There comes a time in every journey when you wonder “What TF am I doing here?” which usually follows hard on the heels of “I don’t think I brought enough money” and “Where can I get some diarrhea medicine?”
I was up at 4:30 again and realized that I had been traveling so hard that I’d not had much time to think. Before leaving, a friend who knows me well had prophesied that “This trip will be life-changing.”
First and foremost I realized that travel was largely about fear, or rather about tackling my fears of the known and my fears of the unknown. China had been a great big ball of uncertainty and fear, and each obstacle surmounted left me with an amazing feeling, no matter how trivial the conquest.
Likewise, there were challenges that had gotten the best of me, fears I couldn’t overcome, and each residual disappointment was as acute as the thrill of the tiny victories. What fears? What obstacles? What monsters lurking under the bed? Glad you asked. Here’s a list:
- Fear of stepping in excrement on the edges of the squat toilet
- Fear of catching the wrong bus
- Fear of getting off at the wrong stop
- Fear of going into a restaurant
- Fear of menus
- Fear of having my passport squeeze out of my front pocket and into the squat toilet
- Fear of asking a question
- Fear of not understanding the answer
- Fear of getting lost
- Fear of staying on the beaten path
- Fear of ordering food
- Fear of ingredients
- Fear of exchange rate arithmetic
- Fear of overpaying
- Fear of underpaying
- Fear of running out of cash
- Fear of credit card declination
- Fear of traffic collisions
- Fear of emergency dental work
- Fear of failing the subway/airport security screening
- Fear of immigration
- Fear of being a stupid tourist (redundant)
- Fear of being mistaken for a loser expat
- Fear of dialects
- Fear of tones
- Fear of kanji
- Fear of asking in broken Chinese and being answered in perfect English
- Fear of souvenir shopping
- Fear of haggling
- Fear of foul weather
- Fear of smog
- Fear of smug
- Fear of other tourists
- Fear of being the only tourist
- Fear of losing shit
- Fear of losing fitness
- Fear of vanishing
There are probably a whole lot more, such as “Fear of running out of instant coffee,” but you get the point. However, this was only part of it. It has taken me a lifetime of travel, and it was only thanks to China, that I realized I’ve never cared for authenticity and have instead enjoyed travel for the solitude that came from brief interactions with strangers.
I began to figure this out when flying into Kunming from Hangzhou, seated next to the women from Oklahoma City. One of them had lived in Kurdistan for several years as a missionary and had learned the local language. She bemoaned the fact that in a few short years she had seen the demise of so much traditional culture, from language to clothing to customs.
“People no longer sat down for tea that spanned five hours,” she said, causing me to thank dog for at least that bit of cultural genocide.
That’s when I started to realize that the authenticity of a culture, whatever that even means, had no allure for me. I didn’t care whether people sat down for a five-hour tea or none at all, because authenticity doesn’t exist, if by authentic we mean that which is true to itself, independent of and unaffected by Starbucks and Wal-Mart. The trends and imperatives of a global consumer economy are irresistible and, with English as the globalizing weapon of choice, they flatten everything in their path.
But it took that seven-hour trip by bus into the farthest reaches of China for me to finally understand that I would never find the mythical authentic culture and that I not only didn’t care about now, but never really had. I was as happy strolling a neon strip punctuated with sales outlets for Apple and Huawei as I had been the time I wound up in the headman’s hut on the island of Sebirut, in the Mentawais.
The thing I sought was all around me, solitude and the oblivion of a strange land. I didn’t need cultural references and artifacts from 2000 BC to make it feel real.
By 6:30 it was still pitch dark and the hotel breakfast buffet didn’t open until 7:30. I hit the streets of Pu’er, which were so silent and pleasant in the darkness. Early morning cleaning crews swept the sidewalks, and they were wearing hi-viz vests with electric red blinking lights … we need those for Team Lizard Collectors! The cleaners’ presence explained in part why Kunming and Pu’er were so clean.
But there was another, more important reason. The Communist Party sees its role as a moral force, and throughout town there were exhortations on signs for people to take responsibility for helping build the new China. One of those jobs was not throwing shit on the ground, and another was not spitting. I saw zero public urination and smelled its residuals nowhere, thanks to effective moral instruction and numerous free public toilets that were cleaned all the time.
Pu’er was even warmer than Kunming, and after breakfast I checked out and did some more walking prior to heading over to the airport. A small hill on the north end of town had a series of morality murals telling people how to live. In addition to being very beautifully painted, the messages were good ones.
“Strong children make strong China.”
“Care for the elderly.”
“Wealth is helping.”
No one seemed to pay any attention to the murals except me.
Like Kunming, Pu’er had its own city bike rental program, which cost about 32 cents an hour. I longed to go for a pedal, but without a data aggregator/tracking device and a WeChat data aggregation/tracking account, I couldn’t rent.
I was now on my fourth day of going everywhere on foot and I wasn’t sure but that I didn’t prefer it. For one, you saw so much more. It’s easy to stop and look and snap a photo on foot, but the imperative of momentum on a bike makes you want to keep going.
Of course you cover a fraction of the territory on foot, but what you see, you remember, and the details are more carefully observed and much less evanescent. I doubt I would have scored that sweet potato on a bike. I wended my way over to the airport and went up to the ticket counter.
“I”m here to pick up my ticket.”
“Passport, please.” The clerk picked up a stack of boarding passes and flipped through them. “Here you are, sir.”
Chinese efficiency was putting on a clinic, and the one-hour flight back to Kunming was a contrast to the Baling Wire Express. My neighbors never looked at me, much less offered me a bag of oranges or took off their pants. In addition to the bus breakdown, which the airplane didn’t emulate, at one point in the bus trip one of my companions had taken off his pants and lounged around in his undershorts. He also cracked the window every now and then to smoke a cigarette in defiance of the ABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING OR SPITTING signs in the bus.
My genteel seatmate on Each China Air didn’t spit, didn’t smoke, left his pants on, and never once tried to open the airplane window. Cheap, slow, difficult travel makes a good pengyou and a better story. Fast, pricey, seamless air travel makes nothing but lousy sleep and a stiff neck.
During the flight I had studied my map of Kunming a bit more and decided that rather than return to my hotel I’d strike out by subway and on foot to find Humashan Park. It was a big green glop on the map and I thought it might be interesting, not least of all because it was east of town, far from the city center and therefore new territory.
On the subway a group of students hogged all the space on the benches even though if they hadn’t been spread out like a warm breakfast I could have sat down. An aged man carrying a blue bundle and wearing a ragged coat tugged my arm. “Come sit down,” he said. He turned to the students and gruffly said, “Make room for the gentleman!”
They did and, impersonating a gentleman, I sat next to him. We began chatting but it was rough sledding as his accent was brutal. The crammed subway listened.
He wanted to know all about my travels, how I liked China, where I was from, whether America was as nice as Kunming, why my wife wasn’t with me, and the ages, occupations, and marital statuses of each child. When he learned about my grandson, he was especially happy.
This one kind old man, he was 85, made as much of an impression on me as anything I’d seen or done. When he found out that I was going to Humashan Park he took out his data aggregator/tracking device and began giving me directions. Finally he offered to guide me though it was out of his way, but I declined.
We parted at the station and I began walking up a broken down and rotting street that, after a mile or so, crossed a freeway and became a miracle mile of restaurants. It was two o’clock and I was hungry, but my fear of menus and ordering really came on strong, like hives, plus the lunch rush was over and most of the staff at each restaurant were sitting down to eat.
After passing two hundred yards of restaurants I got disgusted with myself and swore I would enter the next place I passed. I did and of course the staff were just sitting down to eat.
“So sorry!” I said, and made to leave.
“No, no!” said the owner, a younger man in his early 40s. “Come here!”
Everyone stared at me but they were friendly. “This okay?” He pointed at something in the display case.
“Yes,” I said, unsure which of the 250 raw ingredients he had meant.
“Go sit now,” he commanded, donning his apron.
I obeyed and one of the staff poured me a cup of much-needed hot tea. After about fifteen minutes he came to my table, slung a heaping plate of chicken in peanut sauce, ripped off his apron and sat down to watch me eat. I tore into it with a gusto that no politeness could fake; I was hungry and the food was exceptional. Then came the questions and by now I was getting the hang of it, even with the molasses-thick Kunming accent.
Lunch stretched out and he took some pictures, offered me a ride to the park, and refused to take a penny for the massive lunch. When I left, he put out his hand.
“Pengyou,” he said.
“Hao pengyou,” I said back, there on the edge of town a few miles from my home, and it was good.
The walk to Humashan Park turned out to be not good, a bust actually, but it also turned out to be a bus, a local bus. After leaving the restaurant I concluded that my friend was a poor estimator of distances. He had said “about 1.5 km” but two hours later I was still walking, and all pretense of anything remotely scenic was left far behind as I was tramping along a sidewalk along a concrete barrier along a freeway.
After forever plus a long time I reached the park entrance but it was closed and hadn’t, from appearances, been a going concern since Mao was in diapers. The freeway bent off into the distance, and after several days of 8-10 hours worth of walking, my legs hurt. My feet hurt. My everything hurt. And it all hurt in unison, reaching a crescendo at the moment I passed a bus stop.
The local bus system for a city of six million people is complex. This stop alone hosted six different bus routes, each route printed on a small sign. There were a couple of other idiots freezing along with me, and I started studying the routes, trying to figure out which bus would get me back downtown.
After an hour’s wait and a coldness that had permeated my mitochondria, my bus came. I hoped it was my bus.
It only cost 32 cents, and more importantly it was warm, so I cast aside uncertainty and Fear of Wrong Bus and boarded. Less importantly, it appeared to be going in exactly the wrong direction, and even less importantly than that, I couldn’t understand the stops being announced, and the digital sign up front wasn’t working. Wrong bus? Wrong way? No directions? No problem because, heater.
I could have asked someone for help but I was afraid they’d say I had to get off and I still hadn’t thawed. Some of the bus stops had signs and names, and my initial worry gave way to confidence. Soon I’d be downtown, near food, and a mere hour or so walk back to the hotel, two at the most. When I disembarked I felt pleased, like Columbus five or six years after discovering America when he learned that he’d not discovered a new route to India but rather a couple of continents.
I ducked into a restaurant arcade and picked something off the menu that looked ghastly hot and it did not disappoint. Imagine my surprise when, on the tromp home, I passed Kunming’s very own Specialized store! Inside it felt like home! Carbon everywhere, virtually all of it 100% carbon and made all of carbon for silly prices, and salespeople clearly marking the minute until their next ride. We had a lively conversation! They wanted to know all about cycling in California, but all I could tell them was that the Wanky blog was blocked by the Great Firewall. They said that cycling in Kunming was excellent and growing, but the whole time there I saw exactly one cyclist, so I guess if they sold one bike they’d be doubling the cyclist population, and 100% growth is definitely growth. They confirmed lots of hills and climbing, and the presence of a nearby Starbucks meant they had all the ingredients for a Cycling in the South Bay Kunming franchise.
I got back to Hotel Lukewarm Shower late and dead, but it sure was nice to wash off and slap on a clean pair of underpants, my last.
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