Travels with John Smith
Chapter 45 (2017-2018)
End year 6, beginning year 7
-Hanging out in Gulangyu
-Welcome dinner with Jianping
-back in Shanghai forest
-Jamming in Prison
-Snow Queen and Colonel Saunders
-Kota Kinabalu beach
-6 foot lizard
-New Years is not what it used to be
-Making the decision to stay one more year
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 45 (2017-2018)
End of Year 6, beginning of Year 7
Xiamen, Wuhan and Kota Kinabalu
We are walking along a lovely stretch of beach, looking for a place to sit down. Despite the fact that we have soft sand beneath our toes and bathing suits under our clothes, no one is selling towels or beach chairs so relaxing in the sun will not be an option here. We are not surprised, as there are only a few people on the beach and they are mostly standing, waiting to dry off in the air after a swim. Most would never dream of laying in the sun. Anyone sitting, is sitting directly on the sand. No one has a towel.
There are people selling inflatable ‘donuts’ to float in the ocean and the vendors are covered from head to toe, sitting under umbrellas. It is very hot so after walking for a couple kilometres, we duck into a stall with large fans to drink ice cold fresh coconut juice directly from the coconuts. We are in Xiamen, a costal city in China.
We booked our trip to Canada, going through this place because of a girl I used to work with called Daisy. She told us her husband worked in Xiamen, that it was an amazing city and we should go there. She said she would come too and be our guide. We never did manage to arrange it, but she continued to remind us we should, so we finally decided to take her up on it. After we booked the tickets, she was offered a job in another city, starting immediately so was unable to come. She told us that we should call her husband, even though she says he doesn’t really speak English. We have only met him once for about 5 minutes so don’t feel comfortable contacting him.
“Hello!” “Hello!” “Where are you from?”. There is an older man smiling at us, wanting to practice his English. His family giggle and watch as we answer his questions, sometimes in English, sometimes in the words we know in Chinese (to show we aren’t just tourists). We are sitting on a bench facing the sea on Gulangyu Island, across from the mainland where Xiamen city is. There are many people around us, most listening in on our conversation with the man. . We see two chubby little boys who are completely naked, except for sandals on their feet, are walking along the road towards us.
Everyone else around us is fully dressed and these boys are blissfully unaware that everyone is looking at them. They are about 7 or 8 years old and both have big grins on their faces as they approach and the man who was talking to us, stops talking to us and begins talking to them. We realize they are his kids. He tells them to take pictures with me so they come over and stand on either side of me, smiling and holding up a peace sign for the camera. His wife disappears and comes back a few minutes later, with a hard copy of the picture and presents it to us as a gift.
Earlier, we took a little train around the Island so we could get our bearings and figure out where we wanted to hang out but we needed to go around for a second time as the place we liked best was the other side of the island and would of taken us a couple hours to walk back to.
There are only electric-powered vehicles permitted on the island so there is none of the noise and air pollution often found in other parts of China, here on Gulangyu Island. With classical and romantic European-style architecture on either side of the cobblestone paths running through and around the island, you could be anywhere in Europe as 13 countries, including England and France built churches, hospitals, etc after the Opium War in 1842.
There are about 20,000 permanent residents living here now and today there are what seems to be thousands of tourists, most of whom seemed to come over on the ferry with us. The terminal was jam packed with lineups for ferries with a 2 or more hour wait for a 5 minute ferry ride. With prices that are double that of the ‘mainland’ and tourists peering into your windows like you were part of the museum, not sure I would want to live here, no matter how lovely it is.
We are standing in a room filled with fish tanks. Inside the tanks are an assortment of some sea animals I have never seen before, others that look familiar but the wrong colour or shape. There is a woman waiting for us to point to what we want and she will fish the live sea animal from the tank and give it to the cook. We point at a couple things but they are still waiting, as if it can’t be enough to eat, even though to us, we have way too much already.
Earlier, Daisy’s husband Jianping, picked us up from our hotel and drove us here, to this busy little restaurant, in a village an hour outside Xiamen. Even though Daisy said he doesn’t really speak English, he has come up with a few words that have surprised us. His English is a little better than our Chinese so we are keeping the conversation very simple. I texted Daisy saying Jianping was doing alright in English and she texted back giggling, telling me he was awake studying English all night last night, knowing he was meeting us today.
The food arrives and completely fills the table. It is enough for 8 people. It is delicious and tastes very fresh so we manage to gobble most of it down. We sit outside, in a small courtyard, with large fans blowing in our direction The place is packed with Chinese people, even though it is a work night and there are no tourists at all so we feel very privileged to have been brought here. This is an example of how welcoming people are here and how they will go out of their way, wanting to share and treat you with their culture.
It is September and we are back in Shanghai, dwarfed by the buildings around us. It is like being in a giant’s playground and every time we come here, it never ceases to amaze us.
After a long flight back to Wuhan, from Canada, we were more than a week early for work so we jumped on a fast train and 5 and 1/2 hours later, here we are in a forest of shiny clean buildings. I have had troubles with my computer which is a Mac so had to come to a ‘real’ Apple store as it is still under warranty.
I may have mentioned before, that even though Wuhan is a city of 10 million people, there is no official Apple store here. There are tons of stores with the Apple Logo outside but they are not real Apple stores. There is one authorized Apple repair shop but if you go there, they send it away to Shanghai anyway.
We have done our favourite activities here in Shanghai; eaten in some amazing places, done some shopping and just hung out. We tried to find an English movie but there weren’t any playing anywhere in Shanghai, which is rare. The subways and tourist places are crazy busy so we are just taking it easy, getting used to China again, before we start back to Wuhan.
It is Saturday night and I am on the internet looking for what we might do when we leave here. Looking for inspiration. It’s still early days but if the plan is to relocate back to Canada or perhaps somewhere else, we should put the feelers out there.
I am not looking forward to going back to work on Monday. This year, I plan to really try to speak Chinese better, to practice my musical instruments and hopefully better. I want to organize the writing I have already done and basically organize my life.
We are 2 weeks into the new school year. The Library has been extremely busy with students taking out textbooks and books for homeroom silent reading. There have already been some interesting clashes in staff meetings, teachers breaking bones on scooters in busy Wuhan traffic and others with hurt feelings as groups form and people are included or excluded.
This is the problem with living in an expat community. People that might not normally hang out together are lumped together in a way that is sometimes not healthy. Working together, hanging out and travelling together. If everyone was back in their respective country, they would not expect to be included in every gathering. People would have their own social network outside of work but at the same time, it is rough for anyone to feel left out. I am grateful that John and I have each other.
Most of the teachers have already booked their October holiday. We booked ours to go to Zhangjiajie, which is a mountainous area with the famous ‘Avatar’ mountains (where the inspiration for the mountains in the movie came from). They also have the biggest or longest glass bridge in the world and 999 steps up to a temple.
We booked a soft sleeper on an overnight train journey and a cool hotel and started negotiations to book a tour company to go to the places I just spoke about, as this is the busiest time of the year and this year in particular because this National holiday everyone is going on a holiday at exactly the same time as us.
It is a week later and the tour company has contacted us and said we could no longer have the soft sleeper-only a hard sleeper (this means you are sharing with several other people and the bed is not comfortable). We have had friends take hard sleepers in the past and wake up in the middle of the night to find someone sitting on the edge of their bed, staring at them.
They also said the overnight non-stop train was no longer available-that we would have to change at 3 am to another train. They also said it will be very busy at all the attractions and ask if we can come another time. We decide to cancel and stay in Wuhan for this holiday.
I am walking through the dark campus. Beyond the outline of the teaching buildings and the cafeteria/gym are now tall buildings, their lights looking like hundreds of eyes watching over us. We are surrounded by them now and they fill the sky, where previously (when we 1st got here) there was only black sky. Across the street, out the side gate of the school, there is now a large community; tall apartment buildings, communal areas, shops and restaurants. Many of the teachers now have apartments there and Vanke, which used to be ‘the’ area where teachers wanted to live only has a few teachers now.
I am on my way to a jam night that is held in a club called Prison. It is held about once every couple of months and every time it happens I say I will go and then can’t stay awake long enough to go (as it doesn’t start until 11:00 at night) so this time I put all my efforts into going to check it out.
There are 2 drummer friends here, one guy from Australia (I taught his kid’s music at the FNS) and Huang Fe, who is Sophie’s fiancé (I spoke about them in an earlier episode). I have wanted to play with both of them for some time.
The musicians who get up to play 1st are all pretty good, with Huang Fe joining them on drums. A white guy walks up, grabs the mic and starts to rap. It isn’t very good but he holds on to the mike for several painful songs. He doesn’t look like he is going to give anyone else a chance and I start thinking that the combination of this guy and too much smoke, which is common in clubs here, is a sign to go home.
A new musicians get up and someone says something to the guy with the mic and he hands it back. They start to play something funky and Huang Fe drags me to the mic. I start singing Play that Funky music on top of the groove they are playing and the crowd goes wild. I sing a couple more songs with them and hand back the mic so someone else can have a go. The drummer that had played the funky music comes up and says he met John and I at the Strawberry festival 2 years ago and I realize he’s the guy with the ‘Sons of Anarchy’ jacket who’s band we watched. He also tells me the bartender, here at Prison is one of John’s former students. Small world!
It is the end of the holiday week. The sun is shining outside today but the week has been cold and miserable; raining almost every day. We had a wonderful ‘staycation’, booking ourselves into 2 different hotels on the other side of Wuhan. We ate food from India, Japan, Italy, Germany and China. We swam in a beautiful swimming pool, worked out in the gym, watched TV in English and Chinese. John watched many baseball games and I read. We heard about a gunman in Las Vegas and Trump’s latest gaffs on CNN and BBC TV channels (which we don’t have at home). We heard about Tom Petty dying.
I am gliding through the corridor, the white feathers in my winter crown shiver as I walk. My snow white hair frames my face and reaches down my back. My face is dusted with white powder, silver sparkle and my blue lips shine with more sparkle in the light. My off white fake fur cape is embedded with silver sequins and underneath I am wearing a pale blue satin dress with silver sequin trim and silver cowboy boots.
John walks beside me, dressed in a white suit, collared shirt and a black string tie, tied like a ribbon. His curls and goatee are white and he is wearing black thick glasses. He has a cane and speaks like an American from the deep south. He would be recognized anywhere around the world and here in China, it is no different. He is Colonel Saunders and everyone in the school can guess who he is.
The kids look at me and say “Oh, so beautiful!”but when I ask if they know who I am, they are at a loss. It is after all, my own interpretation of the Snow or Ice Queen and she is a cross between ‘Frozen’ and the ‘Huntsman’. However, there are a few who guess that I am a Queen and when I say Ice Queen, most think I am saying ice cream. One student, without prompting (but perhaps influenced by John’s costume) says the ‘Dairy Queen’. I think “Why didn’t I think of that? Brilliant idea!”.
It is the day before Xmas eve and we are under an umbrella on a beach chair beside the swimming pool in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. We have just woken up, after a short nap to find there is no one left in the pool.
The sky is dark and large drops of rain are falling around us. We can hear huge waves crashing against the shore about a 100 feet behind us. The sun beds along the beach are empty. The guys who work around the pool have gathered up all the cushions and towels (except ours) and are standing under the protection of a small wooden hut. They occasionally look over at us, presumably wondering how long we will be sitting there.
We arrived at 5 am from Wuhan, had a couple hours sleep, ate breakfast and came to the beach to try and get some sun as we only have 3 days here before we have to go back to work. The weather has other ideas for us.
We decide to take a trip into town on the hotel shuttle bus, to check out the local shopping , since the day looks like it is going to stay grey, cloudy and miserable. We want to find some authentic Malaysian food but we notice a Hard Rock Cafe and it’s been a while since we had an authentic hamburger so we check it out. We both eat too much but leave with enough time to explore the market, buy some local crafts and catch the shuttle back to the hotel .
I see a long shape, like a tree branch on the right side of the pond and imagine I see it move. I take out my phone and open the camera, thinking, “How lucky we would be if that is a Monitor Lizard, like the ones we saw in Sri Lanka”. This time I see it move and as I switch the camera mode to video, I whisper to John, “Is that a lizard?”. He says, “Yes! Be careful you don’t step on it”. I catch a movement to my left and there is another one, walking right beside us! Even better! I follow it, filming for about a minute, amazed it just ambles along, walking away from us but at a very slow pace. Still, I am ready to run, in case it changes direction. It is big, about 5 to 6 feet long.
We had breakfast with some new Australian friends and the plan is to spend the day at the beach as the sun is shining today. Our friends are also retired teachers and their son lives in the jungle with his Malaysian wife. They are meant to go and stay with them tonight for a couple days around Xmas. They said there is a guest house below their son’s house, but their son and daughter in law would give up their bedroom for them, as the guest house and outdoor toilet attached was often visited by snakes!
We are standing in front of a large window, looking out at the Yangtze river and the bumper to bumper traffic along the road that is parallel to the river. The buildings are doing a kind of light show, choreographed with each other and it is very pretty but not something special for New Year’s Eve. The TV is on behind us and they are counting down to midnight on an Asian channel that is broadcasting from Beijing. There are no fireworks there either. There are no lanterns either.
Earlier tonight, we ate in the hotel with 2 other teachers. One of them said her students told her the lanterns were now illegal when I mentioned I was surprised not to see any lanterns in the sky. After dinner, we went to the Jazz bar, where we have brought in the New Year in the past but after noticing there was no where to sit and not recognizing any of the musicians, we left.
We crossed the street to the promenade beside the river, hoping to find, as we have in past years, people selling lanterns. There was a sign at the entry gate with a picture of a lantern and a line through it. There were policeman patrolling with cars and on foot to enforce this. As one lonely lantern floated past us, a policeman took out his phone and took a picture, presumably to use as evidence of foul play.
People walked aimlessly, some lit up with coloured lights like hairbands with devil horns that light up red or holding balloons with fairy lights along the string but there were no lanterns.
Others were watching 2 daredevils on rollerblades, coming down the sloped bank towards the river in the dark, seeing if they were able to stop without falling. We didn’t stay long. It is cold and our hotel room is warm and there is a good view of the river from our window.
From our window, we see a few rogue lanterns in the distance, way down the beach. So there are still some rebels, defying the new laws but it is not the crazy Wuhan, the real China any more. It is changing, becoming safer and with it, traditions are dying.
There is a dragon in front of me, with smoke coming out of his mouth. Mao is in his bathrobe, having just come out of the Yangtze river. He is waving. A young buddhist monk is playing with a white cat and a Flamenco dancer in a yellow dress is turning into the dark. Carvings of Buddha and Hindu Gods smile from different parts of the room.
Hand woven silks and embroidered cloth with sequins are draped over furniture. Guitars, ukuleles and percussion instruments sit in the corner. The colours of the world surrounds us. Every trip we have taken, is in this room, around us. We are grateful for the things we have seen, the experiences we’ve had and the memories that come to mind, every time we look around us.
We haven’t begun to pack up to leave China yet. John looks at our finances and we decide to stay another year. There are still places we want to see. The next Chinese New Year holiday is coming up soon. The adventure isn’t over yet.