Thursday, April 27, 2006

My Trip to Chongqing Province, China...

I knew when our little group
arrived outside of the village of Changshou, that we were now a world away from the familiar modern comforts that we had left behind at Pudong International Airport, in Shanghai. Though we had only travelled four days, the distance in lifestyle, scenery, and culture seemed as if we had taken a step backward in time, far greater than the 86 hours it took for us to arrive here. As our hearty band of 8 wide-eyed Americans & 4 Brits stepped off of the Ferry at Changshou, I could barely make out the village ahead thru the cold mist. It was here that we were promised to meet up with Mister Xinghua -- he was to be our Guide back down the Chang Jiang River (the Yangtze River), and thru the spectacular Three Gorges. With a rather awkward bow, I bid the gracious ferry captain a heartfelt 'do-jeh' (thank you). "Mm ha hay", he replied (you're welcome). The wonderfully ornate red & gold Dragon of his Ferry would soon disappear in the gathering fog, and slither away forever. I fumbled for my Kodak Instant camera, and snapped a photo before he embarked from shore. I took a deep breath, made sure of the backpack about my shoulders, and pressed on to re-join our little group.

From the shore, we had a 20 minute hike down a well worn stone path, to
Changshou. After six hours on the cold waters of the Chang Jiang, with little to eat besides the last nibbles of a Hershey's chocolate bar, the sudden smell of fresh vegetables boiling in large, open-air stone pots, was a welcome ambassador. We looked very out of place with our down-filled Western coats, as we made our way past the modest dwellings. Chauncey, who hailed from Devon, England -- clearly the maverick of our group -- steered our little procession toward a gathering of several Chinese men, caught up in a street side game of Mahjong. We watched them, unnoticed for several minutes, before one of the men took his eyes from the board, and glanced us the familiar nod of greeting that we had by now become accustomed to receiving. The weather was quite cold, but the people were always warm.

Leaving the others behind, I allowed my hunger to overcome me, and made my way past some very old, 1950's vintage trucks. I found myself standing outside of a
rather marvellous garden, and watching a hunched-up elderly man, rooting thru the rich soil. He had greens cooking in a stone wok, and several small pots of boiling water, with various slices of meats and vegetables in them. The aroma was intoxicating.

The little man, no doubt sore & stiff from bending and kneeling in his crouched
position, took a slight spill as he fell to one side. It was then that he noticed me, as he looked up to see who's hand was offering him a pull back-up again. As surprised as he was to see me, an American, standing in his garden, I was even more taken aback when he spoke to me in quite good English.

"Thank you," he said thru an embarassed smile. "I think that is the fourth time this
morning that my knees have given out from under me." "You're welcome... mm ha hay," I replied, suddenly aware of my poor attempt at a Chinese dialect. "I'm here with a group of tourists from America & Britain," I said, as I gestured with my arm toward the gang down the street. "We've come to take a boat tour down the Yangtze, and the Three Gorges."
"Yes, I know," replied the gentle man. "I am Mister Xinghua, your Guide."
He was not at all what I expected. Poor clothing, wet soil soaking thru the worn fabric about his knees and elbows. For now, he was a far cry from the elaborately dressed Guide who would later pose for us after our voyage down the Chang Jiang River was at last complete: An immaculate, bright red & white garment draping his sloping body, topped with a hat of black velvet & red rope, and always that warm, wide grin of his. Then, he would be every bit the wise, old Sage. But for the present, he was but a simple, unassuming man, hands dirty with black soil. He grasped my arm like a grandfather taking hold of his grandson, as if he knew that I was about to turn, and call out to my friends to come and join us. "Your comrades can wait. The river will wait. For now, sit. We must harvest these carrots and onions while the meat boils. The meat will not wait."

I slid off my backpack, and joined my new-found friend in the dirt. "B
efore the harvest can be obtained, the field must first be plowed," he said. "We must tend our garden." He pointed to several outcroppings of weeds, growing about the garden. "These ones -- the yellow green ones -- dig underneath deeply, and pull upward with a circular twist. They will come away easily, root and all." He showed me the technique, and watched amusingly as I made my attempt. "Not all Americans are from Kansas," I joked. He let out a hearty laugh. "And not all Chinese like peas!," he chuckled, as he pointed out the quadrant of his garden where an abundance of peas lay un-picked. We both nodded in agreement. A garden Detente' had been reached.

For several minutes, we knelt there, uprooting weeds, and filling-in rich, dark soil around those stalks of vegetables which were not yet ready to be pulled. "Time is what is needed -- and patience -- always patience," he whispered, as he nurtured each plant. I agreed with him, nodding silently.

After the weeding was finished, we turned to the task at hand -- gathering the fresh onions & carrots which were to compose that evening's feast, along with the deliciously cooked, tender meat. I watched his worn hands skillfully uproot each vegetable -- his hands were quite nimble for a man of his advanced age. Uncertain of which ones to pull out, my haul was a mere handful or two. Mister Xinghua had collected 3 very large bowls of the fresh bounty.

"You are like these plants. Still green, raw. But with time, and patience -- always patience -- the day will come when you, too, will yield a full bounty. Before then, only one thing is required," he said, as he dug up one last onion. "What is required?", I asked, lost in watching his skillful hands.

Mister Xinghua looked up at me, & again grasped my arm in a grandfatherly fashion. Then, pulling himself close to my ear, he whispered quietly: "You must tend your garden."

His words echoed in my thoughts as I awoke from the dream. I looked about my
room, half hoping to be outside of a modest shack, wrist-deep in black dirt; or to smell the savory aroma of fresh meat & hand-picked vegetables boiling in small pots, beside a steaming wok.

No, they were all gone -- indeed, they had never even been there. But though it was all a fantasy, I could still hear a soft, grandfatherly voice whispering from deep inside my Being -- gently advising me to do what urgently needed to be done:

"You must tend your garden."

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