Monday, August 26, 2013

China: The Hustle

The Hustle: China
For the Previous Entry, Please See Intro –
1.       Seeing History in the Present: Levity
There’s something about China that I’ve never seen anywhere else.  Here’s an image: it is 9pm at night and dinner has been consumed.  The streets have a loud rumble to them, and part of it is the buses and the cars that drive through traffic like traffic laws had never been written; part of it is the music from the elderly practicing their dance forms and exercising outside their homes on the sidewalks, in parking lots, on public spaces, on private spaces; and part of it is the children running around on the streets and the sidewalks and around the homes and in the parks; but most of it is this energy that’s made when every single person in the city is out - whether it’s in Beijing or Luoyang or Xi’an.  It’s as if they’d been hiding in their homes all afternoon to avoid the thick, humid heat and the swarms of people (all millions and tens of millions of them) to come out at night and really get on with things, like playing poker on the corner with a couple of beers, a few packs of cigarettes, and bowls upon bowls of salty peanuts.  

On the streets of the cities and in the town center, every single person is out to make a living and they want you to know it, from the moment you wake up in the morning to see little old ladies selling meat filled bao zi for breakfast until the deep evening, when children’s toys are being played and squeaked into the night sky: “San quai qian!  Liang ge san quai qian!”  There’s audio tapes of the hustle when the hustle needs a rest, “Four buns for 1 yuan!  Come and get some nice, hot buns!”

My company and I joined the hustle.  After arriving in Beijing, we immediately set on an aggressive itinerary through the July heat, my company explaining that he has not arrived in China to “sit in the hotel room.”   This involved:
(1)   A Hustle up to the Great Wall where we stood nearly packed with other tourists at Ba Da Ling, mainly Chinese, to scale a multi-thousand mile wall and manage to cover about 400 meters in 2 hours standing nearly jam-packed-still with a million Chinese tourists;
(2)   A “let’s get ourselves lost so we can understand Beijing” Hustle;  A shortened version of the conversation is:
            “Can you please look at the map?”
“No.  It’s raining, and this is how I explore new countries.  I get myself lost and then find my way so I know my directional sense.” right, that’s a lot of logic there.
            Silence.  45 minutes later, we realize we have gone into a large circle, and we’ve only covered one “block” on the map.  Beijing is the size of a small planet.
            “Beijing is huge.  It looks like the first ring circle is as large as San Francisco.” [there are 8 ring roads, or concentric circles]
“Yes, that’s correct.”
            “I should look at the map.”
“I believe so.”
            “Are you ready to kill me?”
“I’ve been considering it for some time now.”        

(3)   A Hustle through the Forbidden City where photographs were taken every 3 feet:
            “We will never get through this place at this rate.”
                        “You need to be more patient.  I’ve never been to China before.”
“I’m serious.  If you take a photograph and spend that much time to set up, we will never get through this.”
Three hours later.
            “You were right.  I think we should hurry up.”

(4) A long, dragged-out walk from the lively, music-playing, Karaoke singing, shopping Hutong District near Bei Nan Hai, that ended in a 45 minute silent shuffle back to our hotel, where I had my eyes on putting one foot in front of the other for fear of feet mutinies, and where my company saw a variety of interesting things: a small child behind the counter of his dad’s lamb skewer shop while the dad slept on a bench, construction work inside a new building at midnight, a Chinese Hell’s Angels ride, and a group of people haphazardly trying to fix a telephone pole (we think).

Nothing, though, prepared us for the professionally organized Hustle in Luoyang during day 5 of our trip, orchestrated by my aunt, Da Yi, who sent us up and out of our hotels at 7am to go on a tour van with my forcibly sent cousin and two other random families, a very nice Chinese family from Xi’an and a confused Swiss family who appeared to have confused their trip to Boudreaux with one to Luoyang.  The main focus points of the trip involved visiting two sites, very far from one another, ShaoLing Shi and Long Men Grottoes, all in one day and to get us back by 6pm for dinner, or else my Da Yi would make sure that this tour group guide and his driver would never get another customer again, and did that tour guide know it.  This involved being timed to the 20 minutes, which involved being shuffled from the van to the tickets, and from the tickets to the sites, and ultimately which involved walking at a pace that made my hips sore and my quads ache all in the July, 100% humidity heat and 100% squished onto the millions of other (literally, millions) tourists’ bodies.

Here now, we come to one of the highlights of the Luoyang Hustle.  It is about 90 degrees, and all 12 of us are stuck in a van meant to take 9.  Suddenly, the van slows to a stop on a dusty road, and we look up to see that there is a long line of traffic...of tourist vans and buses. At this point, our driver shuffles us all outside into a tourist trap of a building that sells some kind of pots and art work with all sorts of hidden White Man Taxes, no air conditioning, a very questionable “bathroom”, and a lot of indoor smoking and the sound of spitting.

My company and I walk through the tourist trap with little interest in our heat delirium and leave with the other families, who hop back into the van, aka the Microwavable Death Box.  

In the Microwavable Death Box, my company loses his composure, “Fuck this!  It is so fucking hot, and we’re expected to sit in traffic in the middle of nowhere!  Why is there traffic in the middle of nowhere?  That’s it, I’m going to go hide in that bamboo forest.”  The two of us exit the Microwavable Death Box and hide in a bamboo forest on some old lady’s back yard with the excited and unfriendly dogs, and the confused old lady staring out her window and shaking her finger at us.  It is in this moment that the Swiss lady, stuck in the very back row of the Microwavable Death Box with her two young sons, looks out the window and sees Tweedle-dee-dee and Tweedle-dee-dum hiding in a random bamboo forest on some old lady’s back yard, trying to escape the heat.  It is in this moment that we see her smile, no, laugh, for the first time all day since 7am when the van picked them up from their hotel and dragged us all up a mountain in Shaolin Shi and hauled us through the temples and into the crowds and then back on the van again to go to the Longmen Grottoes only to stop at a tourist trap of a shop for 45 minutes.  In the July heat.  In the 100% humidity.  Breathing on top of one another and inhaling the thick air of each other.

It is a brief moment of levity before our driver comes back, and we are forced into the van again with a shout, the door closed, and we being carried on to our next site.
2.       Remembering History in the Past: Weight

The July tourism in China feels like riding the rush-hour bus in Beijing, but we had a few moments - a rare glimpse of quiet, enough quiet to think a bit and reflect - where the enormity of everything we were surrounded by - the enormous Buddha statues, all hundreds of thousands of them, carved deeply in the caves that stretched along the river in Luoyang, the temples and the discipline of the martial artists in Shaoling Shi, the beauty of the Great Wall as it weaved west from Ba Da Ling, the gold plated roofs of the Forbidden City - nearly made everything else bearable.  The awe came in from the enormity of it all, the audacity, and absolute disregard for human limits to make something so absolutely grand and terrible all at once.  If beauty and cruelty could be in bed together, you’d find the bed in the World Heritage Office.  It was as if the everyday life of the average Chinese citizen during the Tang, Qin, Song – or any of other dynasties through and including Mao until China’s Open Door Policy – were dedicated to building a temple for this life or building an afterlife for the emperor or building a revolution for the People, a hustle from generation to generation to worship, build, and die.
Grieving an ancient world monument isn’t a great way to understand a history.  But then again, neither is the absolute worship of it.  It’s as if all the symbolism of power and slavery is placed in one, breath-taking view for people to travel across the world to see, “Hey!  Look at how many people died making this!  Isn’t this country great?!”  To stand in absolute awe at the creation of absolute power – to be seen from the moon, for the purpose of the immortality of a dynasty and its art, woven into a history of one hustle to another hustle. 
We saw the incarnation of that spirit in the streets of Beijing, in the parking lots in Luoyang, in the martial arts academies of Shaolin Shi, the activity and desire to build for worship, to build for building, to make something withstand time to give a name to the history of a people.  Two thousand years ago, a wall was built to symbolize the seriousness of the Hustle.  Today, cities and skyscrapers are erected with the same moving fervor to show the world the Hustle hasn’t died, and instead of a defense made of stones, China has a defense made of economic activity.

Ironically now, with a rising disposable income, China’s citizens can travel from afar to look at the greatness, the sheer volume, the audacity and terror of its own history, woven along the thousands of miles of the wall, along the faces of the caves, from one temple to another temple, from one dynastic clay army to another gold plated palace, built by the bones and with the spirit of both a breathtaking and unimaginably cruel art – and inherit the Hustle.

Monday, August 12, 2013

India, a Dream in Pieces

Introduction: India, A Dream in Pieces
Ganga sat hunched with hollow cheeks, the flies landing and going, and the ripple of the water reflecting the thick air. 

Ganga laid motionless, waiting for the air to speak, and the air did not speak.

Ganga cried, and the flies hovered, on sunken cheeks.  And then the air spoke and rain came with a flood of wind, and it rained and rained and rained.

“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...” – Joseph Conrad
India comes to me in pieces.
We arrived late into the night and early in the evening, our hotel arranging a pick up at the Indira Ghandi International Airport.  We ditched the smell of China and arrived to the smell of India, a smell hot of tarmac, onions and spices, and human sewage: cooking and public defecation are common problems outside the airport.  The sticky, humid night heat with Delhi’s scent hit us as we found our taxi waiting to take us to our hotel in central Delhi.  Our driver was a tall, quiet man who gave us brief descriptions of each landmark and asked us politely of our travels.

We drove by the President’s house with his 314 rooms; we drove by the five-star Taj Resort where diplomats stay during visits; we drove through three military check points and saw in the dark the men with guns standing guard along the streets; we drove past dozens of sleeping bodies big and small, young and old, sprawled out along the sidewalk and under trees; and we arrived at our hotel, The Metropolitan, and was greeted by a security guard carrying a semi-automatic who checked the hood and bottom of our taxi before allowing us in.  It was 3:30 in the morning.
The air conditioning froze us as our bodies adjusted from the dead-of-summer, monsoon heat in Delhi, and we walked into the brightly lit hotel reception with full-staff, even at 3:30 am.  Our hotel room was lavishly garnished, and when we turned on the shower, the water came out smelling of blood: iron in the faucets. 
Iron in the faucets: If I could harness all the energy of the entire place, all the hustle with the desperation to make a living, and if I could take all that frenzy with the traffic and the people and the noise, and the sellers and the barterers, and the rich and the poor, and the corrupt and the innocent, the heat sticking to every single part of your body, and every single, “Sir/Madam!  Where are you free?” or “I give it to you for 500 rupees, a real bargain” and you ask for it for 200 and you settle on 350 knowing you had paid too much, if I could harness all that, I could light up the Himalayas.
Opening our hotel door to enter the streets of Delhi felt like descending into a jungle in which we did not belong but was a place we stumbled into, and every new street we turned into, we were descending, stumbling into the center of it, and all the while, we were wearing big bright signs that said, “We don’t belong here!”

We would spend 3 nights and 2 days in Delhi and the next five nights and five-and-a-half days in Leh, up in the Indu-Himalayas, close to the stars and the sun and the moon.  We would walk through those days in Delhi with our feet dragging heavier and heavier, our bodies sinking into the ground along the make-shift shanties along the street corners, alongside the children playing naked and sleeping on the streets with the flies as we return to our too-cold hotel in the dead of monsoon summer.  But in Leh, in Leh where the air is thin and the sky is close to the earth, we felt a lightness, a floating, and we did everything we could to keep the ground from falling beneath us.  It was there in Leh that the heaviness was stripped from us, the veneer of grandeur built on top of slums hidden in a nightmare we forgot something distant, and we listened to our conscious breathing up in the mountains, and we were dizzy with the beautiful of it all.

We were dizzy with the beauty of it all.  We were dizzied by the grotesqueness of it all. 

We spun and we spun, and the contradictions around us spun itself into our minds and followed us even when we closed our doors, hush now, away from the outside, away from the chaos, to enjoy the splendor of all our own hypocrisies which we saw right outside our window (the children sleeping on the streets and the men with flies in their eyes) lying in bed with all the contradictions that India was happy to show us, laid bare the essence of the humanness, the worldliness, the deceit we were surrounded by and the truth of how none of it made any sense.

I will, one word at a time – in 4 pieces about India and 4 pieces about China – try to tell the stories of these trips from the past weeks which have spun themselves during my waking days and sleeping nights. 

I dream of India.  I hope I can do Her justice, those few days we met Her, I hope we do Her justice.