Alex and I took an amazing vacation this year. Our trip had three main components. The first, was visiting the Panda Research Center in Chengdu. The second section, largely inspired by the novel A Single Pebble, was a cruise on the Yangtze River. A Single Pebble describes the journey of an engineer traveling up the river to contemplate building a dam around the year 1900. He recounts the dangers of traversing up this wild and dangerous shallow, rapid filled river while his boat is literally pulled against the current by dozens of scantily if clad men called trackers. Our journey was somewhat different. We boarded a luxury river cruise ship (imagine the Viking Cruise commercials from Downton Abbey) along with dozens of septuagenarians from around the world.
At our first luncheon we were able to assess the demographics of our ship. There were several small tour groups from America, Britain and France. The other half of the boat seemed to be aging Chinese families enjoying their holiday. To add a little spice to the mixture there was a 30ish Swiss couple, a pair of poor English teachers from Beijing (us) and a middle aged South Korean family with a young adult daughter. To avoid disrupting the homogeneity of the other guests, the cruise director decided to place all of the misfits at one table, ours.
Like everywhere else in the world, English proved to be the unifying language. The South
Korean father soon found another universal, alcohol, and proceeded to buy everyone a round of drinks. This kind man had a huge personality that was not diminished by not being able to communicate with anyone outside his immediate family without the help of a translator, his polylinguist daughter. Throughout the cruise, he proved himself a merry companion while pouring his family and others portions of beer and baijiu (Chinese liquor) and inviting us to visit his family restaurant outside of Seoul. To alcoholics, he would have been a magnificent enabler, but with us and the Swiss couple, this only resulted in a few shared beers and general goodwill.
The expeditions on shore were touristy but interesting. The first day we visited the old temple area of Fengdu, a small city of 200,000 which was one of the many towns and villages displaced due to the building of the dam completed in 2008. Even before the abandonment due to the dam, the city had a reputation as a “ghost city” due to local belief that it contained the entry gate to hell *yikes*.
The next day, we visited one of the tributaries of the Yangtze, Shennong Stream. To be honest, I initially thought this idea was a little lame. Our break from the boat was literally a ride on a ferry and then a ride on smaller wooden boats. To quote HIMYM, “Boats, Boats, Boats!” But, due to our guide, it ended up being one of my favorite things. Our guide’s name was Coco. She took her job very seriously, ushering us to the correct side of the ferry to get the best views and earnestly imploring us to take photos. When on the wooden boats, she started explaining her history. While China is 98% ethnically Han, she is part of a people group called the Tujia. They have traditionally lived in and around the Sichuan province and have a distinct oral language, but no written language. She
explained that before the damming of the river, her father was a tracker. She proudly displayed a picture of the backside of 4 naked men pulling on ropes assumedly attached to a loaded boat. Her father was the owner of the naked butt cheeks second from the left. While politely looking at the nudity, our eyes were diverted by the demonstration of the boat rowers. They swiftly ran up the river bank uncoiling a bamboo rope. While they ran along the bank slightly pulling our boat, Coco explained that this was how people had to move their boats in the shallow water in the days before the dam. After our rowers had jumped back on board and resumed rowing, she explained that our trackers only spoke Tujia, not Mandarin. She taught us a couple of polite phrases we could use with them or any other Tujia people we came across. She then offered to sing us a song in Tujia. She taught us a call and response folk song where we would get to join in as well. Then, the day suddenly got magical. As her voice came through her tinny speaker, you could see the concentration in our rowers who had previously been zoning out. You could see glances from other boats and smiles break out across their trackers faces as her voice projected through the mountain gorge. This reverie lasted maybe five minutes with two songs until she then hit us with a sales pitch about a book about the Tujia with a picture of her in it, “You see—Coco is a superstar” and a DVD with shots of the river and more folksongs. Nevertheless, floating along the river listening to Coco sing is something I don’t think I can forget and I was glad she shared her story with us, even if it was just the lead up to her entrepreneurial pitch.
This vacation has been a wonderful break from teaching. Every day we are seeing beautiful landscapes, learning new things and having a lot of fun along the way. Any break from work is welcome, but the river cruise has been an exceptionally refreshing part of the journey.