Monday, August 15, 2011

Return from the Ends of the earth....

We’re in a hotel near the Beijing airport that used to be the Sino/Swiss hotel, and we can’t decide if it used to be nice and is mid-dilapidation process or if it used to be gross and is now being fixed up. In any case, it comes with plenty for the kids to do, including the usual 8 bottles of bathroom things, combs, little tea cups, TV, and a mammoth swimming pool. Yesterday’s 12-hour journey involved a harrowing trip in a speeding mini-van through a mud slide, two airplanes, and ½ an hour in the diesally airport basement waiting for the shuttle bus to the hotel. Today we look forward to our fourteen-hour flight with glee.

There’s nothing like leaving a place to put it all in some kind of perspective. This last week really has felt like watching a movie about being stuck in a tropical paradise, spending a lot of time fantasizing about getting out, and then realizing what you’ll miss... For starters just about everything that could go wrong did. In fact, so much went wrong that it needs a list in a separate post; we do, after all, still have another twenty-four hours to get through…. But I knew we were in for a long week when we arrived home from Lijeing to find the Compound ground to a halt by the presence of the wife of the director of the Chinese Academy of Science. She was staying in the house across the street from us, which meant that every night about ten police dudes came and circled the place. And every so often they closed the road in and out of the garden. So, for example, when our Indonesian neighbor went into town with her seventy three year old mother who is observing Ramadan and has arthritic knees, the police would not allow any motorized vehicles on the road to bring her back. So she called her husband who came and carried the mom on the back of his BYCYCLE. By the time we got back, the other moms were so mad that during the police imposed afternoon two hour quiet time we instructed the kids to have the loudest water fight they’d ever had. The water stand pipe sits in Mrs. Big Potato’s yard.

We ended up putting off packing until the very last minute not just out of procrastination but because both Manuel and I were struck with wretched tropical viruses. I decided while lying in bed writhing in joint pain that I was done with the whole earth mother full time thing and told Manuel he had to take charge of packing to go home. Not a single person in the compound believed me or thought he could do it. This also requires a longer post but suffice it to say that the gender politics and domestic arrangements surrounding us would have seemed patriarchal and sexist in the 1940’s.

I did deal with the food because I spent so much energy this summer acquiring and hoarding western food that I wanted to dispense the left overs. My neighbors felt that the parting gifts of Vanilla extract, baking powder, coco powder, baking soda, butter and peanut butter were a form of food nirvana. The large pharmacy we left met a similar reception. We came to China with a vast supply of medications and, knock on every piece of fake wood possible, we have needed to use very little of it. One of the very scariest things about inhabiting the particular end of the earth we did is the complete lack of medical care and of viable medication. Our neighbors in the foreigners compound all have horror stories about hospitals and doctors. They no motrin left for their kids and had no antihistamines, so when the four year old broke out in a rash over her entire body from playing in the rain forest they had no recourse. They can’t get reliable anti-malaria meds, which you need for many places easily accessible from Menglun. On a more mundane note, we left our bikes with the new foreigners who will be in the garden for two weeks and Rebecca dispensed her art supplies and nail polish in a manner that makes the way my grandmother has been discussing her will for the last thirty years seem blithe. Eli magnanimously gave each of his friends one crappy toy including the baby shrek that makes so much noise I’ve tried to bury it at least seven times—it doesn’t die. Jonathan did not want to give away a single book but eventually dispensed them.

On Friday night our next-door neighbors had a potluck in our honor, which was incredibly lovely and delicious. I wouldn’t say that I became intimate friends with the two foreign wives Sumi and Warin who live in the compound. But that the kids all call me auntie sort of captures the level of dependence and intertwining that goes on in a place like that. We lived at the ends of the earth in glass houses. I spent more time with these kids than I’ve ever spent with any who are not my own, and we all moved in and out of each others houses as if it was one big one. (there are pluses and minuses to this sort of forced intimacy…) And we were affiliated with a high-powered scientific institute that couldn’t quite decide what it wanted with foreigners. Some want them around, and some find them despicable leaches. As I’ve stressed before, living the earth mother dream in rural China is very hard work. And of the three of us (foreign moms) I had the hardest time. It’s not just that there’s a learning curve and I was only there for three months. But also villages in Indonesia and Thailand are a lot more like Menglun than Charlottesville is. And there is simply no way I could have fed my family and kept them healthy without their help. No one official told me that the lightpoles outside our house are live wires or showed me where to buy chicken breasts and yogurt.

Saturday morning Manuel and I went for a last run in the jungle. Then I hopped on the Vespa with Warin, and we drove to the dorms to pick up another woman. We zipped into town and stopped for a breakfast snack at a fabulous dumpling stand I’d never even noticed before. Then I went to the grocery store to stock up on snacks and spices to bring home. My taste for super spicy is way up, and I’ve fallen in love with a variety of hot peppers and weird spices. I bought two glass jars of delicious smoky hot pepper, which the packing commander would not let me bring home. The highlight of my day was, of course, my solo ride on the Vespa during which, contrary to Manuels fears, I neither broke my collarbone nor took out any small children or old people.

Saturday night while we were packing our American neighbor came over with an excellent bottle of scotch that we drank post mac-n-cheese. At some point I migrated next door with the women and children and the other men migrated to our house. The children reported to me that “I think the dad’s are getting really drunk and they ate all the brownies without saving us any…” The scene at the chyc house was kind of hilarious. For starters Sumi has her mom and sister visiting and they all observe Ramadan. The result for me was a constant stream of delicious but slightly mysterious homemade Indonesian snacks. My favorites were friend curried mashed potatoes and home made freetoes. I gave them a tour of their new medicine cabinet and dispensed motrin to Sumi’s mom who then asked if I was a doctor and had any medicine to make her son less skinny. The kids said extremely dramatic and tearful goodbyes to their friends, and Eli announced that actually he wanted to stay a bit longer.

When we went outside at 6 to wait for the driver (who was about half an hour late and almost made us miss our plane), we saw our neighbors coming in their nightgowns and flipflops to say goodbye. Tropical dawn is kind of magical; mist rising off the forest, birds and bugs making all kinds of sounds, and temperatures almost cool. As we sat on the steps with our friends, I realized how many arresting sights, sounds and smells I’ve experienced and how many wonderful people I’ve come to treat as family whom I would never meet in any other circumstances. And the sound of the van put putting up the hill made me feel really lucky that for us this was only a summer adventure and not a permanent way of life.

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