11/24-28. Qing Dynasty House Airbnb in the village of Lang Shi (300 folks). This is the first of the Laojia airbnbs. The house is 150 – 200 yrs old; Eric & Maarten spent a lot of time restoring it with the help of many local folks. They do a beautiful job – it looks so authentic – see photos on Laojia website.
There is no restaurant in this village; they say there is a store – only a 100’ from where I stay, but I never see it open. I cook my own breakfast: eggs, bread, & soymilk provided. Lunch is cooked for me: rice and two types of greens. I walk the paths along the Li river, bordering the village, which is a favorite for local tourists: some days, I count up to 20 tourist boats (2-3 stories tall) going down river in the morning. The tourists get off in Guilin and then I watch the empty boats go back up river in the evening.
Many of the locals have small boats that are only inches above water level. The river is quite shallow and so the propellers are mounted at an angle so that they can be adjusted to barely skim at water level and with 2 cycle engines mounted on the propeller shaft – see photo. I hear them all day and keep thinking that I am hearing roto tillers.
Every inch of available space is planted to food crops: in town, backyards, street corners, and along the paths on the river banks; on larger spaces the primary crops are oranges: mandarins, regular oranges, and another large citrus fruit I’ve never seen before and all kinds of greens. The mandarin trees are beautiful: the oranges are ripe, and beckoning – hard to resist the urge to pick some. There are also other fruit trees like bananas, plums, etc. The only agric tools I see are the hoe, wheelbarrow and a small scythe – about 12” long. Both men and women are tending the fields. I so want to talk to these folks, but I don’t know the language.
I go to a neighboring village – a half hour walk along the sidewalk between the river and fields and then a ferry boat across the river to a “farmer’s market”. It looks like a regular market to me, with veggies, fruits, nuts, meat, clothing, knick knacks, etc. This is a larger town, with all kinds of shops, organized tourist trips, etc.
Then Kara shows up – another guest at the bnb. She is 25, born and raised in the capital, Beijing. She speaks both English and Chinese. We talk for hours – I ask her about Chinese words, customs, culture, religion/spirituality, etc. What I learn from Kara:
The Tao: 5000 years old and generally considered the spirituality of China. Kara is surprised that I know about the Tao; she says she never hears people talking about the Tao. I ask: what is the current spirituality in China – she holds up her phone: my generation is beholden to the phone.
Do you have siblings? Kara: no, virtually all of my friends are single children in the family – ah, yes, from the days of the single child policy. What about now – can folks have more than one child? Yes, of course, they can and some do; but many of my friends do not have children yet – it’s too expensive and disruptive of our lives. Kara has 2 dogs and a cat – cheaper, and easier to take care of than kids.
Kara has a social conscience: she taught school in very poor areas and has a lot of empathy for poor/disadvantaged people in China.
– I think of Kara as typical of her current generation: she respects her elders but at the same time, is ready to move on in the new China.
On our last day here, Kara has arranged to go on a hike w/ Haibo’s mom (to see mom’s goats). I go with them. It’s a 3 hr hike up a steep mtn. Mom is a sprightly 64 and when she finds out that I am 72, she gives me the two thumbs up. Mom usually does the trip in 40 min. I am the slow poke but she keeps giving me the thumbs up. We finally get there, where she has a goat house – for shelter when they need it or when giving birth. She also brings up a small amount of ground corn & soybean meal which she sprinkles over the rocks for the goats. She wants to keep them in this area so that she knows where they are and for when it is time to harvest the lamb crop (she sells them for meat to local buyers). Mom also has a little house of her own here to store cooking utensils, etc. She starts a cooking fire in her hut and makes tea, roasted peanuts and baked sweet potatoes for us. I love listening to mom and Kara talk; Kara tells me that mom is telling her about her life. Kara makes empathic sounds that I find endearing – it helps mom to share more stories. I so wish I could understand.
Then we go back home: faster & easier than on the way up. Back at the bnb, I realize that I am leaving tomorrow. Kara and I have nice a connection over lunch. In the evening, Haibo comes in and he and Kara immediately get into a lively conversation in Chinese. I had hoped to have more contact w/ Haibo; however, I can understand him talking w/ Kara instead. His conversations w/ me are challenging for him because he struggles with English.
Haibo arranges a ride to the ferry to take me to the next bnb. Ms Wang is waiting for me on the other side. We stop by a Bank of China for me to change money – it’s the only bank in China that changes foreign currency; so much bureaucracy: an hour of waiting and another half hour examining my passport.
Yao ethnic community/village of Laozhou 11/29 – 12/4.
We are greeted by Shushu, which means uncle in their dialect. Everyone in the village is referred to as uncle or auntie. Shushu shows me my room, communicates via Google translate app on his phone and starts an open cooking fire in their house. I wince – remembering the inside cooking fires in Guatemala and the ensuing smoke; however, there is little/no smoke here. They use very dry wood – mostly split bamboo. His partner, Ayi, cooks the meals for the rest of my stay. All meals in households where I am at in China are cooked on one wok: dishes are cooked sequentially and then kept warm until served. The ever present rice is cooked in an electric cooker – everyone has one.
This is a very remote village – I do not understand the organization of this community. There are about 80 families that are considered members but some live elsewhere for jobs and come back for holidays/celebrations, etc. Are they connected financially? I do not know. People appear to have private/family finances but there are also community businesses like daily soy milk and tofu production. Then there are the beautiful terraces of veggies, greens, rice, etc. The women primarily grow the crops, take care of the livestock, do the cooking, and the men do construction and/or have jobs outside of the community – eg, harvesting and selling bamboo, etc.
This area and the weather remind me so much of where I lived in Guatemala in the late 1970s: steep mountains, mostly forested, and a lot of mist/light rain during the winter months. Mist is constantly swirling around the mountains. After a day or two, I realize that I will be spending a lot of time indoors, reconcile myself to that and try to revive my meditation practice. I find a book on the Tao for westerners; I read it and try to meditate – but can’t get into it; however, I do enjoy watching the mist and sunshine intermittently swirling around the mountains. This is one of the jewels of this trip: Guatemalan memories and being content – even enthralled, watching the mist swirling around the mountain tops.
I go fishing w/ Ayi (it is listed as a suggested activity in the Laojia manual. She and shushu are about 60). The river is about a half hour walk from the village – I note that we are not carrying fishing poles but Ayi is carrying a net. We are both wearing rubber boots and the river is only 8” deep. Ayi demonstrates: the net is about 3’ wide, 6” deep, with a bamboo stick on each side. She holds the bamboo poles between outspread legs/knees and uses her hands to move rocks out of the way immediately upstream from the net. Ah! by moving the rocks, she is dislodging fish that the river sweeps into the net. We are catching fish 1 – 3” long. Every 5-10 min, she comes over to the bank, looks in the net and exclaims “fishie”(her entire being lights up as she says “fishie”. She dumps the fish and debris of plant material, rocks, etc, and it is my job to find the squirming/flopping “fishies” and put them into a gallon jug w/ a little water in it. After a while, she has me fish – I only catch a couple and she takes over again. After an hour, she has me have another go at it and I manage to catch a few more. We head back home and have them in a stir fry the next day. If we had to depend on fishing for our food, we would be hungry, but as recreation and spending time together, it was fun. I love to hear her exclaim “fishie”. Unknown to me, she takes photos of me fishing and posts them on Chinese social media; I hear about it from Maarten and subsequent guests here. As everywhere else in the world, these folks are using social media to connect w/ the rest of the world and using it for business purposes as well.
Then three other guests arrive: Bill & Barbara from Boston, and Rose, their daughter, who has been living in Beijing for 4 years and originally came as an English language teacher. Rose speaks Mandarin, which greatly increases connection between us guests and our hosts; she is also a techie and connects all of us to the bnb’s hotspot so that we have internet (as long as she is around).
Rose: “China is the safest place I have ever lived – I, a single woman feel totally safe walking anywhere in any street in China – I have never felt this before.”
It’s awesome to talk to people again (w/o google trans); I hadn’t realized how starved I am for conversation. It helps that Bill, Barbara, and I are of the same generation. We have meals together, go for walks, and have long conversations – even though they are here for only two nights.
They attend Ayi’s demonstration of local daily tofu production and then Ayi urges us all to come see the new house. It turns out to be a house raising party/event – it is awesome! Kinda like an Amish barn raising – timber framing: all the joints have been prepared ahead of time. There are about 50 men, carrying in the timbers, assembling them, and then raising them up – it goes smoothly and is sweet to witness. Other men are preparing food: huge pots of rice, meat, & greens. We are all in a festive mood. Every so often, one of them walks through the site, passing out cigarettes – it appears to be a social glue/ritual that they are sharing. Whenever another bent is raised, a bunch of fireworks go off.
I love watching Ayi cook – she is graceful in her movements and constantly multitasking: stoking the fire, switching from dish to dish, taking care of her grandson, checking her phone, etc. Shushu sits off to the side w/ his perpetual smirk/smile. When I am the only guest, I eat w/ them, and sometimes their daughter. We are so easy together: they talk w/ each other and sometimes we converse via Google trans. They seem happy: individually, together, and I feel included. Our bonding is somehow different w/o actual conversation, which makes me wonder about our ancient ancestors – how did language evolve? Gestures, looks, words…?
Tech issues: from the last day at the previous bnb, all of my texts and phone calls are blocked – I have no idea by who or why, but it is frustrating not having contact w/ Gigi, Maarten, etc, although the bnb hosts can contact Maarten. I finally contact our provider; they tell me that when our overseas phone charges reach $50., our service is automatically cut off until we pay up, but I can’t pay with my credit card because Gigi did not add my name to her account – but I can’t contact her. Ok, another lesson in not being dependent on this technology. I finally get the message to Gigi and after a week of being blocked, I’m back on.