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Winding Passage to Si-Chuan
Journey of Love -- Part II
Winding Passage to Si Chuan
By Ruth Jeng
Translated by Jennifer Dunn
In late December of 2000, Ruth Jeng traveled throughout China 's impoverished Southwestern regions. During one of her visits to a school, a boy of 13 years expressed his quietly burning desire for an outing. By outing he didn't mean to the countryside, market or village fair, but to a city. The city nearest to his school was Chongqing , about 200 km away. This distance, negligible to the mobile American, is an impossible obstacle to China 's poorest rural population. The physical distance is exasperated by bumpy, incomplete roads, insufficient bus lines, and travel expenses that would be equivalent to days worth of food. This boy was a prime example of one confined of his village by these overwhelming obstacles. He lost his father at the age of four. He sleeps in his dilapidated school building, and barely survives on a skimpy diet of rice and pickled vegetables. His hope for success is clouded by the lack of resources in his own area, and the physical and economic inaccessibility of more developed areas. After returning to the US , Ruth wasn't able to forget his simple yet impossible wish. She was determined to fulfill his dreams and those of thirteen others, and grant them the opportunity to see a world outside their village.
What began as an undeniable yearning to fulfill this boy's wish led to a 6-month struggle to organize an 'outing' for these children. She faced many challenges on the way, which she illustrates in the following chapters of "Journey of Love". Her resolve to combat the obstacles of China 's turbulent geographic and social terrain, and success in executing this trip are a muted reflection of her determination to help Chinese children conquer the obstacles confronting them throughout their daily lives. This story embodies the seeds of compassion that would soon flourish into PEACH.
Saturday, June 30, 2001 . 38 degrees Celsius
My 12 -year -old daughter Emily and I started our journey from Shanghai . It had been unseasonably hot. We arrived at the airport several hours before our scheduled 5 pm flight. By 4:30 pm , there was still no announcement to board. I couldn't calm a foreboding sense that the whole trip would be off if we missed this first flight, and I anxiously approached the flight attendant.
"Excuse me, is the 5pm flight to Chongqing ready for boarding?"
"It's 4:30 already," I protested timidly.
"What's your problem? Is this your first flight? When the time comes, we'll announce it. Your inquiry won't speed things along. Just take a seat." she retorted without eye contact.
I sat down uneasily. Travel in China was often frustrating and unpredictable. This wasn't the first time I had been confronted with delays, or sarcastic attendants that did little to reassure me. I didn't feel like taking any chances, as our harrowing experience on the train just a few days before was still fresh in my mind. I was taking a train to Shanghai at the time, which was scheduled to depart at 12 pm . My daughter and I were at the terminal a good half hour early. There were 10 gates with signs to Nanjing , Suzhou , and Wuxian but none to Shanghai . When I asked the terminal personnel, he pointed me to an area nearby and coldly instructed me to wait there. I found a notice board with a poster stating ' Shanghai , 12 pm here". I found a seat nearby, feeling momentarily relieved. As the time approached 11:50 , my relief was overcome by mounting unease. There was still no video or audio indication as to which platform we should begin boarding. I grabbed three people working in the terminal for information, including a janitor and a police, but got nowhere. I aggressively pushed my way through the line at the ticket booth, and the clerk informed me that the passengers had already boarded and the train was departing from Platform 3.
I rushed back to my seat, and hastily collected my daughter and luggage. My heart pumped furiously as I ran through three long tunnels, flying up and down the stairwells.
"Mom, we dropped the water bottle!" Emily yelled.
"Forget it!" I shouted. "Run faster!"
We finally made it to Platform 3, and I was elated to find the train still there. It was luxuriously decorated, with pretty attendants in uniform and overhead bins at each seat. I headed straight to the nearest carriage, #20, where the attractive attendant asked to see my tickets.
"This is second class. Your ticket is first class and that is in the first carriage."
The thought of running the length of 19 carriages was unbearable.
"I can't run anymore. Couldn't I just walk through the carriages to the first one?"
"No." she replied curtly. "There is no passage between carriages."
"Let's run!" I hollered to my daughter. Three carriages had passed by when she yelled out that she lost her jacket.
"Leave it!" I shouted. Run faster, or we'll miss the train!"
I was feeling hysterical. My heart was racing so fast I thought it would burst, when it occurred to me that I could just give up my first class privilege and settle for second class.
I told the next attendant and she allowed me to board. I slumped into the first available seat. A few passengers that witnessed what had happened reminded me of my loss.
"Oh, I know. That's OK." I was panting.
"That's ok?" They looked at each other in bewildered amazement.
"Yes, cheap stuff" I remarked.
I wasn't going to miss the train for that. God knows how that would have sabotaged the rest of our trip. The attendants had been less helpful than misplaced sign ¨Cposts throughout this ordeal. They didn't pick up the fallen jacket, or seem to consider general care for passengers as part of their job.
As the train pulled away, I got up and started towards carriage #1. Surprise! The passage between the carriages was clear. I managed to find my seat and settled in. I felt annoyed and misled by the attendant. I resolved that for the rest of the journey, I wouldn't be victimized by misinformation again.
The hysteria of that leg of our journey haunted me, as I eagerly awaited the announcement to board Flight 62. At 5 pm a voice finally gave us our cue, so I quickly collected our things and rushed to the crowd at the gate. We had to board another bus, and then walk half the length of a runway to the plane. Such extra inconveniences are standard when traveling in China , even at the finest airports.
After arriving in Chongqing , I took a bus to town to save a few dollars. I usually traveled very light, but on this trip I was weighted down with gifts I had brought for the children. As soon as we got off the bus, a hoard of taxi drivers rushed me, aggressively competing for my patronage. When I told them my hotel, they insisted on an outrageous fee of 30 yuan ($4), despite my insistence to go by the taxi -meter. They didn't relent, so I lugged my baggage away as they shouted out sarcastic remarks. I trudged on for several streets until we found a taxi to take us to the hotel. It was 15 yuan by the meter.
I knew from experience that conferring with taxi drivers was the best way to get familiar with a place and its population. My opening question of "How's business?" launched him into an animated narrative that lasted the entire 20- minute ride. He lamented that business was poor in this city of 13 million people, with an appalling 10% unemployment rate. More than half of the unemployed were laid of factory workers. He described his own situation, explaining that he was a veteran disabled during service. He offered his life to his country and was now forsaken. He felt like a pair of worn-out shoes, now unwanted and sloppily discarded. At least he was scraping by as a taxi driver, a fate better than many. As I listened to his tragedy I reflected on Dr. Sun Yat Sun's comment "To each according to his ability". Every member of society should help improve the nation by working at their own full potential. It was heartbreaking that so many motivated and capable people were held down by lack of job opportunities. Without jobs, they had no dignity.
Sunday, July 1. 35 degreess Celsius.
I woke up to clear blue skies, and decided to prepare for the road ahead by taking the day easy. I had no real conception of what it would be like taking so many kids for their first outing in the modern world of Chongqing . Despite the extensive precautions I took in planning this trip, I still felt a bit tentative. I have always loved traveling, but never cared for the detailed logistics of planning and organizing. I have to admit that I prefer traveling with an organized tour, when everything is pre-arranged for the traveler's comfort and convenience. This time I was in charge of the footwork. I would just have to be flexible and take the challenges as they came.
I went to the bus station to check the schedule to Dazhu, which was 5 hours away and where 7 of the children lived. 8 others were scattered in the countryside, living anywhere from 2 to 3 hours away by bus. The kids in Dazhu weren't ready to travel on their own, so I agreed to go fetch them myself. I had dark memories of how dingy and unsophisticated Dazhu was. The last time I was there I stayed in the 'nicest' hotel, which seemed 30 instead of 5 years old. The elevator walls were scarred by cigarette burns. The carpet was stained and torn.
After recalling these discomforts, I wasn't too opposed to my daughter's request for an American meal that evening. She was barely 12, but had been very mature about the trip. She really didn't like traveling and would have preferred to stay at home with her pets. I persuaded her to consider how this journey would benefit the kids, and explained that they would enjoy her company. She finally obliged, and bravely accepted the role as my helper.
We went to the Marriot, which had a good reputation for offering the comfortable simplicity of American food, like salad. During trips in the past, I always denied her requests for ice cream for fear of contaminated water supplies. However, I made an exception this time on the ground that marriot is an American chain hotel. Still, she asked several times if it would be OK to have ice cream. I said " It is OK t have ice cream here. Will I put you in danger?"
"Will you be stupid? " As she questioned if I truly believed that an American chain in China would follow the meticulous standards of its American counterpart. I laughed for being checkmated by this girl.
Monday, July 2. 33 degrees Celcius.
We arrived at the bus terminal early. It was crowded and chaotic. People were crammed everywhere in various awkward poses- standing, sitting, hunched over luggage or squatting. The ground was littered with luggage, packages and garbage. The PA poured out a continuous stream of announcements in Sichuan , the local dialect, which was unintelligible to me. People rushed by and carelessly bumped into me. The air was humid and oppressive, and sour with the smell of sweat. I recalled how my friends at home chided me when I told them my plans for this journey, and I began to feel that maybe I really was crazy to be here.
When we boarded the bus to Dazhu, we were hit by a suffocating wall of cigarette smoke. I doubted that I could survive the 5 -hour journey, but hesitated to point out the no smoking sign to the unheeding passengers. It was a pleasant surprise when the bus pulled away punctually, and even had its air conditioning on. A light drizzle began to fall, and I felt soothed by the passing poetic scenery. I summoned up the courage to ask the other passengers to stop smoking, and they obliged. It was a good omen for the day.
After a 1/2 hour ride, the bus pulled into a stop. The driver didn't offer any explanations, and none of the passengers seemed phased. After 15 minutes I couldn't contain my curiosity, and made my way to the driver to investigate the situation. He casually explained that his bus was on a later schedule, and that our originally scheduled bus was broken down but would be repaired shortly. That bus would catch up, at which point the passengers would simply transfer. This logic baffled me, but some things in life just had to be left as is. I tried to relax, but my mind began to explore potential difficulties. What if the next bus was full? How would I survive standing for 5 hours? The drizzle hardened into a downpour. The passengers were puffing away like smokestacks. My bulging bladder added to my discomfort and paranoia. I borrowed someone's umbrella and anxiously started out the door.
The bus stop consisted of a roof, a bench and a ticket sales person. As is often the case in China , the search for a bathroom was laborious and this time unfruitful. I was directed towards a campsite, which I found, and realized I would have to settle for a big tree amongst some weeds. I opened the umbrella for privacy and conducted my business. This one relief was tainted by my other concerns- what if the other bus came? My daughter would be smart enough to tell them to wait, but would they understand her command of the language? What if we got separated, and she ended up in Dazhu by herself?
I tried to make my way back in a hurry, but slipped and fell. It was certainly Murphy's law acting up. Luckily I fell on soft mud and it didn't hurt. I trudged back to the bus, brushed off some dirt and climbed back into my seat, sopping wet. I was quite a mess but comforted to have my daughter by my side again.
After another hour, a bus sped by and our bus started up behind it. We had waited the past hour and a half for nothing. I marveled at the calm acceptance of the other passengers, who continued smoking and chatting without a care in the world. I took a breath and cooled down, reminding myself that I wouldn't have to stand all the way to Dazhu. The road was bumpy and full of potholes. I grasped onto the side rail, feeling like a rodeo performer.
The East Lake Hotel looked the same as I remembered, and despite its grimness offered me some sense of reassurance after the tiring journey. Hot water was available twice a day, but we arrived too late and I settled for a cold shower. The showerhead let out a thin sprinkle. The room was dirty, and the walls were stained with traces of squashed mosquitoes and cockroaches. The corridor was dark, because the electricity had been shut off to conserve energy. During the day one could find the rooms, but at night it was necessary for an attendant to guide the way with a flashlight.
An incessant mosquito hum drilled through the air. Every muscle in my body felt tight and strained, so I inquired about massages. I was informed that "fake" one cost 80 yuan, and the "real" one cost 240 yuan. That was one clue as to the character of this hotel, and the kinds of services they offered. I could hear men and women's horseplay in the corridors, and drunken pounding on doors. I even got a special service call, but the person hung up as soon as they heard my female voice. Apparently I wasn't the clientele they were targeting for their 'massage service'. I realized I must be in the most popular brothel in Dazhu.
I tossed and turned that night, and tried counting sheep to fall asleep. As I finally drifted into dreams, the sheep's faces became those of the kids I would soon pick up. All of my weariness and discomfort melted into sheer excitement, the same exhilarating sensation I had the night before my first 4th grade outing.
I didn't realize it at the time, but this trip was a rite of passage for everyone involved. The childrens reactions display the severity of their previous isolation, and their promising ability to adapt to a new situation. The tribulations of organizing and conducting this trip were in fact a test of my own determination to help these children. I ended the trip exhausted, but infused with an unwavering dedication to continue exposing children to a broader world. (to be continued)