Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Roughing it" in China

Just got back from a week travelling in China.  I had the opportunity to go to a fairly remote area of central Sichuan that you may recall was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2008.  The education foundation I work for helped rebuild a school in this area so we took a group of students from our schools in Beijing & Shanghai to go and do some service projects there.  As you can tell from my last post, I enjoy the Rugby Sevens alot so it took a pretty noble cause to get me to leave Hong Kong during this time.

Now I knew I was going to be "roughing" it.  This was a no frills trip to bless a poorer region of China and I told myself I was ready for it.  Hey, I have spent over 1300 hours travelling by train crisscrossing China before, mostly on what is known as "hard sleeper" (hard beds stacked 3 high with six to a compartment), I have traveled across Borneo trekking in the jungle and sleeping on bamboo.  I know how to "rough" it.

But if I'm honest, that was in my 20's and early 30's.  In the last few years I've gotten a little "squishy".  "Roughing it" these days pretty much means the outrage of staying in a hotel that doesn't have room service.

I knew I was in trouble when one of the other adults on trip asked where my sleeping bag was.
"Excuse me...sleeping bag?" I asked.
"Yes, didn't you see the e-mail that said we would need a sleeping bag on the trip"

Apparently I missed that memo.

So we had one night in the city of Chongqing before taking a three hour bus ride the next morning.  I was assigned the corner section of floor and the local staff where we stayed was able to rustle up a couple of blankets for me so I didn't freeze.  But sleeping on the floor of a clean room with spotless toilet was a King's Palace compared to what lay in store the next couple days.

"Nite John-Boy"
We arrived the next day at the primary school and it really was something.  The people of the village (as opposed to the Village People) even came out to greet us as it seemed that a busload of foreigners suddenly arriving was not normative in these parts.  All the boys were assigned to a single room with about 9 or 10 handmade bunks all up against one another, I'm told, for additional support.  So there we were that night, all sleeping on wood planks only a foot or two away from one another.  Laying there I couldn't help but envision myself on Walton's Mountain  and had to restrain myself from giving a "Nite John-Boy" to a gang of people for whom the cultural reference would all be but lost.

The toilets were the real challenge.  The men's loo was essentially 4 holes in the cement with no water flushing it away.  Likewise for the urinal.  Also there were no doors or walls (something we are hoping to address on subsequent trips) which for me was the real challenge.  Having traveled throughout Asia for the last 20+ years I am used to less than ideal toilet situations, but they always at least offered a measure of privacy.  I did not relish the thought of a student walking in on me while I was squatting over a hole doing "my business".

Even the sewer monster refused to visit...and no thats not water!

Fortunantly, my body was in agreement with my mind on this one and cooperated on Day One by shutting down all "bowel" systems.  Day 2 was a different matter though and I began to feel a pressing need develop that was not going to wait for my return to civilization.  I made a tactical decision...since sleeping on a wood plank in a room without heat doesn't make for a night of interrupted sleep, I used my 4:00 AM wake time to good use.  Knowing the bathroom would be clear I slipped on my flip-flops, grabbed my torch, (flashlight for my American readers) and headed over to the bathrooms.  

Even in the dark, I just had to follow the smell which even from the outside was overpowering.  Walking into this place in the middle of a freezing cold night was pretty spooky.  I had to stick the torch in my mouth to do the delicate balancing act that any foreigner using an Asian "squatty potty" is familiar with.  As my light beam danced up and down creating shadows on the wall I couldn't help but think that some sewer monster was going to jump out of one of the other holes, whack me on the head, and drag me down to the underworld.

Apparently, even the sewer monsters were turned off by this particular toilet...

Our Policeman assigned to "protect" us.
Also in all my travels in China I have never needed to have a police escort.  (Well, I take that back, there was another incident a few years back but thats for another blog post).  Apparently the area in Sichuan where the 2008 earthquake occurred is a sensitive area.  Because there has been negative stories about building conditions and the amount of people that died because of "dodgy" construction the Chinese government has closely monitored outsiders coming into the region.  When I asked the guard (our assigned policeman) if I could go out he had to say no.  After a little persistence he agreed but only if he could go to "protect" us.  When operating in China you have to distinguish between the "real" reason for something and the "official" reason.  Not making this distinction can lead to real frustration. 

Although my point of this post was to talk about my "roughing it" I do want to mention that we were able to do some great service projects for the school.  The kids were wonderful and so appreciative of our being there.  We met one little 9 year old girl who lost her parents during the earthquake and is now being raised by friends in the village.  She shared how she is happy again being able to go to the new school.

And the school staff went out of their way to accommodate us to the best of their ability.  There are no showers at the school so the cooks heated water in the kitchen so we could wash a little in the evenings.

When I finally got back to a hotel room in Chongqing I saw the toilet and shower when I opened the door and never even minded that they didn't have room service.


Gail said...

It is always great to read stories like this. We really have it so easy here and can only get a glimpse of the living conditions in other parts of the world. Thanks for sharing all this. We are so very blessed.

Redlefty said...

Fascinating; thank you for your service and for sharing it with us!

Paul Ellis said...

Great story Steve!

Just wondering - the boys in the photo, are they wearing Pioneer scarves? I was given one of those about 25 years ago by a friend from China.

Steve H. said...

Actually, U son't know Paul but on the last day they gave me one

Bob said...

Great story. Smart to make the loo trip in the middle of the night.