Travels without Porpoise, Part 6


Wuhan is a major city, though one without much tourist appeal. The Chinese scientists knew I spoke Chinese but kept to English because they felt it would be rude since the other two volunteers couldn’t understand. Unfortunately, only Mr. Wang and the other chief scientist named Mr. Yang seemed to know English and their pronunciation was all over the map. I hate to even bring this up, because I can only imagine what they thought of my Chinese pronunciation.

After a forgettable lunch, we made Wang take us to a local history museum we’d read about. As soon as we arrived, Wang vanished as if he couldn’t stand to go inside the place and a museum employee appeared to take us around. There were many interesting objects, especially some oddly shaped bronze artifacts and a set of huge bronze bells. We were having a great time laughing and speculating with the curator about the antiquities’ original purposes when uptight, humorless Wang came back and cut our visit short.

Wang took us back to the guesthouse where we had dinner, during which everyone ate huge quantities and drank a lot of beer, especially Dave. I didn’t know at the time his drinking would prove to be a problem.

August 17
At 6:30 a.m., we left Wuhan in a four-wheel drive Nissan with city tires, totally unfit for the rough roads we soon hit. Six torturous hours later, we arrived at the research station, the base for our Earthwatch expedition. It was a brand new, three-storey building. In fact, it was so new it wasn’t really finished, as I’d soon learn.

Wang, Yang and cast of other men had a protracted conversation about room assignments and which bathroom should be the ladies’ room. Sharon and I wound up on the top floor; the ladies’ bathroom would be the one on the floor below. Dave would have a room on the second floor and the staff would share a large room, dorm style down the hall. They’d use the bathroom on the ground floor.
The ladies’ john sat right on third floor stairway landing and the door closed only half way—improperly fitted—so anyone passing in the hall below could see in. The tiny sink had one faucet. I could hardly get one hand under it. When I turned it on, running water came straight out, then with a WHOOSH, landed directly on to my feet because the drainpipe had not been connected. This actually proved useful later on because we could put a bucket (I used the spittoon) under it and accumulate water for later. Why? Keep reading. The sink, which turned out to be both bathtub and shower, had waist high windows directly above it, affording the local residents a clear view of everything taking place inside the bathroom. The toilets, two of them, were eastern style—oval shaped holes in the floor. Only one had a flush handle and it immediately broke. Due to lack of spare parts, the toilets couldn’t be fixed. Flushing required filling a bucket. (see above)

The bedrooms were large and we each had our own. Mine had only a single bed and a chair with one broken leg. The mattress was a woven reed mat placed on wood planks with a one inch thick cotton pad on top. As soon as I lay down, the pad flattened to the thickness of a towel. There was no drape on the big picture window. Another window, also uncovered, looked out on the hall. I questioned this lack of privacy and after much discussion, Wang brought me sheets of newspaper and we glued them to the windows.

After we got settled in, Wang assembled the research team and the local bureaucrat arrived. We had another meeting in their brand new twenty-foot square reception hall. Again, our Chinese hosts all sat on the opposite end of the room. In deference to the local official, they’d turned on the ceiling fans and they made such a buzz we volunteers couldn’t hear one word of what the pompous little man said, or the translation we were given. I felt the urge to burst into hysterical laughter during this Monty Pythonesque scene. Afterward, we gratefully went to our rooms.

August 19
Got up early. No running water, so I got some hot water from the kitchen in a jug and used it to wipe off my face. Wang appeared and led us downstairs to eat. On the way to the dining room, located in a separate little house, he said casually, “By the way, there’s a little conjunctivitis epidemic locally so we got a new cook, but don’t worry.” He gave us tiny vials of liquid and told us to put drops in our eyes. Sharon and Dave became quite upset, wanted to know what actually was in the bottle. Wang wrote the Chinese characters out for me but my vocabulary didn’t include medicine. I tried the drops; they burned too much to use.

Breakfast followed, noodles in meat juice, pickles and hot peppers. They didn’t provide anything to drink with breakfast so we asked for tea. A woman brought hot water in a pot, but no cups. After the meal, Sharon and Dave tried to thank our hosts by saying thank you in Chinese. This prompted a round of giggles. I told them later why. The word “xie,” or thanks in Chinese when pronounced in the second tone instead of the first tone means loose bowels.

Wang said we were now going out on the boats to view the porpoises. We were so excited. Finally, we’d see porpoises in the wild! Dave asked what kind of boats they had but Wang just said, “You’ll see.” Eventually, I came to understand this phrase as meaning, “You aren’t going to like it.”
To be continued..

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~ by mickeyhoffman on April 15, 2011.

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