So, here I am, again, at a hotel internet…. ahhh, I do love this feeling. That it is in English and the keyboard works is gravy. The major obstacle so far was the plane flight and sitting next to a stinky garlic guy… you know that smell, right? we have a lot of it in Santa Cruz, that pungent hippie odor. Well, it was seriously overwhelming; I felt nauseated. And honestly it took me a couple of hours to figure out what it was and where it was coming from. I tried giving the guy some gum, but that didn’t help; it was oozing out of his body! So nearly in tears, I talked to the stewardess and she knew this guy from her own experience of the smell of him! She compassionately moved me to a wonderful aisle exit row. I shall have to remember this technique in the future for a better seat!
Upon landing in Beijing, I finally made it to my friends Michelle and Thomas’ house, again with the challenge that most of the people do not read our letters and I of course can’t read theirs. I had met Michelle and Thomas in Malawi many years ago, so it was wonderful catching up. They have lived in China for 2 years, Thomas works for Nokia. Before China, they lived in India for 2 years. They are English and great folks and travelers. We went out for dinner one night… Chinese food you ask? and “NO WAY” I say… we went for Ethiopian! Yummy. The only restaurant of its kind here, evidently. I love Ethiopian food and this was good, but really it was the restaurant which was so beautiful and the dancing! I thought I had seen most of African dance, but no sir-ee, this was weird stuff… popping and snapping of the shoulders and neck, like chickens on meth or something. Very cool. I spent a couple of nights there and today moved to a hotel to meet up with my friend Jun. She and her fiance are here and we fly tomorrow to her home town down south. That is where I will be going into the mental hospital to film and interview… I hope… She seems to think it is a go. She filed an application for it and everything. I have to say, it is sooooo nice being here with her! Obviously she speaks both the languages needed (English and Chinese), but also she is such a joy with her struggles, questions, curiosity and humor. She has a unique perspective on cultural issues, the overlap and differences, the good and the bad. I am grateful. I also am feeling good; minimal jet lag, body, mind and spirit on a an even keel. The weather however, is atrocious!!! horribly overcast, rainy. The smog is gross, heavy, depressing…. ugh. I do hope it is better when we get to a “small” town… whatever that is here.
I finally met up with Jun and her fiance at a reasonable hotel and we went out for the usual, totally bizarre food like sea cucumber, goose intestines and chicken feet. The next day we caught an ex-military plane to Changsa in the south, and Jun’s parents (who both work for the government) picked us up in a huge black SUV with our very own mafia-looking driver. A 3-hour drive brings us to her home town, just a tiny village of 7 million, or something crazy like that… a green, humid, hazy, rather hilly place. Immediately we are taken to a very fancy private party room and meet all the family. We eat gobs of food, drink and toast a gazillion times. The deal is to honor, then say bottoms up! and chug the wine or beer… Yes, chugging wine… After a few, the men and I smoke our cigs and I show everyone how to roll the American Spirit… much fun had by all. I am then dropped off at an incredible hotel where nobody speaks English, but wow, nice! Since Jun’s father works for the government, everything is covered. It does feel strange to be totally spoiled by the Communist Regime. In the morning I have my breakfast of rice soup, dumplings, noodles, hard boiled egg and of course, since I am American, they bring me a glass of milk. There is no point in trying to explain that I am lactose intolerant.
I have also been watching the one and only English speaking TV station and it is really interesting. A lot about Tea, Chinese history, Arts and Science, etc. One story was about the “angry youth”, which are conservative, nationalistic young folks who are sick of hearing all the criticism about China… truly, a fascinating place. The hotel staff gave up their office just to let me use their computer. Being a guest of a government official has its perks. We are waiting to file our application again, to get into the hospital. I have to promise to not use the video on the internet and perhaps other restrictions. Jun and I went to get a massage. The chairs are lined up so folks can visit while being worked on. They begin with soaking your feet in herbs and while you soak they massage and pressure point your head. 2 cute young boys by the way, and the massage is done fully clothed and they use a cloth, not oil. Then back to the feet, ouch… serious pressure points and then they use these heated jars to suck out all the toxins. After the massage we went to refill our toxins with beer and pizza and practicing English with Jun’s niece. Her uncle runs a tea house, so we got to do a ceremony which is not complicated like the Japanese one, pretty down to earth and pleasant.
The next day is the news I had been waiting for…. I GOT IN! So they take all my information; the head of propaganda photographs me constantly, reviews my nursing license and I have an entourage following us around. But I got two interviews: one with the head of finance and the nuts and bolts of the hospital ,then another on the women’s unit with the head psychiatrist. They would not allow me to see the patients or their rooms, or even activity rooms, or the pharmacy, which is unfortunate. But hey, I am amazed we got as far as we did. We got a call after we left that said they regretted the interview, and they thought the hospital looked shabby. I tried to pass on how impressed and grateful I was to all of them. I will not spend time now letting you know all they said. I will admit though, that I laid awake worrying that my hotel door would crash in with people wanting my footage back. I have been extra paranoid because I realized the computer I was using at the hotel not only saved my name but also my password! Which meant that for over 24 hours anyone had access to all my mail, etc…. not good…. shall await the repercussions if any. Currently I am on Jun’s computer at her house.
After the hospital interview we went to meet another millionaire friend of Jun’s family. We search and search for the place and finally end up at this half-built, ridiculously modern building still reeking of glue, and dust flying about, current construction underway and it is a blaring techno disco! “Boom Boom” it was appropriately called. I was nearly hysterical laughing! So here we are with Jun’s cute little mom, the lights flashing, the music pounding, smoke machines blowing, the young boys and girls show dancing on the counters to some strange story in English about aliens! Jun’s mom was trying to dance along. And as always … there is food. I do not know how these people stay so small! I swear we eat non-stop all day long! I was excited about the lobster Jun wanted to get us, I thought yay! something I really like… but no, after we met the poor fella alive, he was chopped up raw and served sashimi style. Earlier that day the soup was turtle and scorpion, oh yes, the black spiny guy, full view in your soup. Tomorrow we leave for the airport town, stay the night, and I fly out on Friday to Chengdu…. which is where I arrange all the Lhasa tour part…. again, we shall see how that goes. But so far, so good.
And again, I cannot say enough about the hospitality of Jun’s family. Her father is like a mayor or assistant mayor here and considered a big wig. Last evening on the way home there was a sobriety check point and the driver of our car says “are you crazy!? do you know who this car belongs to?!” and we were waved on. They have completely supported my stay here, yet they are humble in their home, adore their daughter and bend over backwards to please. Perhaps it is unfair or unjust… but doesn’t that happen everywhere? While in Jun’s hometown of Changzou, we desperately tried to find some Nature. We went on a day trip to a nearby cave with her uncle and his friend, a car salesman. The cave was huge and had a river running through it. It was beautiful but unfortunately ruined by the large Chinese tour group in front of us with their bullhorn! And the men who can’t read the signs that say “No Smoking!” Jun and I got into an argument about saving Nature versus succeeding in business or having lots of children. She has changed, she used to want to help the world. Now she openly admits she just wants to be “a parasite”.
I left Jun and her family and flew to Chengdu to try and get a permit to go to Tibet. I have been in Chengdu for 3 days now, currently on my 4th and have spent every day dealing with crap to try to get to Tibet. Honestly, if I didn’t have presents to deliver I would probably skip it and just go to nearby areas that are reportedly more Tibetan anyway and much less hassle. The issue is that with the upcoming Chinese holiday, celebrating 60 years of Communist rule, everything has become even more strict because of the risk of protests by the Tibetans. Finally I was able to fax off my request today. Everyone must have an approved guide with them every day, nearly every moment, that they are in Tibet, which makes things quite expensive and complicated. It also means that approval is slow, to say the least. Plus, there was confusion because they thought I wanted to trek the entire time and hire a “Yak and Yak man”! Which I do not because I am way too out of shape to trek at all! Give me the drive by tour if you please! For now the plan is to leave the 19th to Lhasa and then return to Beijing on the 26th (then home on the 30th). This is about half the time I wanted to spend in Tibet. If all is approved, a big “IF”, I will be in Lhasa 4 days then go north to see a lake, mountains, monasteries, nunneries, hot springs, caves, etc. for 3 days. And forget going by the infamous train! This adds even more time to the process! so I will fly and hope I don’t get altitude sickness on top of everything else. I am traveling alone because it is too much trouble for me to try to find companions and this adds to the cost. I have also requested that my guide and accommodation are Tibetan and wonder if this too has slowed the process.
While here in Chengdu I have seen the Pandas, the “Woo-Hoo” temple (that is my spelling) and visited the Tibetan street they have here and ate Yak stew. The problem with this waiting period is that I don’t feel comfortable leaving to go somewhere else in case there is some problem that needs to be dealt with. So here I sit… with the rain, rain , rain…. I have not seen the sun in 2 weeks and can’t remember what a shadow looks like. What am I doing here? I might ask… but don’t want to because that might end me up permanently inside the mental hospital rather than just for a brief interview. So there you have it… for all those who dream of coming here…. don’t bother… unless you organize it all from home (which I couldn’t, since I didn’t know my schedule) or just go to India, Nepal or western China… which as I’ve mentioned is more “Tibetan” anyway. I apologize for sounding so negative and do so hope I get to say “it was worth it”.
After my yucky email yesterday I went for a massage. Took me a bit to find it; seriously it seems not only does no one speak English, but they also don’t read it… “pinyen” it’s called… anyway, I did find this tiny little place with about 8 tables all lined up in a row and folks being massaged, fully clothed again. So I stand there and finally this guy waves me in and I am wondering why he is looking above my head but don’t think much of it… then I kinda wonder why this other guy has sunglasses on… when I get called over to my table my girl has her eyes shut tight and that is when it dawns on me that they are all blind! It was not such a great massage but my little lady was so sweet! They do a lot of pressure points and overall I felt better. Then I went to see a Sichuan Opera at a huge “tea house”…. really fascinating! They had dancing, music and singing, which was OK, but it was the hand shadow dancing that I really liked… and then this amazing “face changing” where like magic they shift the colors of their masks! Also the puppetry was good, and they even had a skit, which was still funny even if I couldn’t understand what they were saying. All in all, a good day. And still I wait…I don’t want to leave town for somewhere else until I know I have been approved and can purchase my plane tickets. So, today, what to do? the weather is slightly better so I may go to an outdoor market…My days are running into each other… I shuffle around here in the morning in my jammies drinking crappy coffee and listening to the fountain in the garden… really it is a nice hostel and relaxing … thank god…. or whoever might be paying attention.
Today is Thursday the 17th of September in the year of our Lord 2009. I have been here 7 days… a lucky number? Yesterday I went with Kevin an English/German young fella to Peng Le, and old town on a river, a very stinky river… and saw a bunch of stalls, architecture, farm land, yawn! but OK, a day out. So then I thought I would do my laundry and watch movies on my DVD (yes, my room has a DVD player), but of course it didn’t work… so I wait for it to be fixed and ponder the haze and start to plan an alternative to Tibet. Then a knock on the door and BAM! I have my permit!!!!! okay, so now what? Ah yes, flights…. try to do it on the internet… but no, they won’t allow it to Lhasa (of course not), so now I have to be able to pull out enough cash to pay for everything at once! …. no go at the bank…. blah, blah, blah…. chuckle, tears of irony and frustration and we shall see what tomorrow brings. Hopefully the bank will let me pull out cash and hopefully Cameron can contact my bank in the U.S. to OK it… and hopefully hopefully, hopefully it all unfolds as it needs to…. dear Universe…. help me let it happen as it is supposed to because what I have tried to learn AGAIN is that if I do not stir the pot and just let it flow. It will unfold, and I can choose to be grateful for what it is…. and not what I think I want. As it is, I fly out Saturday for Lhasa……I think…. Now I know we are damn lucky for our bureacracies at home because they are amazingly simpler than what happens here… I have stories to tell of travelers, but I don’t want to do it now because there are indeed eyes and ears in all the walls and screens…. let it suffice to say that blood still flows for freedom.
To hell with the Big Dipper roller coaster at the Boardwalk! you know how I screamed? Well, today has that beat hands down. The morning started with my 1/2 pot of French press coffee to get things moving, although that really isn’t necessary these days. Then the shower and I wander down to the reception/travel desk, which is always packed, to start my day’s adventure. I walk to the Bank of China and “No,” they can’t change travelers checks, or provide cash, or credit card withdrawal, and my debit card is already maxed out for the day’s withdrawal…. sooooo, I start to freak…. and catch a little mo-ped guy to the bigger bank downtown… He takes me on all back roads to avoid the police. He says, in broken English, that if they stop us I am to get off and walk and pretend I don’t know him… We make it, and the sweetheart says he will wait for me. Here, at this bank they at least change my travelers checks and cash, the wee bit that I had… still not enough, though, because everything has to be paid for by cash.
During all of this the love of my life, man of my dreams, amazing support dude… Cameron… is trying to contact my bank in the U.S. to see if they will up my withdrawal limit. He puts up with my tears and hysteria in stellar form and somehow finds a PIN number for my other credit card which I had never used nor had to use…. Then, I wait… because the office says the travel office for my plane tickets will come by and let me use a credit card for my plane tickets, which would then leave me just barely enough cash for the rest of the tour…. I wait, and wait, and wait, and they are over an hour late. Finally, they get here and realize they can’t run a U.S. card, so I cry again. My savior ,”Jodie”, (the English name for my Chinese helper) decides to walk to the bank again with me and see what is up with doing a cash withdrawal on my credit card, which was denied before. With the new PIN number and her good energy, cash just keeps coming out, over and over and over because by this time I am a little crazy about it all and end up with a good 3 inches worth of 100 Yuan notes! So, I am able to pay for my flights and my tour in Lhasa, all about 10,000 Yuan (approx. $1500)
Even though I paid for a rush delivery of my permit to Tibet, it has not arrived yet and we hope for 8PM…. another hurdle. IF it comes, I get to leave tomorrow at 6AM for the airport and confront the next of the never-ending stream of challenges. The police have been here twice today to check everything out, and I suspect that will be an ongoing issue, if not more so on the other end. And again I ask if it will be worth it all and can only answer that, yes, if I like stories like these to relay to you. But at this point I just want to come home and yell at my bank and wonder in awe at that golden orb in the sky and laugh and play with that shadow as it dances a jig of gratitude to be on familiar soil. Yes, we have issues in our country, but at least they are ones I know.