Mike the pudgy Greek passes around spring bottled water in the Kunming train station where we wait to leave for Dali, one of the old cities of the Bai ethnic minority (Bai[白] meaning white). At the station restaurant we encounter an American from California who has been living in Kunming for six months, looking for “a way to get rich” while learning some Chinese (very little from what I can see). While he pines that his girlfriend moved back to the states a week ago, he gulps small liquor bottles of Bai jiu, the get-drunk-off-your-ass-in-20-seconds-flat rice wine.
“So why are you really here?” Mike asks the American. The same question we’ve been unable to answer.
“Dude, I have a really nice apartment,” the American says, Bai Jiu still swishing in his mouth. “It’s $700 for six months in my apartment. And it’s a nice apartment.”
Mike shakes his head. “And you think you’re winning something, don’t you? Six months is a long time to be drunk—you could go anywhere! For example…”
And then Mike, like a good Greek eco-tourist, tells a story. In Indonesia, Mike was too cheap to take the $30 “black listed” six-seat airplanes from island to island, and instead took a small sailboat with blue sails that put twenty people at the mercy of tropical storms, and was so full that Mike had no room to sit down. About three hours in, half-way to the other island, his boat began to sink. The only person on board with a mobile phone, Mike calls the emergency line—the Indonesian version of 911, but nobody picks up. As the ocean water starts gushing into the boat, he sends a text message with the coordinates from his GPS. Minutes later, the boat sinks, the cellphone breaks, and fat Mike is floating in the water with the Indonesians, some of whom have life jackets, while others hold on to their friends who have them. Five hours pass. They all come to grips with the idea that they are all going to die. The sun sets. In his delirium, Mike believes he hears a helicopter, but nothing happens. Another two hours pass and it starts to rain. He cannot see those in front of him, does not know if anyone has died. He cannot speak to anyone because no one speaks English. Then, out of the thick darkness and rain, comes a light. A boat. Someone had received his text message, and had sent a helicopter to verify where they were. They were saved.
Then Mike pulls an Indonesian paper from his large green backpack. There’s his large body dwarfing the raisin-skinned old folks next to him. In the the week I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smile as wide.
“Shit,” I burst, my eyes searching the train station. “As you were telling that story, someone stole my phone!”
At the hostel, four young Chinese from Beijing and Shanghai take us to eat horse meat and camel.
“These guys must have amazing travel karma,” Mike says while piercing open the plastic around his dinnerware with a chopstick. “When have I ever taken some random Asian tourists to dinner with me? Never. That never happens.”
We lean back as our new Chinese friends start pouring an entire pot of tea over every utensil, bowl, cup and plate at the table. “To sterilize,” William the Beijinger says. He seems the eldest of their group, but also the poorest, with a white polo and old faded jeans. The tea dribbles from our plates and flows in a stream off the plastic table mat and between our crotches.
“So goddamn clean,” Lucky says. “Even when it is wrapped in plastic, they still clean with tea.” He pauses, giving me that you’re-the-one-who-speaks-Chinese glare.
“They are health fanatics,” I say.
“These men share our bunk, yes?” Lucky responds, scratching his beard. “I don’t know how to tell them I feel a cold coming on.”
Mike snarls, “I don’t know how to tell them that I have AIDs.”
We notice that the two Chinese women in their group, Amy and Nancy, do all the pouring of tea, while only the men discuss where to go and what to eat.
“Goddamn,” Lucky says, chewing horse in his mouth like jerky. “So normal here, is it?” Looking at me.
“I don’t know,” I respond, “I’m a flaneur. Flaneurs empathize and understand, not cast labels. Besides, none of us were invited to choose the food.”
“Bollocks,” Blake responds. “Some people know how to treat women, some don’t.”
Even though the plates have been cleaned and sterilized, our new friends never use them except to discard shrimp shells and duck bones. The food goes in the rice bowl.
Mike starts gripping the table, chewing the horse meat with his eyes closed. “I hate China so much,” he wails, tear jerking from his face. “This food never helps me lose weight.”
William, the Chinese tourist who can speak a smattering of English, asks what Westerners think of Chinese. “Before Olympics,” he says, “European people thought China was still in Qing Dynasty.” We expect him to laugh. He doesn’t. “What do Americans think of China?”
Flashes of Time Magazine covers announcing China as “red” and “unfree” flash before my mind. “Many think you are not free,” I say.
I translate for the others, and our Chinese friends laugh so hard, we foreigners are left in a nervous giggle until they calm down.
“They serious?!” sputters Nancy, the other quasi-English speaker in the group.
“Americans so stupid,” Lucky says.
Then William replies, “Anyways that is true. We are not free.”
When the rice runs out and the tea is refilled, Mike tells another story. He was riding a motorbike in Sri Lanka when a drunk local hit him and sent him spiraling into a banyan tree. No worries, he wasn’t injured, but the local man sued him for the slight car damage, and since Mike had no Sri Lankan driver’s license, he had to spend two weeks in Sri Lankan prison waiting for the trial. Stuck in a cell with three other men who spent their time squatting, staring out the bars at the patches of desert and dirt outside, and eating lentil soup and curry out of their hands. When he finally went to trial, his lawyer told him to admit he was guilty, even though Mike wouldn’t understand the accusation or the punishment. He was found guilty. The charge? $50 U.S.
A moment of silence lulls.
“Hey,” I add. “Did I mention I got my cellphone stolen at the train station?”
Our new Chinese friends spirit us away – to Qingshan(青山), a city on the Northwest shore of Erhai lake, “Erhai” meaning “ear shaped.” We walk around trying to avoid hordes of gigantic spiders staring at us with their militant eight-eyes. We take a long bicycle ride, and see not one sign in pinyin or English.
After churning our bicycle struts up a large hill, we make it to an old Daoist temple, where William disappears inside the small shrines.
“Nothing special,” one of the Chinese men, Calvin, says. He’s the hunkiest of the bunch, muscular with dark skin and permanent sunglasses. “Go to Beijing, see any temples, you are done with temples forever.”
We flaneurs observe with our hands held behind our backs, perhaps, biting our tongues from pointing out the absurd “Oh-faces” on each of the red angry gods.
We step on creaking wooden floorboards and peek inside a shrine, where William’s legs peek through in the sunlight like two fat logs.
Calvin laughs. “William, he prays for a son.”
“Does he have a wife?” Mike asks, yawning.
“No wife,” Calvin says. “No girlfriend. Chinese girls don’t like him. Too short. Too few women now.”
“Girls like strong guys like you?” Mike asks.
“No,” Calvin shakes his head, fiddling with a toothpick in his mouth. “Like skinny, tall, white skin.”
“All over the world,” Mike says as he steps over the wooden banister into the temple, and kneels next to Calvin to pray.
“What he pray for?” Calvin asks. “A baby boy?”
“He’s gay,” Lucky says, “so no.”
“We don’t know him that well,” I say.