Stuck in the Blues

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Aug 19, 8:30am City Gentleman Cafe, Kunming

Ok. Depression. It sucks. I've been back and forth to the Poste Restante to look for the letter and it still hasn't arrived.

I even got up early to try and make some calls: to my parents and to my girlfriend, but all I got was answering machines. So instead of doing something I've been sitting here making up blues songs in my head:

I was riding a bus, all the way to China
I was riding a bus, all the way to China
All it did was rain...

An act of creation always helps shake a dull head, but somehow it ain't working. It doesn't help that today is another gray day. Even the fact that it really isn't raining doesn't help much.

I remember (for some unkown reason) that one of the Danish guys I met said that it was good for the English that everyone spoke English- but then, of course, they have to listen to everyone slaughter it.

Same Day, 5:30pm Hotel

I had actually been doing pretty good after my days sojourns. My mood had begun to lift, but then I checked the post office a little while ago. Nothing like vain hope to really ruin a day.

There was a scam being run outside of the cafe this morning. A bunch of people, a few on crutches, had rode up to the corner. One guy had come up on a hand cranked three wheel bicycle that was kind of cool- he couldn't pedal. The cafe was a little higher up so I looked down on them as they set up.

One small guy sat down and unrolled a shell game. The others just kind of hang out there not really talking to him. When a cluster of pedestrians get near, these others crowd around him and act as "seeds," playing loud, and slapping money around. Inevitably, people come over to look.

The thing is, that the player has to hold down the shell to get his or her money. This is hard to do: if your not careful the "shell" man will cheat. So the "seeds" would shake the pant leg of someone and try to get them down to hold the shell. Once the person has been cajoled down, they would try and get them to bet.

But they were not very successful, only one person ever bet. The game scattered a couple times, the pieces rolled up, as if cops were near or something, but eventually they just moved on.

After that scene, I started talking to another American who'd also been living in Taiwan for a couple years. He'd been doing part time environmental stuff for the American trade mission in Taipei (called American Institute in Taiwan (AIT): the US no longer has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, so cannot have an embassy), and teaching English. And, of course, studying a little Chinese.

We mused amusedly about Taiwan. The dangers of traffics, karaoke fires and stuff like that. There had been a fire at a big hotel in Taipei fairly recently and he told the story about a friend who worked at the Taipei World Trade Center. The guy had tried to sneak rope and repelling equipment into his office. The World Trade Center, he felt, could very well go up like a torch, and he might as well have a way out...

As we parted, the American asked me if I wanted to leave any messages anywhere in Taiwan. Jokingly, I said, "oh I you see Norman tell him I said hi". Norman was this guy who had a reputation for knowing everyone, to the point where someone had used "So, Do you know Norman," as a pick up line in a bar. And, of course, this guy knew him!

After that I rented a bike and rode off into the wild grey yonder, looking for the "Bamboo Temple". It was a bit out of town and I rode quite a ways. The map was awful though and I was soon pretty lost, without much of a clue where this place was. The area was pretty industrial with all sorts of trucks going up and down the roads. But there were plenty of donkey carts as well.

Finally, I did the smart thing and started asking. I was finally directed up a twisty road. It was all uphill and quite nerve wracking: trucks carrying dirt were barrelling down the road, hardly slowing down as they made the hairpin turns.

A the slope got steeper, I dumped my bike off at a little store, intending to walk the rest of the way. But as soon as I stepped onto a road, a car pulled over in front of me and the driver waved me over.

I was a bit wary when they offered me a ride. But there were four kids in the back and he spoke the magic words "free." The two men in the front told me that they were taking their kids to a special English class up at the temple. I tried to talk to the kids and they giggled their way through their rote: "IamfiveIstudyhistoryenglishscienceIlikedrawing" stuff like that.

They let me off in the parking lot and said they would see me later in the temple. I went off to find something to eat. It was a little late for lunch but they were still serving, and as in most temples, the food was good.

In the midst of eating though, a little girl let a pack of 10 kids or so into the room and they marched over to my table. "May I speak with you?" she was quite forcefull and left no question as to the answer she wanted to hear.

But before I could get the chopsticks out of my mouth, a parent rushed in and pushed them all off, saying "we will meet you over there, in the courtyard".

The attraction of the temple are all these clay sculptures of gods, scholars and monks. Unlike the majority of temple sculpture I was used to which could often be big gaudy colorful and ugly, these ones were done in a very "realistic" style; often caught in the midst of gesture, leaning this way or that, hands waving, chopping, flying even; faces betraying all sorts of emotions: calm, content, anger, bluster, rage, a whole range. There were several rooms full of them, both on the ground level and the level above looking down on the viewers.

The teacher, Mr. Huang, came up to me and toured me around a little. The temple was fairly large but besides the statues there was little else of interest to me. The courtyard was nice though, lots of little trees and plants, plenty of stone benches.

The teacher led me into the courtyard and his class gathered around, the lesson beginning in earnest. Or performance, I should say. Mr. Huang prompted them to ask memorized questions (how old are you? Where are you from? Are you married? Do you like China?), and then each student was asked to give an introduction of themselves (much the same as I heard in the car with only minor variations).

Then, they all whipped out harmonicas and I started to get worried. They launched into a rendition of jingle bells. They harmonica-ed through one verse and then started singing. I never knew the song had so many verses! It was bizarre

When that was done, they had others songs: going through all the seasons, the months, the days of the week; first in Chinese and then in English. All the while, a crowd was gathering and a guy with a huge lens on his camera was snapping pictures, pacing around in the crowd looking for a good angle. I sat there imagining captions on some propaganda paper, "Foreigner amazed by English of Chinese students."

It seemed a bit odd, the whole thing, but the parents seemed grateful. After the singing, it became a little more relaxed and they asked me more questions, often just repeats, but still a little more at ease. Someone got out a Chinese chess set, and one little boy was delighted to slaughter me- which was not something that I could have helped.

After that we had a group picture, exchanged addresses and they dropped me off by my bike.

I just headed back to the hotel. It was already to late in the day to do much else. But then my bike broke down and I didn't have much choice to walk back anyway. The bikes don't have chains, they have rubber belts like a fan belt and it snapped. Or at least that is what I think happened. It's hard to even get at, because the whole thing is enclosed in metal.

But I didn't have any trouble returning it, thank god. I had walked the rest of the way home imagining being forced to buy the stupid thing or something. Silly fears, in other words.

Aug 20, 5pm, the Happy Cafe

My bus leaves in another hour and a half. I am heading for the hills. Out towards Dali, a famous little spot in backpacker circuits. A bit closer to nature, something which I am looking forward to at this point.

But it has been, in general, another one of those waiting days. The best thing to happen was to discover a little shop that sold real bread. I was ecstatic and immediately gobbled a couple rolls and bought some more for the road.

I walked across the city to go to this big park. I was looking for perhaps a Chinese Opera concert, something which the park is known for, but there were only a few soloist practicing for their own edification and enjoyment. I must confess that the singing is not the reason I would go to Chinese Opera; the costumes, gestures and action are what intrigue me. But there was more karaoke then Opera singing (which is even worse).

So I just walked around. Since it is a Sunday, it was crowded and the many little dirty lakes were full of little boats rowing and paddling about. One hapless couple was doing zig zags and circles across one, laughing at their own ineptitude.

I sat down for a while to write a letter, but people kept coming to stare over my shoulder. But they would run off as soon as I looked up. So, I started writing a letter in Chinese, to at least get a conversation out of it. But, of course, no one stopped by after that. Disappointed, I gave up and left.

I wandered around a little more buying odds and ends, checking the poste restante one last time, mailing a letter, and now I'm here at the Happy Cafe having an early dinner of curried potato, rice, and coffee.

While I've been sitting here, some guy forced his kid to come up and talk to me. The boy came up and mumbled a few phrases but was obviously way too intimidated. He stood their playing with a loop of string on his grasshopper cage. His father kept pressing him, so I tried to encourage the kid in Chinese, "don't be afraid." But he wouldn't budge and the father gave up. The boy said "bye bye" then and gladly left.

I was then greatly humbled when I asked for tea and got broccoli instead. So much for my great Chinese!

I'd seen the grasshopper cages before, some guy had been selling them on the street, and he had a huge pile of octagonal cages, the crickets all chirping away like mad. Made me think of one of my favorite children's stories: about Tucker the mouse, his friend the cat, and a little boy who'd bought a cricket that could sing.

The markets were full of song birds. In the mornings, in parks, you can always find some old men gathered around their bird cages. There was lots of fishing stuff here as well in the markets: either for the nearby lakes or the ponds in the city. Who knows.

Anyway, I can say that I'm not in the mood for the city at this point. I'll be glad to leave. The bus is an overnighter with beds. We should arrive in Dali early in the morning, and I'm looking forward to it.

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