Travels without Porpoise, part 5

Air terminal, Wuhan China…

After ten more minutes with no sign of a flight update, gate attendant or any other passengers in this section of the terminal, I asked the Taiwanese men if they thought our gate had been changed. They thought this unlikely, but went to check and sure enough, the gate had been changed without any notification.

Fortunately, the plane was late anyway. I worried about missing the Earthwatch scientists who were meeting me in Wuhan, but after a short walk down the exterior stairs to the terminal I found a man waiting for me at the passenger exit. The Wuhan airport looked more like an airplane hangar. I was glad I’d carried my backpack and camera bag (all of my luggage) because the baggage crew was casually throwing the stored baggage from the belly of the plane down to flat carts on the tarmac below. The passengers were mobbed a short distance away, ready to run for it, seemingly well practiced from experience with the other, “on your mark, get set, GO” baggage claim departments I’d seen elsewhere in China.

The man who met me was named Wang, first name Ding. He told me in halting English that the other two volunteers had already arrived, a man from the USA and a woman from Britain and we’d stay for one day in Wuhan before going out to the research site. Wang had a great English vocabulary but his accent was thick and he didn’t want to speak Chinese. He showed me to a room in a concrete block guesthouse and asked if I had eaten dinner. I told him not to bother but he insisted. Turns out he had to wake up the poor cook and it was midnight before I got my noodles. By that time, I felt so guilty I couldn’t enjoy them. But finally, I’d arrived! My ten-day Earthwatch expedition would begin the next day.

August 16
Inside my peacock blue mosquito net, I jolted awake to the sound of exercise music played over a PA system. The guesthouse staff was outside doing some version of Tai Chi. Breakfast was waiting in the dining room: watery rice porridge, white bread with no choice of topping and a semi-hardboiled egg. The male volunteer came down, to join me. He introduced himself as Dave, a professor from Milwaukee. After we ate, we had to go and wake up the female volunteer, Sharon. Our Chinese hosts seemed a bit upset with her laziness, but didn’t say anything. They just smoked endless cigarettes until she got ready, then took us to see the new Wuhan aquarium.

But first, a typical Chinese event, the introductory meeting. All the Chinese aquarists and management sat on one side of the room with our hosts and we three foreigners sat awkwardly on the other. The leader told us the facility had been built to educate people about the need to protect the ecosystem, especially the mammals in the Chang jiang river. They stated emphatically that Chairman Mao loved the Bai ji porpoise. This sort of rhetoric made me have to fight to keep a sober face. After several laboriously translated speeches–the other two Earthwatch participants spoke no Chinese–they took us to a large indoor pool to see the one Bai ji living in captivity, and the only one of his kind they were certain still existed anywhere on the planet. Our expedition had been designed to prove or disprove that dismal assumption. He was about six feet long with tiny eyes which evolved in the muddy waters of the river where other senses were better suited for survival. We also viewed another species of small, black, finless porpoise. We weren’t given much useful information, most of the talk being given to political back-patting, but we got to feed both of the animals. (This Bai ji porpoise died about three years later and to all knowledge did turn out to be the last one in existence.) Looking back, I think they probably knew this already, but what they knew and didn’t know only occurred to me after several unanticipated experiences.
To be continued…

~ by mickeyhoffman on April 6, 2011.

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