My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Ride Not to Be Forgotten (July 14, 2010)

According to Google Maps, the straight-line distance from Nanning to Guilin is just over 207 miles. A rough measurement of the route we followed between the two cities stretches out to around 232 road miles. The real-world measurement is something closer to 87,426, 219 shakes; 4,284,203 rattles; 857,642 bumps; at least one downright scary truck stop bathroom, roughly five hours of nonstop vibration, and an uncountably high number of assorted shimmies, shifts, bucks, jostles, and jolts.

But first, let's pick things up at the beginning of the day...

Having learned our lesson the previous morning, we had our wake-up call half an hour earlier... and it let us have time for a more comfortable breakfast (and time to quietly think birthday wishes in Mom's direction). It was especially helpful in light of the Pipsqueak deciding on a post-bottle nap before we could head downstairs for breakfast. She also began to demonstrate a new behavior: put me down and you will regret it. Maybe it was having her entire life turned upside-down in one day, maybe it was being run back & forth across town with a busload of strangers, maybe it was just a baby being a baby... but she was really, really clingy today. Still, we managed to shovel down a big breakfast (we wouldn't really be able to eat again until reaching Guilin) and be ready on time. I took one last set of photos out the window (we were used to the HOV lanes back home, but the separate lanes here for bikes & motorcycles impressed us both), and then we headed downstairs to check out and hit the road.

With a new driver instilling an improved sense of safety, we headed out through downtown Nanning to start our journey. The modernity of the city's downtown that we had first noticed on Gotcha Day was obvious almost everywhere, although in some places the newer buildings looked like they had sprouted up through the older ones. Another thing I noticed was little touches of whimsy in unexpected places; even the pedestrian barriers in the roadway median had little colored birds embossed on them. The traffic, of course, provided counterpoint by constantly reminding us that driving in China was not something any of us wanted to try doing for ourselves.

Our driver picked up the Liunan Expressway and we started the journey to Guilin in earnest. This could have been a highway almost anywhere back home... as long as you ignored the fact that every single overpass served double duty as a billboard. (I couldn't help notice that every business was advertising a web URL... they're not kidding when they say China now has more Internet users than any other country!) We continued rolling along for a while, occasionally dodging a larger tour bus, until we pulled off at a rest stop.

In some ways, this could have been any rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike (even with nary a HoJo's in sight). It had a gas station, a large snack bar, parking for a bunch of tour buses, and public restrooms. Chinese-style restrooms, that is: squatty potties for all with nary a Western-type toilet in sight. Some of the group got bottled water, several of us got yummy ice cream, and then we all attempted to use the restrooms. As I headed for the breezeway to the restrooms, a group of Chinese women who'd gotten off a large bus just after we arrived came piling out of the women's room... moving fast, coughing, wiping their tear-filled eyes, and holding hankies over their mouths. Not a good sign in any language. I turned the corner into the men's room, inhaled once, and decided I really didn't need to go that badly.

NOTE: You might want to skip this next paragraph if you have a sensitive tummy. In case you haven't run into one (or a description thereof), a "squatty potty" is basically a small trough in the floor, either with running water or a flush mechanism. The idea is that you drop trou, place your feet on the painted footprints usually found on either side of the trough, and squat to do what you gotta do. Unfortunately, being little more than the classic "hole in the road" leaves squatty potties prone to lingering scents. Combine that with the classic hygiene of a roadside gas station, and... well, everyone in our group decided they could "hold it" for a while longer.

Okay, you can start reading again...  Back on the road, we all settled into a routine. In fact, there wasn't any way to avoid settling... as in "contents may settle during shipping." The bus shook, shimmied, vibrated, and generally did its best to keep us from sitting still. The highway was paved with concrete, which was very conscientiously patched as needed -- with no one work crew making their patches the same height as any of the surrounding patches. Case in point: I took a lot of photos, and the vast majority are out of focus because even the "no shake" feature on my camera couldn't handle all the motion. For example, notice the "soft focus" of this photo I took of my niece (who was trying to figure out why she kept sitting up only to slowly get vibrated down into her mommy's lap)... and notice the construction gear outside the window!

Actually, the roadwork was kind of interesting in and of itself: groups of bright orange barrels would suddenly appear in the middle of the road with a batch of little colored flags off to one side as a warning; small groups of men wearing heavy orange overalls in the sweltering heat would be nonchalantly sitting in the roadway inches from passing traffic as they worked; and then we'd be bumping along our way until the next flash of orange in the distance.

We had been eastbound but the road soon turned north toward Liuzhou, just a bit past the halfway point of the trip. After another hour heading north we began to see occasional patches of carefully-crafted landscaping beside the road, and after a while even the natural landscape began to change with steep hills appearing in the distance. Unfortunately, by this time the constant shaking & vibrating of the bus was beginning to take a toll (first time I've ever been made tired by sitting down!) so some of the scenery was lost on the group. While AJ and I tried to keep the Pipsqueak occupied -- the one good thing about all the shaking around was that she didn't complain about sitting "still" -- the girls linked their Nintendos to play a few competitive games and Lisa... well, she'd done twice as much running around as any of us in the past 48 hours and after a series of calls on her cell phone, it finally caught up with her for a while. (More about those phone calls later on...!)

The hours passed and we continued to shake, rattle & roll along our way. We passed countless batches of brightly-colored little banners announcing countless batches of orange-highlighted worksites, and as we passed through the area around Liuzhou the group surrendered to the inevitable and our driver pulled off at a rest stop. At least I think it was a rest stop; there were just a couple of other cars, no concessions stands, not much more than an expanse of concrete with a building on one side. Luckily, there were restrooms, and they were almost clean -- so the rest of the trip was a little more relaxed for some of us. A short while after getting back on the road I began to catch glimpses of the karst features that made the Guilin area famous.

I had also noticed something else along the road (now renamed the Guiliu Expressway)... there were signs advising people how to drive safely, and they were all in English! I kept trying to take photos and eventually got the timing right, so here's a selection of signs that kept catching my eye:

I'm sorry that I missed the other "no speeding" sign that showed an angry cartoon guy hanging out the window of the front car... Someone at the Highway Ministry had a sense of humor! In any case, this being China, most drivers were totally unimpressed by the signs. We saw maneuvers behind, beside, and in front of the bus (that our driver ignored) that left us all breathless and reminded me of Dad's adage, "It's not how many accidents there are that's amazing, it's how many there aren't!" I managed to catch one example with my camera (and yes, he did indeed squeeze through successfully before zooming off into the distance). I also got a shot of a typical car carrier: why waste all that space above the surrounding traffic when you can double up on your cargo? (Dude, hasn't anyone ever explained things like "balance" and "center of mass" to you...?)

The highway had become a lot curvier & twistier, climbing slowly into the hills as we approached Guilin. Poor little Miri finally gave up on trying to look out the window -- she kept vibrating down below the windowsill -- and fell asleep after spitting up a mushy mouthful of Cheerios on Mommy, leading AJ to jury-rig padding that would keep her daughter from vibrating right off her lap and down onto the floor. The girls' Nintendo batteries had run out of juice, the driver's companion was dozing in the front of the bus (I don't think the driver dozed off...), and the only thing that really interrupted our group daze was the sight of a large truck -- luckily on the other side of the road -- that had taken a curve too quickly and dumped its entire cargo off one side.

Finally, around the time we decided that we didn't care where we were, we just wanted to be there so we could get off the bus, we reached Guilin. We rolled into town on a brand-new highway (complete with toll booth still under construction but showing signs of being very nicely shaped to mimic the nearby mountains)... in fact, it was so new that there were no lanes marked, and the locals didn't seem to have gotten used to a multi-lane highway being there yet because a little old lady slooooowly pedaled her 3-wheeler across in front of us, with our fast-moving front bumper missing her rear wheels by just a couple of feet...

If my memories are accurate, it was around this time that Lisa clued us in on all those concerned-sounding cell phone conversations she'd had earlier. It seems that the hotel we were supposed to be staying at had called her almost as soon as we'd left Nanning to tell her that there was a big business convention in town, other hotels didn't have enough rooms, they were going to take the high-profit overflow from the other hotels and as a result they were cancelling our reservations, thank you very much and have a nice day. (Okay, I'm assuming that last statement, but the rest are accurate.) Not to worry, though; she'd gotten us a group of adjoining rooms at a nearby 5-star hotel, with just one problem: none of our intrepid crew seemed to know how to get there.

I think it was the 3rd (maybe 4th?) time we passed the same guy sitting against the same wall on the same corner that Papa S decided to see if his phone's GPS feature would work in China. He got it fired up, plugged in the address Lisa gave him, and waited for it to find a satellite. And we passed the same guy on the corner, and he waited for it to find a 2nd satellite. And we crossed a bridge over the river going out of the city, and he waited for it to talk to the satellites. And we crossed back into the city, and he waited for the phone to figure out where it was. And we crossed back over the river again and turned the other way, and he waited for it to figure out where the hotel's address was. Finally, just as the driver turned into the driveway running across the front of the Guilin Royal Garden Hotel, the GPS announced that we had arrived at our destination. Isn't technology wonderful?  8-)

We got checked in (first time I'd ever been someplace with a revolving door that included live rosebushes!) and took the elevator up to our rooms -- three in a row at the back of the hotel. The lobby was beautiful but the entire hotel had an air of being slightly past its prime, maybe even a tad worn, so I wasn't sure what we were walking into but the room was actually as nice as anywhere else we'd stayed over the years. The real surprise was when I pulled back the drapes and we got a good look at our scenic view. Oh, well...

Scenic view or not, we had a room with all the amenities and working Internet, so life was good. Even the beds were "soft" -- at least in comparison to the stone blocks at our last hotel! After a little settling-in time (and a clean blouse for AJ) we headed downstairs for dinner, and got another surprise: not only was the dining room very large & very nice, our group had its own private dining room off to one side, with huge picture windows facing the river. We had all gotten used to the limited availability of drinks at meals (usually they'd pour your choice of water or soda into a smallish glass at the start of the meal and that. was. it.) so the occasional refill was another happy surprise. The food came fast, came hot, and came tasty... and by the time we'd gotten our artistically carved melon dessert, all those shaky, rattly, uncomfortable hours spent in the bus had (mostly) melted away. There were no plans for the rest of the evening, so a walk down by the river seemed a nice way to get acclimated and maybe work out the last few lumbar kinks before going to bed. I'd been sitting with my back to the window, concentrating on helping AJ keep the Pipsqueak from wreaking too much havoc, so when I stood up & turned around the view just stopped me dead in my tracks. The four photos below were all shot through the windows either in our private dining room or on the main stairs into the lobby; they don't really do justice to the living postcard I saw through the glass.

We returned to our room to get the baby sling and finally figured out an arrangement of straps that looked right... kinda... and joined everyone in the lobby with Miri hanging happily in front of her mommy. We walked along the main road that paralleled the river, with shops & businesses on one side and a long, narrow park area along the other. As we walked, we could see much of the city's population enjoying an evening dip in the river (which was lined with beaches almost as far as we could see) and many families & groups enjoying the balmy evening, some even carrying tables & chairs across the street and setting up impromptu "dining rooms" beneath the trees for dinner al fresco. There were some curious glances (again, we were the only non-Asian faces in sight) and even a few nods & smiles... and then a little girl came running up to us with a biiiig smile yelling, "Hello! Hello!" at the top of her lungs. This was apparently her entire English vocabulary, because it was all that she said -- but what she lacked in word count she more than made up for in volume & enthusiasm. Finally her aiyi corralled her, and as we continued our walk we could hear, "Hello!" Zai jian! Hello!" fading into the distance behind us.

The weather was nice (yes, I was hot & sweaty but it was a pleasant evening and it felt so good to be off that fershlugginer bus), and after a while we'd all walked off most of the kinks in various parts of our anatomy and headed back toward the hotel. We paused for the occasional photo (as the sun went down, we realized that most of the shoreline was prettily "painted" with green & yellow floodlights) and by the time we reached the hotel our only real concern was trying to figure out how the Pipsqueak managed to ignore gravity so thoroughly and remain comfortable while hanging out of her sling perpendicular to her mommy!

We all retreated to our rooms for the night, and sometime shortly before I posted the day's adventures on the travel blog my new niece presented me with a little surprise. We still couldn't put her down without regretting it, so we took turns passing her back & forth as we got ready for bed. Finally, when AJ was done getting ready, I passed Miri to her... and discovered a biiiiig wet spot on my shirt where she'd been resting. No more concerns about her not peeing often enough...! The Pipsqueak seemed puzzled, then amused, by the funny noises her uncle made and seemed content in her fresh, dry diaper as she dozed off. I decided it was the kind of thing I'd have to get used to (and boy, did I ever!) and made sure to seal the shirt into a ziplock bag before settling down for the night.

We'd made it to Guilin!

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