Village Life in China – Brain Scans & Bamboo Weevils

Traveling Tales: Village Life in China—Brain Scans & Bamboo Weevils

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I first met Ting selling fruit along a busy highway in Leshan. Streetwise with a slight build and dark eyes, she’s a jack-of-all trades: a receptionist by day, fruit stall worker by night who also sells plants online, educates on winemaking and collects lamps from around the world. At this point I’ve been in Leshan a few days and quickly found myself running out of things to do, so when Ting invites me to spend the day with her family I jump at the opportunity.

The next morning I meet with Ting, her aunt, her cousins, and her grandfather—a gaunt man with paper-like skin, who seemed so fragile even the wind could make him crumble. In his quaking hands he carries recent scans of his brain to deliver at our first stop, a village hospital an hour away. We somehow manage to squeeze 8 adults into a car meant for 5 and we take off. Once past the highways of Leshan we find ourselves on narrow winding dirt roads which had been previously closed and blocked off by concrete barriers, many of which had been crudely deconstructed by locals leaving behind piles of rubble and broken hammers. Expertly navigating the maze of roads she’d grown up on, Ting gets us to our destination with relative ease.

The hospital itself is a depressing site—the entrance is devoid of doors and visitors ride their motorbikes and scooters directly into the dark, somber hallways. It’s here that the family works to settle their patriarch into a stained bed to receive an intense-looking cocktail of IV drugs. It all seems so routine to them, as it turns out they make this trip fairly often for treatment. Though he lives in the city now, he is only insured at the hospital nearest the company he worked for years before.

After ensuring he’s fully prepared for his hospital stay, the family meander through the nearby market greeting old friends and doing some light shopping. Resting along a curb with bowls of sweetened douhua, the cousins are getting a bit giddy recalling their childhoods while watching the local kids run through the streets. A few feet away a pair of toddlers in kaidangku chase a rooster among the food stalls while their mothers have their nails painted. Behind them, a man works to jerry-rig an outdoor kitchen with a few car batteries. At first glance it seems like we’ve stepped back in time a ways, an illusion quickly shattered by the persistent ringing of message tones and snapping of phone cameras. Our douhua quickly turning soupy in the summer heat, the group decides it’s time to head out to the countryside and so we pile back into Ting’s car for another trip through the serpentine roads.

In a matter of minutes we’re deep into the surrounding farmland, arriving at the farm that supplies their fruit stall in the city. The farmers greet them like family before immediately entering negotiations for bushels of limes. The business side of things concludes almost as quickly as it began and the women of the house begin to prepare dinner while the guests pitch in on the field work. The afternoon is spent harvesting jujubes and grapes. Our baskets full and the sun sinking lower in the sky, the cousins decide enough work has been done and that we’ve earned ourselves some playtime.

The whole group—aging aunt included—take off for the dense trees and bamboo surrounding the area. As I’m unsure of what we’re doing, Ting hands me an empty water bottle and informs me we’re going to make fans with giant bugs (none of which made any sense to me). Following them through woods filled with massive spiders and occasional snakes, I watch in awe as they spot bamboo weevils from 10 yards away. We spend nearly an hour tearing the beetles from their hideouts and slipping them into the bottles.

Back near the farmhouse, we plop down in the middle of the road next to a pile of sticks and proceed to make strange, bug-powered hand fans often constructed by children as a summer pastime. In the simplest terms, this involves:

  • Connecting two very thin, light sticks into a cross
  • Removing the bottom half of the legs on two bamboo weevils
  • Inserting one arm of the cross into the front right leg of one, and the other into the front left leg of the other.
  • Placing the long end of the cross into a hollow piece of bamboo

As the panicked insects fly in opposite directions, the cross spins like a helicopter creating a fairly strong breeze. If you can get big enough bugs and light enough sticks, they can sometimes lift out of the bamboo like a chopper. I realize many people will find this practice cruel, and while I’m apt to agree I’ll admit I did learn a great deal from the experience and that the overall vibe was light-hearted and playful. Still, there’s something surreal about seeing a little old lady in a pristine dress, hair done up just so, squatting in the middle of a dirt road ripping the legs off bugs.

The sun setting and our fans beginning to slow down, we headed into the house for dinner. The homes, while spacious and clean, are essentially bare. Often one finds a large open room with a table for eating, and unfurnished bedrooms with sleeping cots and a pile of clothing. If not for the food in the kitchen, were someone to stumble upon such a house they would assume it unoccupied. The lack of belongings and creature comforts is a strong testament to the hardworking nature of the countryside—they have little need to furnish their homes because they are rarely inside, spending their days in the fields.

Following a hearty meal of duck and eggplant, they load the trunk with limes they intend to sell and we head back to the city. A day of nostalgia for them was rife with new experiences for me. Seeing one day in the life of a single fruit-stall worker from a city of millions reminds me that the world is filled with an unfathomable number of stories and experiences, each rich & complex in its own way.

-Ashley

That Time I Think I Snuck Into Cambodia

That Time I Think I Snuck Into Cambodia

When traveling through South East Asia you’ll quickly find that there is a more or less established backpacker’s route—while you and your fellow travelers may be hitting the same spots, it’s likely you’ll be going in various directions and orders. Usually this makes it fairly simple to learn how to get from place to place—wherever you’re going next, chances are someone in your hostel just came from there. This is why I was so surprised to find it insanely difficult to get information on the best way to get into Cambodia from Laos by land.

Basically the only piece of advice I could get was “Take the best deal you can,” which was always inevitably followed by some horror story of scams, theft, and abandonment. Nevertheless, I figured if they survived I could certainly do better…right?

After having spent a good deal of time in Laos, I’d decided that Angkor Wat was next on my list, so early one morning my traveling buddies and I headed to the bus station in Vientiane to book tickets to Siem Reap, a journey that takes roughly 24 hours if all goes smoothly. Getting the right tickets was simple enough, but information on the visa process was both scarce and confusing. Luckily, a friendly stranger at a picnic table said he could get us through process cheaply and painlessly. All we had to do was drop our passports in his duffel bag, give him $22, and fill out the visa application which he had run out of. Not to worry, my new pal assured us, he’d have more soon. He then left us, saying he’d meet up with us again at the border.

Yeah, I know, handing over your documents to a sketchy stranger who is clearly conning you probably isn’t the best decision, but we’d definitely all heard worse beginnings that ended alright, so I figured there’s a chance it would be worth the risk.

As we boarded our bus, the driver exchanged our tickets for those we’d need at the next stop. While we knew we needed to switch buses at the border, we were told our next set of tickets weren’t actually for Siem Reap, but for a town I’d never heard of with a train to Siem Reap. At any rate I knew that if it turned out to be a lie, at least I’d be stranded with an entire bus worth of people and not alone.

Thirteen uncomfortable hours later, the driver ordered us off the bus and told us to walk across the border, and when we got to the border patrol & customs check not to stop at the window, just walk around them and take the ladder or ramp up a wall. Leery about leaving my luggage behind but seeing no other option, I followed the small crowd into no-man’s land when everyone suddenly stopped dead. An officer had come out yelling “HEALTH CHECK” in English, while about 30 feet ahead of us stood a man roughly 3 feet tall with a hump and a googly eye, waiting.

Seeing as how my friends were clearly a bit freaked out (and rightfully so) I figured I may as well go first and see what they’d actually do—turns out the little dude just takes your temperature and sends you along. At least I was first to use the public thermometer.

After passing through we easily spotted the wall we’d been told about and over we climbed to find a handful of stalls with people hocking bus and van tickets of their own. It was here were learned that—big surprise—the train station we were headed for didn’t exist and our tickets were worthless from that point on.

So here’s the rundown: We’re stranded on the side of the road in the blistering heat of Cambodia with no luggage, no passports, and no transport.

Pooling what little cash we had (and paying in multiple currencies) we were able to secure van tickets to Siem Reap, with the promise that they’d be air-conditioned and wifi-capable.

After standing around for another lifetime, a motorbike eventually showed up and the driver dropped off a plastic shopping bag full of passports, which other passengers and I began reading out names from and passing around. We did indeed find new visa stickers inside, with our information hand-written on top, not looking anything close to legit, and signed by “Jeff”.

Eventually, a caravan of passenger vans showed up, some carrying our luggage and others waiting to take us to our next destination. Turns out “air conditioning & wifi” is often code for “overcrowded and full of live chickens”.

At my next hostel I met a guy who had done the visa process by the book on his own, and while he saved $2 on his visa, the trip also took him 12 hours longer.

I would be no means recommend taking the route I took, and I’m sure there are plenty of options out there. I’ve heard that while the visa prices have increased in recent years, so have transport options and the border itself has become more streamlined and less corrupt.

My advice?

Take the best deal you can.

– Ashley