These are the words of the world’s worst procrastinator when it comes to writing. How long has it been? Almost 8 months?! You could probably say that’s long enough to drop my account, but here I am, back and ready to do some much-needed back peddling on Living in the Red.
Where to begin? First, I’ve got some handwritten journals from my summer trip to Southeast Asia that I’m digging to share. So, without further ado and haste, here you go.
I started the 6 week journey in mid-July and had a very loose itinerary for wearing out my shoes from Yunnan province, South China, down to Laos and on to Cambodia, then back up through Vietnam and across again into China through the Guangxi province. For only six weeks and that much ground to cover, I should’ve known it was going to be far too much to handle. And it was my first time travelling alone for an extended period of time, although I was never without friends and fellow travellers. Here’s my first journal entry.
Dali, Yunnan province, South China – July 17th, 2010
I arrived in Dali yesterday with my friend and fellow Aussie co-worker Bernie. We flew from Shenzhen to Kunming instead of taking the originally planned 26 hour bus ride. Needless to say, the two-hour flight was much more comfortable than 26 hours of smelly feet and disaster driving on the smoky sleeper buses (yes, you can smoke on some).
After getting to Kunming, we took a five-hour, 138 yuan ($20) bus ride northwest to Xiaguang. All along the highway we passed small farming villages scattered throughout a long valley. The houses were painted on the sides with various pictures of cartoon-like dinosaurs, mushrooms and potatoes. The first leg of the trip were the dinosaurs, then, after about 70 km or so of the reptiles, the mushrooms came with their bright red and whites. I started to ponder the meaning of these designs and I couldn’t help but think the inhabitants of these small houses were known to each other as the “Mushroom People” or “The Potato Gang”, something to that effect. There were also houses with circular emblems painted with bright blues, reds, and yellows that reminded me of Central American art. These villages belonged to the Bai, an ethnic minority who dress in traditional blue clothing that is as simple as it is sharp. The women wore various styles of wrapped hats with embroidered flowers. The men also wore blue hats that reminded me of the workers’ hats commonly associated with communism. Between the highway and their small homes, you could see them tending their corn and rice fields which were dotted with water buffalo and scarecrows.
After about six hours, we finally came up Dali. The old town of Dali sits between a steep range of mountains and China’s second largest lake Erhai-hu, which is long and stretches out for 50 or so km. The town itself is surrounded by a square wall with one traditional styled gate on each of the four sides.
Almost forgot, even though our bus said Dali as the destination, it actually only took us to Xiaguan, which is also known as New Dali. Bernie and I got off the bus wondering how the hell to get to Old Dali because in his edition of the backpacker’s glorified brochure, Lonely Planet, it didn’t show exactly how to get there. I asked the clerk at the bus station and she said to take the local bus #2 and pointed us in the direction of the stop. We found the bus stop, but the sign didn’t list a #2 bus. Bernie and I, in our broken Chinese, tried to ask some locals where the bus was and they told us to stay there at the same stop. Finally, after some wild body-language attempts and laughter, a woman in her thirties came up to us and asked if we needed help in clear english. Turns out she was also an english teacher from one of the local schools. She said we had to transfer from bus #4 to bus #2 at a different stop and even got on the bus with us to show us. The more I travel around Asia, the more I’ve learned that if you’re lost or aren’t sure where to go, the best thing to do is just look as completely stupid and lost as you can and eventually help will show up (may not be wise in certain areas of Cambodia). The Chinese are very hospitable to foreigners, which makes it easier in spite of the language barrier.
Back to Dali. We checked into a hostel called “The Hump,” which is one of the nicest I’ve stayed in and for only 30 yuan a night for a dorm ($4). I met my other co-worker and fellow American Blake there too.
Jinghong, South Yunnan, China – July 22nd, 2010
Ended up staying five nights at The Hump because it was such a chill place. The main bar area even had a band stage with a drum kit. The first night I stayed there, there was a musician playing named Nevada (John) who was originally from Minnesota. He played a few country and blues numbers and I asked the manager if it was cool to play a few songs. “Of course,” he said. “It would even be encouraged.”
So, after a couple more songs, Nevada invited me up on stage to play. I ended up peforming another night there and filled out a six-song set including a couple of my originals and Bowie’s “Man Who Sold The World” and Dylan’s “Stuck in The Middle With You”. The only kind of dissapointing thing was I later found a sign posted at the hostel that read you could play and stay for free, yet I didn’t even get a free drink while I was there, let alone get a night knocked off the bill. Oh well, can’t complain at $4/night and it was a pleasure just playing for a completely random audience of people from all over the world.
On the third day in Dali, I rented a mountain bike and rode half-way up Lake Erhai, then slowly meandered my way back through a long row of old villages that hugged the water’s edge. The villagers were mostly traditionally dressed in their light and dark blue simple styles, with the women wearing flower embroidered sashes around their hips and a tartan/flannel styled matching blue and white head-dress. The narrow winding streets were mostly car-less, with children playing and shouting, including some young boys carrying a plastic M-16 and unloading a few, fake lip-blattering rounds into me as I rode by. I laughed and clutched my ribs; they got quite a kick out of that.
Although the village along the lake appears to be one big town, I found out it was actually a string of small villages lined up along the water. Every 10 or 20 minutes of riding south along streets, I came across a village center: a crowded intersection full of farmers and the elderly selling and bartering green onions, cabbage, corn and a lush and colorful variety of other produce.
As I was riding east towards the lake, I found a dead-end where the road led to a trail ending in the water. I stopped to take a few pictures (I lost all my Yunnan photos on my separate flash card somewhere in Laos) and I noticed this short, hunched-over old woman with a cane lurching towards me. I couldn’t help but stare in amazement because she looked to be at least 90 or so years old. She kept coming with her head down the whole way and as soon as she was close to the corner, she reached down and tried to move a brick cinder-block with her free hand. I was frozen in the moment and thought to myself, Should I help her? But for some reason, I couldn’t get myself to go over to her. I thought maybe I would scare her, of course because she probably doesn’t see too many white faces, and I was mesmorized as she ever so slowly, inch by inch, moved this cinder-block around the corner of the building to a different spot. Then she carefully turned around and slid her feet back down the walk-way to her door. It’s still a lucid memory in my mind, the image of someone who would normally be in a nursing home somewhere hooked up to a few tubes, staring mindlessly at afternoon talk-shows, yet she was out here scooting around with her cane and doing some “heavy” labor. Actually, it’s something I’ve noticed about China: the elderly really get out and do activities or they hang out with other older people in the parks, playing card games or 麻將(Mahjiang). Their children take care of them and live with them, so a nursing home is nearly impossible to find. – End Entry
DALI STREET RAIN – July 20th, 2010
The following is a kind of poem I wrote while waiting out the rain after I rode back from the lake villages. I sat under a store awning on some steps and for about 5 minutes, wrote down everything I could see and hear, trying to connect the moment into a narrative. I also recorded a reading of this along with field noise/music here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxywKEkvca4.
It is as follows:
Square stones wet drops reflections trees in the grey wheels of umbrellas held by wooden bridges blue apron motorbikes walking in high heels tight black jeans we shared a stare down the road keep your yawn under chinese Erhu melodies rain coats riding hands in pockets walking the poodle like a smoking bus passing the gate of history through the eyes of a fart chewing gum and the desire to piss on a fire hydrant beauty scratching its head as the sound of pistons cuts the afternoon chatter and wears a cowboy hat with eyes wearing seatbelts cut the onions and wonder where the cross walk begins to ponder why I’m sitting here on the stained concrete yellow pen still looking for a load image of a tree yawning for the sake of standing still as matter rushes between straddled sandals she’s marked the mole and passed the sun pointing to the grey north of Coca-Cola corn on the cob hips in the street of little red walking hood 1.4 i see the grey and chins count the baskets of white books killing black bugs I got stripes and bowling shoes because my glasses don’t need eyes to see the smile of beautiful wives carrying fruit over their brown shoulders while their babies look left to the tourist future of fake history covering the tragedy of cultural curiosity.