Travels without Porpoise Part 2 1/2

Chang jiang River Research Station
We three volunteers accompanied the two scientists to the boats—wooden rowboats with an outboard motor. Yang hopped in one boat. Wang said casually, “Don’t touch the shallow water, there are blood flukes in it.” Since we’d already been warned about that in our Earthwatch preparatory material, I felt protected until I noticed the inch of water lying in the bottom of the boat. And Sharon, who’d already seated herself in one of the boats, looked down with alarm at the inch of water lapping over her sandal clad feet.
Wang asked me which boat I wanted to go out on and thinking to help the other two, I suggested they go with the better English speakers, but Wang ignored me. I argued the point in Chinese. He still ignored me. Yang, the better English speaker went with me and Sharon and Dave went in another boat with Wang.

Our boats puttered out from shore into a 21 kilometer long oxbow which connected at both ends to the Chang jiang river. I squinted over the water, looking for porpoises. Yang did a water quality test and wrote in a journal. I kept waiting for him to give us something to do, but he never did. For three hours, we motored slowly, seeing nothing except an unbroken surface and the riverbanks shrouded in haze. This trip out on the water proved to be the template for all those to follow.

Two hours later, it began to rain and Wang insisted on disembarking at a fisherman’s house so we wouldn’t get wet, a curious thing to panic over since the temperature surely exceeded 85 degrees. The mud brick house contained but one room half filled with fishing nets and broken wooden crates. In the center sat a huge table on which a vat of fermenting beans welcomed hoards of flies to its bounty. The fisherman’s wife and her three children stared at us but didn’t want to speak. The smell inside was so bad Sharon and I wanted to go for a walk but Yang vetoed the idea, saying we’d get wet. Did he think we’d melt or something like the witch in the Wizard of Oz? I passed an hour by reading a first grade textbook in Chinese. Then we returned to the research station for lunch, again featuring plenty of beer.

More about life at the research station. Several Chinese families lived there, ostensibly to run it, both in the main building and in two smaller ones. During the day, they tended a large garden, fed the pigs and worked on repairing machinery and vehicles. The men drank and played mahjong and chess all night, chatting and banging the game pieces down so hard the clacking reverberated through the entire three story building.

The intermittent rain had turned the yard into a pool of mud. There were no walkways through it so it was tracked inside and infrequently mopped. There were no trashcans to be seen. Piles of garbage lay everywhere. Not what one expects to see at a research station built in order to protect a river endangered by pollution.

This might be a good time to explain about the bathing facilities. The first night, Sharon and I wanted to wash but the water wasn’t running in the ladies’ room. We were told to use the sink in the men’s but it was so filthy in there (see photo) we didn’t want to. Note: On another occasion, I asked for a broom so I could sweep the floor of my bedroom and they gave me a mop from the men’s bathroom that, shall we say, had been around, inside and never cleaned. We learned there was a cold water shower in an outbuilding behind the kitchen, but I chose to bathe from a plastic dishpan, using water from my thermos bottle, filled from a tap outside, or when available, from a kettle of hot water in the kitchen.

Why not the shower? In the shower room there were two toilets of the quality previously described. The showerhead was right next to the toilets, no partition. And bracketing the showerhead were two large windows with no coverings. In addition, the so-called shower room also functioned as a mosquito breeding center. Turned out the staff there wore bathing trunks in the shower. For further enhancement of the bathing experience, the pigsty abutted the bath house. Actually, the sty was much cleaner than the bathroom, smelled better, and was full of adorable pigs.

We could have overlooked the physical limitations of the place, but we increasingly felt like we, and Earthwatch, had been conned. It was obvious the Chinese had been dishonest when setting up this expedition with Earthwatch. They didn’t prepare anything for us to do in the way of research, and I became unsure if they were doing any either. Wang first told us there had been ten finless porpoises in the oxbow who’d had five offspring, making fifteen. But Yang told us there were only five. After we probed and persisted Yang let it slip out that in the past year they’d accidentally killed seven while trying to capture them to fit them with radio collars. Doing the math, we asked Yang, “So what about the other three?” He pretended several times not to understand the question. Finally, in exasperation I took a pen and wrote it down in Chinese, adding he couldn’t pretend not to understand the question anymore. He said, “Oh, I don’t know anything about them having five offspring, you better ask Wang.”

Since Yang had gotten his master’s degree working on this very project and had been there from the start, I felt aggravated with this deception and wanted to pursue it. The other two volunteers wanted me to desist, especially Sharon. She made a living as a journalist and when the Director had found out he’d been very displeased, making Sharon edgy. I didn’t feel her paranoia, but I backed off. I knew we’d been manipulated and so had Earthwatch. What did we have to lose?
To be continued…

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~ by mickeyhoffman on April 25, 2011.

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