Traveling in China for the greenhorn with no Mandarin is a venture. When I went in 2003 in the summer to ChengDu in Sichuan province, it was after reading a really excellent book called RiverTown by an ex Peace Corps volunteer. His story was set also in Sichuan province. Also he mentions a bit about LeShan, which we also were able to visit. I really enjoyed the book, it inspired me to take advantage of the trip. I loved it.
But mostly I want to talk about Rocky, our poker faced, tireless translator.
We who went a group of about 8 or so teachers from around Oregon, one from Australia living in Beaverton and one from Oakland CA, we were all interviewed earlier in the year, but we were what was left after the massive SARS scare that were willing to go. We were all seasoned ESL teachers and most of us as a matter of priority in the interviews were seasoned travellers. The interviewer, Nathan Cogan, told me at one point that he couldn’t have people going that were going to get extremely upset about things like the weather or ice cubes in their drinks. By the end, there were 4 of us in ChengDu and about 3 in a small town. My two colleagues and I lived sharing 2 hotel rooms for one month. It actually was okay. Initially I was supposed to go to the village, but I told Nathan that unless I was going to ChengDu, I wasn’t going.
ChengDu is a large town of about 6 million people. There are many towns like that in China, ones that we don’t typically hear about but are comparable to our largest cities.
The trip to arrive in ChengDu took us through Beijing airport and Xi’an where our luggage had been lost and we missed our flight. That was a desparate moment, as we pleaded without translator to be allowed to travel on the leaving flight to get to ChengDu.
We arrived in ChengDu, most of us eventually got our luggage except for Judy who had to wear the same clothes for at least a week, possibly longer. Judy, the Aussie, was the real trooper of the group, the one I latched on to as a voice of sanity.
Believe it or not, people go crazy when they travel sometimes. Another of our group members, about 3 weeks in, a particularly intense woman (who was also unfortunately made somewhat of a “coordinator”), went around the bend because she couldn’t get any whitemeat chicken and yelled without restraint at our very hard working and loyal translator. I was embarrassed that she was at my table, she caused quite the ruckus and it was over something Rocky genuinely had no control over.
Regarding Sichuan food, frankly, I never tasted food as fresh and as delicious as what was served to me in ChengDu.
Maybe it was because this time I wasn’t a destitute backpacker, the food was amazing. I didn’t engage in much HotPot, just a try. I was only going to be there for a month and I guess I instinctively knew that while eating duck blood and goose feet and dog entrails was very “adventurous” I no longer cared to be adventurous with my meat. For following my instincts, I was the only one who never got sick. When I got tired of trying new things (believe it or not, it will happen in a month when one just wants something that isn’t new) I got this awesome bowl of noodles. In fact, my colleagues were also soon ordering the noodles. Only Judy, a real diehard and also an amazing chef, was there for every new food available.
When people ask me about this trip, I can easily say that this experience ranked with Ecuador in terms of how perfect it was.
Part of what made it perfect? Well, a breakfast buffet every morning, Sichuan peppercorns, safe streets, midnite markets, nonstop discovery every day and always something interesting to see. We ate 3 meals a day, and still in subtropical ChengDu I dropped 10 pounds.
edit: I forgot to mention. At no point during this month did I spend any of my own money. And when I got back there was a thousand bucks deposited into my bank account. How does it get any better than that. Okay, Okay I might have spent something like a hundred on gifts, but that was genuinely about it. Everything was paid for, all tours, all food, all hotel.
But by far the best was our translator, Rocky.
The purpose for our trip to ChengDu was to teach. We were teaching at Jinniu Experimental Middle School. A relatively rich private school where we were the starred attraction. They worked us to death, but they treated us so well, we were really okay with it.
When I say they worked us to death, I mean we had 7 hours a day face time with the students in 3 hour blocks and also we had to teach Physical Education to them as well. The heat and humidity was sweltering. It hovered between 38 to 40 celcius (98 to 104 Fahrenheit) and it rained nearly everyday. The humidity was also there to keep us company. Our students were wilting in their desks. Personally, I got used to the feeling of being drippy wet while teaching. I never knew, but in China they also observed siesta in the afternoon.
On to Rocky. We initiated this new translator witha trip to the local Chinese mall to replenish the underpants that we lost when our luggage was also lost. So his first initiation to this group of teacher ladies was to help them shop for the correct size of underpants. He was 20 years old and as near as I could tell, had never had a girlfriend. Much less a sister.
Rocky took us every day to the school, got us copies, got us at the breaks taking us to our favorite restaurants, got us back to school and then back to the hotel and out for dinner. Every. Day. Weekends he accompanied us to the spots we visited, whether they were Pandas, Museums, small outlying towns, markets whatever. For one month he basically had no life except for to take care of our needs for stamps, films, shopping, food, entertainment, banking ok etcetera already.
He put up with enough, was mellow enough, crafty enough, knew where the good restaurants were…hats off to Rocky.
And if you ever ever ever get a chance to travel China, don’t pass it up. The country is truly amazing, it is hard to believe that people would get all excited about Europe with places like China, which is historically so rich and culturally such an amazing experience.
Anyone else out there been to Chiner? Ever had an interesting translator?