The Olympic creed "it's not the triumph, it's the struggle" falls right in line with Neil's "the point of a journey is not to arrive" – and makes perfect sense to be mindful and present in each and every moment.
That's what labor's going to be like for Amy; everything we've learned and prepared for to date will be hogwash when it comes to pushing Baby B out the mama door. The guests we had over at our birth planning meeting validated that statement. It'll be the most natural, physical and spiritually primal act we'll ever experience. No attaching ropes to my man parts, though. That experience isn't necessary.
Anyway, with the spotlight on China for the next couple of weeks, I reminisced about our trip back in late February – Baby B's first International trip! I've included some highlights of my travel ramblings below.
"I stood at the top of the mountain
And China sang to me.
In the peaceful haze of harvest time
A song of eternity --
I heard the hope and the hunger
When China sang to me."
The flight took off on time and after 13 hours (actually 29 if you count the time difference) of reading, napping, eating airplane food, watching movies and shows on our iPod and iPhone, doing crosswords, getting up and down, going to the bathroom, helping one of our fellow tour travelers get her Nintendo DS up and running to play "brain teasers" (or something like that), listening to two other tour ladies discuss the year of the rat (and the dragon and the snake and the dog...) because they just watched "Rattatoille" on the plane (spelling?) and what wonderful pets they make (the domesticated ones), and the one tour woman who needed to speak in fluctuating decibels to a Chinese native (man) about Manhattan and whether or not chop suey would be readily available in Beijing, and the mother with her cute little boy who sat in our seats on top of our headphones because they were trapped by the duty free cart while we stood in line for the bathroom (they thankfully did not break them), and half-watching without sound some stylistic Chinese cop show where the characters dress cool and it looks like there's lots of action but nothing really is happening (like "Waiting For Godot" but with Budha instead - but not waiting for - now I'm confused), and after gazing out over the snow-covered wonderland of Alaska and string of Aleution pearls and the badlands of Northeastern China, and finally participating in a little plane yoga following along with the young Chinese woman on the TV screen--
We landed in Beijing. Safely.
On our way to lunch, we noticed a lot of "urban renewal" going on outside of Beijing. One of tour folks commented Santa Cruz should be doing that with the beach boardwalk. Those of familiar will understand. We also passed a new amusement park being built called Wonderland. I said it looked like Disneyland (there is one in Hong Kong). Our tour guide Angela said no, Wonderland. Go figure.
While we were driving in and around Bejing, Angela gave us a lot of imformaton about Beijing and China (sometimes too much, especially when we were all very tired). She talked about how dragons, magpies ( which were eveywhere), peaches and dozens of other things all meant longevity in Chinese culture! She also talked about how the Chinese government has opened their arms to business, foreign investment and trade, and private ownership of almost anything except property (the buildings can be owned but not the land). She said the Communist Party was no longer communist, and although she didn't use the word democratic she did say capitalistic with certain personal freedoms. I joked with her about putting that in writing and she said no, but they do talk among friends.
The highlight of the had to be the Great Wall. Stunning in the mountains and over 3,000 years in the making. The section we were at included a vertical climb up 1,000 uneven steps to a spectacular view (the weather is sunny and warm like Santa Cruz now). And we did it! Baby B's first International hike!
Our visit to Tian'a Men Square was quite pleasant and non-eventful by comparison. It was a sunny yet smoggy day (pollution is very bad in Beijing), but thankfully breezy too. The weather has been warmer than we anticipated, almost equivalent to Santa Cruz this time of year. Lots of people walking around the square. In fact, imagine lots of people and then multiply that by 10. It was pretty amazing to be walking around Tian'an Men after only seeing the images and footage in the media for so many years (and the fact that China has only been open to the west again in our lifetime.
The color red is everywhere, but not because of communism. No, the color red is good luck and is supposed to bring prosperity. A civilization over 40 centuries old, China is a mystical place with a rich cultural history and sense of pride. They are also a very warm people; even the aggressive street vendors and store vendors are polite about their pitches. They love to barter, and the more you get into it the more fun it is. They'll hand you a calculator (store folk, not street) and say, "Best price." (pronounced plice, seriously) They want you to type in your price.
I have to tell you, driving is nuts over here (wait until I recount our little side trip from yesterday). The thousand-year-old roads were made for walking and bicycles, not cars. And even though there are about 1,000 new drivers a day on the roads, there are also still almost 1.3 billion folks walking and riding bicycles. On the streets. On the expressways. On the highways.
But there's an orchestrated fluidity and symbiosis to the thousands of perpetually honking cars, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians (yes, the people honk too). It's like every object moving on the street knows where it should be each and every moment. Except us. Oh, there are plenty of accidents, but it's mesmerizing to watch the traffic flow.
By the way, there are over 40 million black market decoded iPhones in China, and I'm the only one who can't get the wireless Internet to work (Apple and China Mobile haven't struck a deal yet, but based on this, it doesn't matter.)
The sun was going down fast and I wanted to see the leaning pagoda. We walked and walked but couldn't find it. The bike rickshaw drivers swarmed like bees and there were people everywhere - a Friday night in the city.
Then we tried to hail a cab, which was an exercise in futility. No empty cab would stop for us and most had fares. Daylight waned and I was worried, not so much because it was dangerous where we were. It wasn't. But we certainly didn't want to be stranded at night a long way from where we were supposes to meet the group for dinner. We might as well have been on Mars; we were Heinlein's strangers in a strange land. I don't even think we could've navigated the buses. A nice young man tried to help us but he spoke about as much English as I spoke Chinese.
Then a cab pulled up in front of the restaurant behind us but the driver waved us off as he was going in to eat.
I kept trying to hail on the main street and Amy on the side street. Rickshaw drivers bugged us, street vendors tried to sell, and the locals stared at the lost Americans. Dusk was upon us and all the while Amy was also keeping an eye on the cabbie in the restaurant. He finished, came outside and stood on the corner not far from us, smiling. I wasn't sure it was him but Amy was. She stood right next to his cab and when he came over he finally asked where we were going. We showed him the name of the restaurant written in Chinese by our tour guide Frank.
The cabbie smiled again and waved us into his cab. Thank you.
Beautiful and sometimes bizarre, Chinese contemporary architecture is a fusion of tradition, pragmatism and retro-western flair. Even the interiors can be strange -- space-age-Ikea-sparseness like the Ramada we're at now in Hangzhou, a medium-sized city of about 6.5 million. The first thing that came to mind was "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- clean but stark white walls, squat red and orange vinyl chairs, and round white cocktail tables all in the lobby. The rooms are like that too. (Was Ikea around and did Stanley Kubrick shop there?)
"What are you doing, Dave? And why do you and all your friends look alike?"
After lunch, instead of following the primary itinerary of going with the rest of group (we are one of four groups) to a place called Tiger Hill, we decided to break out on our own for the afternoon and go to the Humble Administrator Garden. We took a cab to the north end of old town, and mercy was that crazy like Mr. Toad's wild ride. Not only is there a completely indecipherable language of honking, if someone is going too slow (and to a cabbie, everyone is going too slow) you pass them - with other trucks, buses, bikes and pedestrians coming right at you.
Thrilling to say the least. We also thought that the driver had gone too far, but once we got there he had three local passerbys confirm we were in the right place (and we had another American confirm).
The gardens were lovely and you could see spring just starting to emerge from its winter cocoon. The peonies and other flowers weren't blooming yet, but the verdant trees, bamboo and other shrubberies were thriving in the hazy spring sun. Lots of granite-colored volcanic-looking rocks were everywhere. Chinese gardens are extremely important symbolically and are intricately designed and planned -- the rocks symbolize mountains where there are no mountains. Lots of relaxing ponds, little bridges and ornate structures where high-ranking officials used to live.
Billions are being poured into China's infrastructure - power plants, roads, buildings - construction is going everywhere we went. The hi-tech electronic and component industries are booming. Foreign investment is huge. The middle-class is growing and spending and consuming (and there's still a one child per family law). According to what we're being told the crime rate is very low (many policemen don't carry guns) and lifespans are increasing because of improved health care (although it seems to be manditory for all men to smoke, like it's the 1950's in the U.S. And although there is no true democracy like we experience, it certainly ain't communism. The almost free market is thriving and only time will tell if it can be sustained.
However, we're not seeing the poorer farming communities (still the majority of China), where the horrid industrial machine's wake the world hasn't seem the likes of since the last industrial revolution occurs (India's part of this package too in there own right). We are seeing the smog though, and it makes places like Los Angeles pale by comparison. Our noses are dried out industrial wastelands.
Our trek continued in Hangzhou by traveling to the nearby mountains and a beautiful lake called West Lake (it's actually a large natural lagoon only six feet deep). It was a glorious day. Sunny and warm and the air quality was much better in the mountains.
We took cruise on an electric boat (no motorboats allowed and no fishing or swimming. Around us willows and sycamores stood proud in blankets of monkey grass while ancient pagodas rose high above the trees like graceful gods. We learned why the Long Bridge wasn't long and why the Broken Bridge wasn't broken and other tales of old. Chinese literature and storytelling go way back and are rich in myth and lore like the Native Americans and other ancient cultures around the world. We also saw the three large stone lanterns in the middle of the lake that are lit up with candles during the full moon festival in October.
Then we were off to the Lingyin Buddhist Temple. On the into the temple grounds we passed a handful of horridly deformed beggars. We were shocked because we hadn't seen folks like this on our trip up to that point. Our tour guide Frank told us that there really weren't homeless in China. Everyone was taken care of by their families and there were many government programs too. These "beggars" could take home more money than police officers.
The cliff Buddha carvings were amazing and over 1,000 years old. The temples themselves were very well kept and ornate and extended all the way up the mountain. Throngs of worshippers lit pungent incense sticks in flaming cauldrons and bowed repeatedly in silent prayer to multiple iterations of Buddha. The 64-foot wood carved Buddha glistened with color and reverence.
The next day was our final day and we were going to make the most of it! First stop was the Bund - the waterfront park along the Hangpu River. The view of the city on both sides of the river was spectacular even with the smog. We walked along the waterfront attacked on all sides by vendors, but it was a pleasant walk nonetheless. Amy bought a small panda kite (a series of cheap kites strung together) and wanted to fly it. As soon as we took it out of its bag, it immediately became an entangled mess. While I flew the three kites that weren't tangled up, Amy worked at untangling them. Within minutes a sweet teenage girl came over to help Amy. Then an old, practically toothless beggar women came over to help unsolicited, the same one who we did not give any money to just a few minutes before that. We didn't get the kite fixed, but we were thankful of their help and gave the old woman some help in return!