(Note: I must apologize for the delay in posting about our Hainan trip. We came back at 2am on Friday morning, kind of sick (actually pretty sick), and slept most of the day on Friday. Today, I realized my sneaky VPN was dismantled, so I was unable to access this blog. I found another one this afternoon, and all is again right with the world.)
The title of my blog today is the advice that Jenne on 2/18 would give to Jenne back on 2/13, and so it is also the advice that I give to you, dear readers, before I tell you about our adventure in Hainan. I also offer 2 disclaimers before I begin:
1) I did and continue to feel very grateful to Liz for including me and Trisha in her family vacation. The Parents (Liz’s mother and father and mother-in-law) had never been on a plane before, EVER, and so this vacation was very important to them as a family; to let us tag along for the fun was beyond kind and generous. There was time to rest and weather warm enough for sandals. We saw many new things, met big-hearted new people, and had many new experiences that we never would have had if we hadn’t gone to Hainan. I am so, so grateful for my friend Liz.
2) I realize that I am a somewhat fussy American, and I own that. So there.
And let’s begin.
On Sunday when we left, Trisha and I knew 3 things: that we should pack summer clothes, that activities had been planned, and that we should be at Liz’s by 2pm. Literally, that was it. We had no idea when our flight would be leaving, no idea what city we were flying to, no idea where we’d be staying, no idea what “activities” meant. For 2 women who have been leading students through texts and ideas and the quagmire of adolescence for most of their adult lives, not knowing what was coming next proved to be a real challenge.
Our flight to Hainan was delayed by 2 events: the foggy sleety mess outside, and a near-fight between the parents of a crying, sick baby and a few men sitting behind them who actually had to be restrained by the flight attendants. Since all Trisha and I could understand was the crying baby and the angry men’s fists, Liz had to translate: the baby was too sick to fly, so the parents wanted off. They also wanted their checked luggage, which meant another delay. 3 hours after we were scheduled to fly, we took off and landed in the city of Sanya (on the southern tip of Hainan) at 11pm. (I imagined that the angry men were eventually mollified by the in-flight meal of pork and rice. Food works wonders for my moods.) We shuttled to the hotel and passed out, knowing only that we should be in the lobby at 7am to leave for breakfast.
The next morning, Trisha and I both dressed in skirts, layered tops, and sandals. I commented- optimistically, in retrospect- that we should pack sunscreen and that I was going to wear a sports bra because “I’ll probably sweat a whole bunch today.” (I’d later learn that the warm forecast had been downgraded to 55 degrees, windy, and rainy when I found myself on a cold, windy, rainy island, woefully underdressed.) We boarded a bus with 22 other people and all of our luggage, since we were traveling north to a new city and would stay at a different hotel that night.
I’m going to digress a minute and introduce the other members of our group:
First, there was the 8 of us: me, Trisha, Liz, her husband, her daughter Amber, and The Parents. Then, the driver and the tour guide. There were 2 young couples: an adorable, put-together math teacher and her happy boyfriend, and a tall, sleepy pair who sat in the back with me and Trisha. Two sisters brought their husbands and their sons, cousins who thankfully entertained only each other with their bratty antics. Finally, our favorite family: an 81 year old man and his 78 year old wife who held hands oftener than anyone, and their son, who brought his wife. This man has a son who studies in America, so he knew a bit of English and would always ask us how we were.
We ate all meals with our group and always at a round table with the Jiaos and our Favorite Family, the 12 of us crammed together in loud mess hall after loud mess hall, with dozens of other tables and diners, predetermined dishes tossed onto our tables by overworked servers constantly on the move. I’ve never seen places like these before: the “restaurants” were these big warehouse spaces designed only to feed a lot of people quickly. The tables were all covered with layers of plastic and round wooden lazy susans. Once the dishes were plopped in front of us, that lazy susan would just start spinning and we’d get a few seconds to pluck a bite from each plate and drop them into our small bowls. Aside from being in line at Ian’s Pizza in Madison on a weekend night after bar time, I’ve never seen such a frenetic eating environment. Between groups, a server would grab the lazy susan and squeegee it off into a garbage can, snatch the corners of the top layer of plastic that was always covered with fish bones and shrimp tails and fatty pieces of beef, and drop that into the garbage can too. Then the next group would move in and wait with poised chopsticks for their turn.
The first 2 meals were overwhelming. Sensing this, the oldest members of our table (The Parents and Favorite Family mother and father) would continue to make sure Trisha and I got first dibs on the rice, and then they’d watch to see what we were eating, so they could pass those dishes to us most frequently. They also showed us how to rinse out our bowls with clean water before we started eating. As I’ve been so many times in China, I was struck by their hospitality and desire for us to feel comfortable. By dinner on the second night, I settled in to the routine and ate as much as I could. Breakfast was usually rice porridge and big white buns; lunches and dinners consisted of rice, a whole fish, some tofu, steamed cabbage, pickled vegetables, noodles, and a duck or beef dish. Sometimes shrimp with heads, tails, and shells. And we always finished with a seaweed broth soup to rinse everything down. By the end of our stay, I looked forward to these frantic, family-style meals because at least there, I knew what to expect.
As I’ve said, the rest of the trip was different. Over our 3 days of tour activities, we’d wake early, ride in the bus for a while- sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for 2 hours- and then disembark to a complete surprise. About half of the time, we’d get out to find a factory waiting for us. These factories always produced something that was endemic or special to the province: coffee, coconut products, seafood, crystal jewelry, etc.
The coffee plantation/factory was our first stop to one of these. I was interested to see what coffee production looked like; I knew from a story on public radio that China has been dabbling more and more in growing coffee as the demand for it here increases. But our “tour” was just passing quickly by one small courtyard of coffee bean trees; we didn’t see anything else.
Until we were shunted into a big store- our real destination- whose organization can only be described as labyrinthine. Aisles of coffee and coffee-related products snaked back and forth, and the genius of it was that we were forced to look at every package on every shelf. Further genius: at short intervals early in this maze, store employees gave out samples of hot fruity coffee drinks and candy and coconut cakes. After finally winding our way out of the store, we had purchased two different kinds of candy, some dried mangoes, and an orange chocolate coffee mix. Once back on the bus, Liz told me that tour guides earn commission on all of the products their groups buy.
We repeated this same pattern at least twice every day: a brief “informational” tour or a long-winded presentation in Chinese, then buy, buy, buy. Trisha and I got very good at speeding through the stores to use their bathrooms (she affectionately calls them Squattie Potties, an exacting description of how to use them) or to just enjoy the fresh air before we had to get back on the bus.
The other stops we made were more enjoyable. We spent time each day on a South China Sea beach, which was impressive even when the weather didn’t cooperate.
These were taken at Yalong Beach on Monday, 2/14. The beach is famous for its finely ground sand.
Under normal circumstances, T$ and I would have just giggled at spending a night in this hotel, which also featured big holes in the bathroom door frame and only a push-button lock on the thin main door, but the exhaustion that we faced from being around so many people so constantly was unexpected and hard to handle. When I say “so many people,” I don’t mean our tour group. There are just a lot of people on Hainan all the time. Every site to see and beach to walk sandwiched us between dozens of other tour groups and hundreds of people exploring the island on their own. It’s not considered rude here to butt in line or to bump the person next to you or to sit down in another person’s Personal Bubble, so physical contact on Hainan was a constant. And we couldn’t blend in with the crowd. Each time we turned a corner or came upon a new group, someone approached us and said, “Ha-loo! Where are you from?” or “Meiguoren!” A man at the Tianya Beach even asked if he could take his picture with us.
The noise was another thing. Almost everywhere we went, we were lead either by our tour guide or by one who worked for that particular stop, but all of them wore mikes and speakers and narrated (in Chinese) the histories of everything we saw. Even when we were on the bus, our guide spent most of that time explaining what was outside as we lurched and chugged by. The constant stream of noise that was to us incomprehensible became a real obstacle. While there was a certain freedom in being able to tune out the stories and create our own narratives based solely on our observations, the noise never, ever went away.
Our hotel rooms couldn’t offer us any respite after the long days; there was always a family talking in the hallway or kids running up and down the stairwells or cars honking and screeching on the streets outside. I thought often about the places I’d been where I’d found silence, and I kept coming back to Little Girl’s Point on Lake Superior. I sometimes had to visualize the starry, quiet nights there and take deep breaths to not feel overwhelmed. I know that people face situations that are infinitely more challenging than what I experienced in Hainan, but I refer back to Disclaimer #2: I am a somewhat fussy American. And I’m okay with that. I grew up with my own personal space and outlets for my introverted tendencies and right after a good bottle of Malbec, these are the luxuries I miss most here.
But in that same line at the airport, after confessing her fears for us, Liz also told me how impressed she was at our independence, and she noted that the other passengers in our travel group thought we were very friendly and adventurous. I should tell you, we did have plenty of laughs and even some moments of peacefulness on our Hainan journey. Here are the highlights.
After our near breakdown that second night, we snuck out to the C-store and bought 4 bottles of beer. We didn’t have a bottle opener, but Trisha grabbed Bottle #1 and cracked it open against the counter with her palm.
We were granted some time to wander around alone, and often, we found ourselves nestled in a sand bank or awed by waves and rock formations. Or the matching outfits that probably half of the people we saw wore.
The flora and fauna impressed us too.
We got to rub this golden dragon for luck at the Taiwanese village.
For you Seinfeld fans, don’t these guys remind you of that episode where Kramer is hosting the Japanese businessmen? Ha! I wonder if they all slept in someone’s chest of drawers! 🙂 For those of you who didn’t/don’t watch Seinfeld, these guys were just lots of fun. We danced in a circle with them to some traditional Taiwanese music later on.
We watched a stunt show at the Li village where 3 men climbed a ladder of knives, rolled their feet over hot irons, and karate-kicked shards of glass. If you look closely, you can see this guy’s sweet mullet.
On West Island, we stumbled upon this garden of giant sea-creature statues.
We attended a Chinese foot bath with probably 100 other people staying at our hotel. We put our feet into a shallow warm pool and let little fish nibble away the dead skin. I couldn’t stop giggling and shrieking, which, as you can imagine, was not annoying whatsoever to my foot bath neighbors. I couldn’t even manage to sit down. (I apologize for this weirdo angle that makes my legs and feet look…really attractive. We weren’t supposed to take pictures, so I was doing this on the sly.)
The tour package included these hats. I don’t think I need to point out the obvious awesomeness.
I found my Chinese zodiac animal! Oink oink.
The places we toured kindly offered many signs with English translations, which proved a source of some good-natured humor. Note: I only gently laughed at these, because it’s just my ignorance of Mandarin that prevents me from seeing the humor in signs or instructions with Chinese translations back home.
Our new-found friends were also a source of comfort and happiness.
As it turned out, Thursday was sunny and beautiful and hot. Being homeless after our noon check-out was actually nice because of our close proximity to a public beach where we lounged for most of the afternoon. We had some time and space to breathe and process the past few days in the alternating bright sunshine and palm-tree shade.
We also got to have lunch all by ourselves and choose meals from an actual menu, which reminded me that having choices, even small ones, is a real gift.
I expected a trip with lots of relaxation and time in the sun, and what I got was very different, but at the end of it, I could only feel grateful towards the Universe. I was given the opportunity to learn about myself and to grow in my friendship with Trisha, who is truly my kindred spirit.
I got to meet some kind, wonderful people with whom the language barrier mattered not one bit.
After all of my meditation about Lake Superior, I got to see a sunset over the South China Sea that brought me back to every dusky evening I’ve spent at Little Girl’s Point.
I even got to board the plane home in a brand new way.
So the whole thing was a little rocky, and I will probably not make it to Hainan again, but I gotta tell you, I’ll never forget it.