Are There Any Left? Travels Without Porpoise continues.

August 22
Wang and Yang squeezed the five of us into an old SUV for a drive to Shishou City, a city of a few thousand people located on the banks of the Changjiang river. We boarded a rusted metal boat about 60 feet long and appearing far older than its purported five-year existence. The morning’s search for the Bai ji porpoise revealed nothing but extremely muddy water and a riverbank cluttered with hideous concrete buildings—a charmless view of “modern” China.

Back on the throbbing, dirty, boat deck, the afternoon soon took on a surreal quality, or maybe a bad dream. Bored and alienated, I found myself focusing on strange things like Yang’s long nose hairs. Sharon lay back in the prow, skirts a-flutter in the wind, giving up all pretense of “research” and scratched away at her trip diary. The crew loafed or tried to position themselves so they could take photos up Sharon’s skirt. Dave slouched on a bench and took out a paperback bestseller. Wang and Yang stood at the sides, pretending to look for Bai ji porpoises.

That night we were taken to a hotel for the night where a banquet had been set up with local bureaucrats—even the phone company CEO attended. They broke out some corn liquor they called white wine. The source of all Yang’s nose hairs?

Dinner, at least, was a worthwhile experience and extended to twelve courses, each brought out and presented with a flourish. One beaurocrat helpfully pointed to a steamed fish and said, “It’s called the Mao fish because Mao really loved to eat that fish.” Having already heard so many stories—undoubtedly more lore than fact—about Chairman Mao loving common everyday things, I hardly noticed, but Sharon, with a very innocent look on her face, asked, “Isn’t this the fish that Mao wrote a poem about?” I had to pretend to be choking on fish bones so they wouldn’t notice my laughter. Her comment didn’t get a bad reaction so I fear that there was, unbeknownst to Sharon, such a poem or there might be one now, written after that night. By the way, the local way to remove fish bones from your mouth is to just spit them out on the tablecloth, even at a splendid banquet.

After dinner, I asked to find a place to make a long distance phone call to check on my flight. It’s always a good idea to do things like that several times because one never knows what will become of a reservation. (More on this later.) My request prompted one of their group huddles with whispered conversation because they could tell I still meant to leave on the 25th, their marvelous Bai ji porpoise hunt failing to convince me of the validity of the expedition. Finally, after watching them argue for 5 minutes, I said, in Chinese, “Relax, for heaven’s sake.” They looked at me blankly as if I wanted them to take a nap or something. I clarified, “You know, in America we say CHILL OUT,” speaking last two words in English. This seemed to confuse them so much they actually stopped arguing amongst themselves and took me to a phone where I made the call. Perhaps I’d really be able to leave on the 25th.

To be continued…
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my mystery novel, School of Lies, available at or from my publisher, Second Wind Publishing, LLC. at

~ by mickeyhoffman on May 12, 2011.

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