…So there I was, sitting on the bus going from Hong Kong into Mainland China. I was doing my best to mind my own business and not pay attention to the breakfast dancing in my stomach. We arrived at the border and our bus dropped us off to go through passport control.
Hmmm. Not bad, pretty small place, pretty easy crossing. No questions,
everyone is moving through nicely…hey, why did he just shove my passport
back at me and growl? After a moment that seemed like a stroke I finally
realized I had left out my middle name from the paper I signed. Whew! I
added my middle name and that was it, I was on the other side of the room
and on my way to get on the new bus we would finish the trip on. We loaded
up as we all made it through and off we went towards Shantou. The trip was
supposed to take about 5 hours.
After a short journey I learned that we hadn’t actually made it into
China, we had just made it OUT of Hong Kong territory. SIGH. Next stop. Down some steps and into the building. We all line up and eventually get
through to the other side. We follow the Wan’s directions and gather on
the other side. The change, as we look out of the big doorway, is obvious.
People stare at our little group and the color is gone. Everything is
plain and almost built in black and white and grey. We walk over in front
of the big police station. Are we intimidated, no, we aren’t intimidated
(don’t let them smell the fear…) an officer walks over and tells us
something in Mandarin that is NOT ‘good morning’ but we don’t have a clue.
Fortunately one of our group from Hong Kong tells us, “we can’t stand
here!” We move on down the block and suddenly our bus appears. All on
board. Then off as we try to get our luggage on. Where’s the key to the
luggage compartment on the other side of the bus? Lost a while ago. No
problem, half our luggage comes in the bus with us and get their own seats.
Now we’re off.
Up to this point the heat, walking, police, late bus and luggage have been a nice distraction from my stomach. Now on the air conditioned bus I start to feel my breakfast again.
At noon we stop and go into our first AUTHENTIC Chinese restaurant. A
beautiful place. As we walk in we notice the fish tanks out front full of
fish, eels and other assorted menu items. Yum. Our group sits down at two
round tables with a large, rotating platform in the middle of the table.
Out comes our first course, appetizer, mmmmm. Chicken feet. Really. This
wasn’t a clever name for something else, it was chicken feet. Out came the
chopsticks (not what they’re really called but that’s what I’ll call them
for the sake of our story) and of course I was game to try something new.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I’m not sure how they would eat them but all I
could really get off of them was the cold, moist, shrivelled skin that had
been seasoned to volcanic levels. I fumbled with my chopsticks and looked,
and was, pretty foolish.
Next came the bowl of spanish peanuts. Our group fell on them like they were filet mignon! Needless to say, the peanut bowl didn’t make it all the
way around the wheel before it was emptied. By now, most of the staff had
gathered in or just outside our dining room to enjoy the show we were
putting on. Out came a dough wrap full of vegetables (of some kind).
Completely different, but not bad. Gordon, next to me, was having quite a
time with his chopsticks and was obviously going to lose a lot of weight on
this trip. One of the waitresses hurried over with silverware to rescue
him. “NO!” Phil, our fearless leader, said. “No silverware!” Away it
went and Gordon went back to stealing peanuts from everyone else and eating them by hand.
More food came out, some we recognized, some we didn’t. The girls
Waiting on us felt sorry for Gordon and were desperate to help him out. Finally, one little lady worked up her courage and came back to Gordon’s side, not with silverware but with toothpicks! She honored the “no silverware” but demonstrated to Gordon a handy ‘spear method’ for getting food from the ‘wheel of fortune’ into his mouth. He was able to eat much faster and would have if he would have been able to recognize what was on the wheel.
The dish I enjoyed best was fried milk. The only thing I can compare it to
would be perfectly toasted marshmallows minus the roasting stick and minus
the stickiness. Mmmmmmm. Apparently, they take frozen, sweetened milk and cut it into marshmallow size pieces while still frozen (i guess that makes
it easier to cut, eh?). Then it’s battered and tossed into the oil. I went a little crazy with these, finding something I could eat and enjoy too.
And here my troubles began…
The employees watched us go in and out of the bathroom. The cleanest in
all of our journey. They really enjoyed those of us who snapped pictures of
our first ‘squatty potty’. Later, after becoming familiar with this style
of toilet, I still would have taken a picture of these just because of how
clean they were. We didn’t all use the thing, or take pictures while it was being used, but we all got a good look at it and started to think about the 2 weeks ahead.
We gathered for group pictures outside the restaurant and included some of the waitresses. If we knew Mandarin I think we would have figured out that a few of the waitresses were proposing marriage to Gordon who had completely won them over with his helplessness and grin.
As the bus was loading a couple of the boys called us to come around the
side of the building. Some of us did. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Hmmm,
what’s that you’re standing over in those cages…what are you reaching in
there for…Oh! a snake…..a large snake….ha, ha, very funny. As he
smokes he tells us these snakes are very delicious but the snakes don’t
look too happy about the compliment. As we get back on the bus we’re all
thinking the same thing…which of those dishes was that snake’s friend in?
I take some motion sickness pills. The wheels on the bus go round and
round, round and round, round and round. Finally, an hour later, well
lubricated from the fried foods, everything on the inside, including my
liver and spleen, decide it’s time to come out. Thankfully this coincides
with the lone rest area.
For those wondering what the countryside was like…rice fields being
planted, tended or harvested, mountains, plains, water buffalo, big
buildings, little buildings, rice on the side of the highway drying.
Unfortunately the only thing on my mind was, “oh God, oh God, oh God…let
me get to the bathroom, please let me make it to the bathroom…” My wife
is so proud…
I run into the ‘rest area’ and find the men’s room. I was pretty sure it
was the men’s room but honestly, I just knew that i saw a stall with a door
and in I went. I won’t go into details here but I realized afterwards that it
was a grace moment: grace that I had to use the squatty so desperately I
didn’t care what it looked or smelled like – or I wouldn’t have gone then,
taking a chance on another one later (there wasn’t one) – and grace that my
good friend Gordon came by and was willing to run back out to the bus and
get my role of two-ply for me. Thank you Jesus for good friends!
O.K., now that we’ve reached that high point, I’ll just add that I felt
much better afterward and was able to enjoy the scenery the rest of the
way. I think China is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been or
seen. As we arrived at Shantou we saw a beautiful, new and very western
looking city. Tall buildings, bright colors and interesting and creative
architecture. Cheers rose up as we stopped the bus at a light and could
see across the way a mall with two familiar signs: Walmart and McDonalds! (The embassies of the common people.) We went to the other side of town and were amazed that we hadn’t been run into and we hadn’t run over anybody on the crazy streets of Shantou. On the other side of town we found the beautiful Shantou University, found our contact there, Mrs. Chen, and got to see our new home for the next 10 days.
People were hired to carry our bags up for us and soon we were settled in
to our rooms with air-conditioning! and western toilets! and showers with
hot water! and laundry service! and bus size cockroaches!!!
All in all, a lovely day.