Six days in Japan were enough to convince me that there is no other nation on the face of the earth that is so clean, hospitable, and an absolute treat to the senses. Though Tokyo is supposedly the most populated city on the planet, after the rush hours of early morning and late afternoon, the streets are practically deserted during the workday. A life lived in this country is not enough to gather in all of its wonders and beauty.
Zenita Nilsson and I hiked, trekked and climbed over the last 4 years from Sweden, Spain, Israel, India and finally to China. They are days I will never forget. We have parted ways now, with Zenita returning to Sweden, while I carry on toward new adventures. I wish to lock in time right here some of the more special memories of the last few years traveling together. I give up to the Universe gratitude for each and every day we were able to explore the world with one another.
May all be as it should be.
“I always want to remember from where I came,” Mr. Luo said, unzipping his dirty work coveralls. He looked like a new man, with a dark blue suit, white shirt, and yellow tie underneath.
With the wave of a hand and a few words in Chinese, he directed a subordinate of the little bicycle repair shop to bring forth his new acquisition; an aging English Midland bicycle.
I gaped in awe. The only time I had ever seen such a novelty was over forty years ago in the movie “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” Bright yellow in color, it was in fabulous condition. I dared not touch it.
Now a billionaire, Mr. Luo ran an empire of fertilizer that stretched to all corners of the earth. At all hours of the day, conveyor belts heaved up thousands of tons of festering porridge from the bowels of large cargo vessels, spewing the dark mix upon huge mounds. His company processed, fortified, and packaged this muck for resale abroad. There was nowhere on the planet where his fertilizer was not used. The air that we breathe daily in this city along the coast, and its ghastly aromatic tint, was a never-ending witness to his success.
“Go ahead,” he encouraged. “Take it.”
I put my hands on the bars. Emboldened, I rang the bell. Studying the bicycle so as not to look him in the eye, “I asked, “Why did you name your company Sha Gua? Doesn’t that mean idiot?”
With a blank face, seemingly unable to place himself back in time from where the name originated, he answered without emotion.
“The name of my company? Again, I do not ever want to forget from where I came, nor do I want others to forget.”
I was puzzled, and it was evident to him.
“Many years ago, before the new development, times were hard in China. Perhaps you know of this time?” His face was still without emotion as he asked the question.
“The Cultural Revolution? Though American, Mr. Luo, I’m a professor at your university. Of course I know it.”
“This was my first shop, my first vocation, my happiness. Occasionally, I even traded in pig droppings so that farmers could fertilize their small fields.”
I mounted the yellow bicycle to gather a feel of the seat. “And Sha Gua, the idiot?”
“You are impatient, aren’t you?”
“No, I just woke up with Pink Eye this morning. I best be getting to the clinic before work.” I checked my watch for the time.
For the first time, he smiled. “Of course. It will be faster if you ride the bicycle.”
I turned my head once again to meet his eyes.
Expressionless, he continued, “Sha Gua, the name of my company, comes from the words on the high pointed hat that I was once made to wear as I was bound and dragged through the streets by the Red Guards. I was called a speculator, the most heinous of accusations, for selling dung. I was the idiot, and all were to know this.”
Now, it was my face that matched his blank maw.
“But, times have changed,” he added.
“Yes. I suppose they have,” I replied.
“Leave the bicycle with the doctor there. He will be only too glad to ride it back.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “You know the abominable Doctor Feng?”
“A jest. When I walked by yesterday he had a cigarette dangling from his lip. His lab coat was filthy as usual, and he was cleaning a used syringe with a handkerchief. Some old guy was sitting listless next to him. Not sure if he made it. Abominable seems fitting.”
“Ride the bicycle to him.”
I nodded. I pushed the yellow bicycle through the garage door of the shop and quickly made my way down the street to the clinic.
Once there, a small crowd of onlookers gathered. I thought they were curious as to the nature of the resident foreigner’s visit to the clinic. This was not so. They instead circled about the yellow bicycle, as if beholding a holy relic. I noticed Dr. Feng was there at the door of his clinic, looking at me as well. An intense individual, perhaps now in his late fifties, Dr. Feng was tall and strikingly handsome, despite his disheveled appearance. He immediately discerned the reason for my visit, looking at my red and swollen eye.
Fumbling through a cabinet, he produced a vial. He placed some drops in my eyes, letting me know with a few words and sign language to do the same every four hours. Then, he gathered a patch to place over my eye. Despite my hesitancy, I allowed him to put it on.
Adjusting my sight, I peered across the room. Standing, I lifted up the patch upon seeing my reflection in one particular picture. The image was of a long time ago. It was Chairman Mao Tse Tung smiling, seated upon a yellow English Midland.
A large, red Cadillac STS pulled up at the curb beyond the throng. The driver exited, opening the rear passenger door. It was Mr. Luo, the king of crap. I paid Dr. Feng, and then met the aging gentleman outside.
I uttered, “Dr. Feng was your tormenter, wasn’t he? He was the young man who dragged you through the streets with the dunce cap on your head.”
Mr. Luo feigned a smile. Then, he pointed at me and observed, “You look like a pirate. Perhaps now you have a Chinese name. We shall call you Jiang Hai Dao – The River Pirate.”
“Arrrgh!” I grumbled. Giving a two finger salute, I bid him a good day, and headed down the street into the city. At the corner, I stopped, something urging me to look back. As I did so, I saw Mr. Luo and Dr. Feng locked in embrace. My chest heaved, water from a river of emotion beyond sight filling my eyes.
Indeed, for everything there is a season.
I heard this tune this morning after rising early.
I had been sick with a cold for the last week, and now feeling better, and seeing the sky so blue, I climbed up White Cloud Mountain. As I looked over the city, I heard this song faintly playing across the crest of the mountain from the radio of an old man sweeping the steps of the pagoda. I recognized it immediately as the theme song of the old television series Lonely Planet. I remember watching that show and longing for those adventures they shared weekly. I wanted to live that life.
How funny, synchronicity and circumstance, that now that I am living that life, I would return in a moment of reverie upon that great mountain with the music that started it all for me.
I think I know how to answer some emails now, as to when I am coming home… “I am home. And there is still so much more to see.”
The auditorium was in an uproar with laughter. An odd situation, seeing that university students and businessmen in China do not normally reveal such displays of hilarity, especially before foreigners.
I was presenting a class on great marketing mistakes of the last twenty-five years. We had already covered the fiasco of Coca Cola changing the taste of its product in the 1980’s, and now came to the Gerber Baby Foods brand attempting to make inroads into Africa a couple of decades ago. Two pictures I displayed on the auditorium screen. One was of a sample of product from the food giant, the classic image of the white baby that is its trademark predominantly featured on the front of the packaging. The other picture was of large numbers of the product being confiscated by soldiers of the Organization of African States and UN security personnel in Liberia from the compound of Joshua Blahyi, better known during that nation’s civil war as General Butt Naked.
When the laughter subsided, I smiled, then shrugged my shoulders. I understood that trying to promote baby food in Africa could have met with greater success if Gerber had replaced the image of the baby with one more inclusive of the nations in which it was marketing, Truly, shortsightedness on their part. Only, I was missing out on what was so funny?
Bright, one of my students, read the expression of puzzlement on my face correctly and came to my rescue. “Even we know when packaging food for selling in Africa you always put the pictures of what is inside on the front of the label, because so many people there can not read, especially women.”
Again, the class broke out into laughter. I looked back at the screen, the image of the baby so conspicuous on the front of the label. “Oh, my God,” I heard myself mutter.
I peered back at the students in the auditorium, one hand then raising to the other picture on the screen, the one of soldiers confiscating the hoard of product that had been stashed at the rebel base of General Butt Naked. My students had enlightened me once. I was interested in them doing so again.
It was Pan that spoke up this time, fighting off his deep desire to continue chuckling. “General Butt Naked and his men were cannibals. They were known to run into battle without clothes, then eating parts of the bodies of the men they killed. No one knew why in the last year of the civil war they stopped doing this. Now, we know. They thought they were eating babies! Without knowing it, Gerber may have saved many lives.” The class returned to a state of pandemonium, during which time a security guard poked his head through the classroom door to see that all was well. I reassured him with a raised hand that it was.
When class concluded, many students passed by, extending a hand to pat me on the shoulder, all with smiles on their faces. I was embarrassed, as they saw, and truly humbled. Coming to China has presented many surprises, but none so much as those which I have received in teaching my university students and businessmen in the community. As they have come to learn from me, I am all too aware that I am receiving an education from them. This is not the China so many of us in the West grew up being told about. It is definitely a new age.
On 2 October to 4 October I had the opportunity to hike and camp along the Great Wall of China from West Simatai to Gubeikou. The images below are of the restored section at Jinshanling. Though I have hiked along many grand vistas around the world over the last two years, few can compare with the seemingly surrealistic landscape found from walking along the Great Wall. It was an adventure of a lifetime. Clicking on the images will enlarge them for closer viewing.