of those things that someone might have told me before our many flights through Kunming. We finally arrived in Kunming and went to look for the free shuttle that came with our hotel. That bus turned out to leave from parking slip c-0818 in the basement of being airport. The waiting area neither provided enough air to breathe or enough space to insure not being hit by a car.

As soon as we arrived at the hotel we turned around and attempted to get a cab into town to have dinner with my cousin Jordan. Our bad car karma continued and after waiting almost 40 minutes the guy arrived and informed us that he could not drive us because we were too many. We finally made it to the dumpling restaurant half an hour late and proceeded to eat our weight in delicious dumplings. My favorite was a spicy pork with celery and something else yummy. We also had one with dried shrimp, corn, spicy cabbage, and something else. Manuel ordered another delicious one that had something, something else, and a different something else. We each sucked down a 24 oz. beer in about two minutes. It was a blast to watch our kids play with Jordan’s son Jayden. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a third cousin. All four of the children started off working very hard to ignore each other and drive their parents crazy. But by the eventually bonded in the form of shooting things, not eating as much as their mothers wanted them to, and building stuff.

We all collapsed after dinner and stayed that way until we made our way to breakfast at the “swiss chalet” at 10:30. The kids did their usual, unpack every little bottle and box in the bathroom which this time included a package of condoms. This registered on our bill as “health accessory.” Manuel took the kids to the pool which had them so excited that they jumped in with their clothes on. We arrived at the airport about four hours before our flight and saw the longest line on the planet. By the time we checked in I was ready to kill the kids and they were ready to kill each other. We had hagandaz ice cream for $5 a scoop, and Jonathan spent the entire time worried that we’d miss the flights. He takes after his father and two grandfathers. Security was fine but passport control caused some trouble. The passport control people at the Beijing airport look like combat soldiers and yelled regularly. This time they yelled at me. We never figured out what I did wrong but there was a lot of incomprehensible yelling and they made me get the eye scan multiple times. The only thing that prevented me from ending up in a re-education camp was probably the “bebe” who they decided was cute. The bebe was by that point terrified and did not perform his usual cuteness. As we waited for the plane the kids had exactly one moment of playing nicely—it went by so fast that by the time we got the camera out it was done so I had very low expectations for the plane. But on the way down the mile long jetway someone took the kids and replaced them with sweet angelic kids whom the flight attendants complimented us on. They were all pleases and thankyous and quietly drank their milk and apple juice. Rebecca and Joanthan were so happy to have English reading material that they read the Hemispheres magazine cover to cover and when I attempted a skim I was told “mommy you did not skip the article about roman coins on page 17 did you.” They watched Thor which they found ridiculously inattentive to the norse mythology. They were full of ethnic observations. The first remark was “woah look at all the white people” followed by “wow there are African Americans on this plane” After a few rounds of that we decided it was time to dose them up with benedryl and they went to sleep. We zipped through us passport control and customs with no problems, which, given the number of chicken feet and bottles of moonshine we brought with us, is somewhat miraculous.

We are all exhausted and wired today. Jonathan suggested we “languish” for the day but we’ve been messing with our stuff, drinking water, and generally experiencing culture shock. More on that a little later….

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