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Things have been slowing recently. We wind down the last of the wicked mountains with their fake peaks, and gaping caves that gawk at us from a distance.  We trickle down the last thumb of China’s Southeast like the spittle that painfully combs the sparse grass hairs and tickles the muddy river belly of this border town Ping Xiang. 

I can smell Vietnam. Its right there: 18km away. It smells like rice mixed with mud. We will have to cross the Mekong, which fondles the banks of the Tibetan Plateau China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, dribbling rice and fruits like a no-good man pollinates his offspring. It will be brown a lazy spittle in dammed areas a rushing gorge near the delta. Brown is not a color of shock. It’s one that dulls, like the oversized blazers and the Mao hats of old men who play Mazhong (Chinese chess) in parks. Peasants who blend into the mountains. Planters who blend into the fields. 

We honker down and wait for it to come. We are not scared, but anxious. Crawling back and forth through the street lights filtering through steaming vats of dumplings and noodles, sallowing the viscous night with their fat yellow clouds. Tapping our feet, looking up into the sky, reading a chapter, looking for food, tapping our feet, restless in this halfway city with its half Vietnamese, half Chinese signs. We have nothing else to do but wait to leave.

I have guesthouse, restaurant, net bar radars and their Chinese characters zoom into my focal vision like a movie trailer. These are the only characters I can read so I notice them even if I don’t want to go online, even if I’m not hungry. This keeps my senses tuned to the present. These big gaping signs signify safety, and I look for them like they are Bahamian flags, a safety zone in war times. I tap my feet. I rub my freezing hands together like a New York vagrant over a 50 gallon drum fire. I shiver, waiting.

People are tapping the water pipes with laughter. Vulgar, drunken yells slam against the dusty hotel window like a drunk friend who doesn’t realize how late it is. We smell excitement. Our street is shaped like a tourist attraction with red tents, outdoor seating, and delicacies like skewered rat for gullible travelers to experience. I like to experience so I pressure my friends to go streetstall hopping. We sample a few, and have a beer acting like decadent expats in a lost generation, ortravelers just passing though, the only real attention this town seems to get from foreigners, unless your Vietnamese and you own a store.

Because of our visas and the holidays, we’ve been taking three day breaks every three days.  We have no more weddings to attend or friends to meet. We have no other purpose but to get to Vietnam, and it is 18km away. Aahhh! This is more like a vacation. My mind is vacating. My memories are slowing down. I am getting fatter and slower. Every so often I get a rush, and my group members and I play the “What night was that?” game. This stream is petering out.

Soon we will be looking at China in retrospect. Soon I will be comparing every other country to China and not Japan. Soon I will be looking for concrete architecture cropped by clay roofs and hollowed by courtyards, bright red wooden gates that smell of paint instead of age. I may no longer think of simple wooden temples with ferocious guardian statues and tatami mats and paper sliding doors, colossal gates that smell of cedar.

My imagery will be replaced by more recent contact. I will look for signs of China: its smells, its language, its sounds.  Soon I will miss it. Perhaps even the frantic honking of buses and the guttural growl of coal-carrying dumb trucks breathing their exhaust onto my legs like a teenage boy kissing a petrified ear will seem faraway and romantic. Like sound blown through a conch shell. Faraway pink sand.

I speak in the future tense because I do not know what is ahead.  Perhaps this is dangerous to do because I am making self-fulfilling prophecies that might kill the surprise. This is not living in the moment. This is waiting for tomorrow, like a fiance waits for a soldier.

In some ways, our trip is only beginning now.  All five of us having lived in China for a significant period of time before cycling through it, (my four months being the shortest period), we’ve traveled through the populous, Han-predominant East, knowing for the most part what to expect, knowing enough Chinese to interact with the locals, to tell them hello, to ask them their occupation, to get a little drunk with them.

We’ve seen indicators that might prove or refute premature suspicions we might have mustered up beforehand: 1. it is much cheaper to travel and easier to bargain in the countryside, 2. people are much nicer and will invite you into their home without knowing you, 3. it really helps to speak the language to gain people’s trust and make deeper connections, 4. many Chinese love foreigners and most in the countryside have not been exposed to them, 5. Most Chinese people have no idea where The Caribbean is.  

China is present tense. It is now, smashed against our faces in its graphic market scenes of hanging meat and dripping blood. It is raucous internet bars with individual speakers at every computer blaring individual versions of the same techno bass beat. It is cigarette smoke poking dirty fingers up our nostrils as we try to look undisturbed.  It is moody restaurant bosses pushing whole chickens on us, or otherwise ignoring us when we want to ask for the bill. It is rowdy hotel ladies who, shouting while smiling, confuse our senses, making us think they are angry with us when they really just want to help.

China is uncomfortable. It is always happening. It is loud with big signs, piercing music, shouting people, shouting buses. We cannot stop this life from happening. We cannot keep the children from creeping up behind us as we eat. We cannot keep curious people from grabbing and trying to open letters we want to mail home.

China is up close and personal. People interrupt, squeeze between, slap us amicably on the shoulders, breathe on our necks as we sit and they hover, run up alongside our bikes as we ride next to fields.

China breaks us out of our comfort zone kicking and screaming.

It is 1110pm December 31, 2007 the last fifty minutes before the new year and we waitshell-shocked and exhausted like night watchmen like the MC at a New Years celebration staring at the clock waiting for the jump the ball to dropfor people to go crazy. I hold my breath for the next adventure when we will not have the safety net of language and background to settle us in comfortably. Perhaps, we will not have the innocence of non-traveled eyes, and the muck of experience will muddy the surprise of that to come.  Perhaps, our expectations of what will happen will turn out to be completely wrong.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. We still have to get through tonight’s scheduled street performance on the cold river front with the dribbling water petering out beneath the concrete arched bridge. I hope the audience behaves. But you never really know in China. Or anywhere for that matterI hope the border cops are nice  

5 Responses to “Waiting”

  1. Netzy Says:

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    You have explained the country of China with all its senses… it is so unpredictable but loveable…. thank you. have a safe journey

  2. Abby Says:

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    I’m ashamed that you guys know a lot more of my country than I do. Gotta catch up. : )
    Best wishes and hope everything goes smoothly in this new year!

  3. funeral dove release Says:

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    funeral dove release…

    Simply put, easy to understand for me — thanks….

  4. Arlette Balfe Says:

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  5. Manuela Samide Says:

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