Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Episode Eleven: The Beach

Ahhh, the beach.

Some folks divide the world into two groups of people: beach people and mountain people, where – if one is of a privileged enough class to have vacation time/money – a person would be more likely to gravitate towards the beach (sun, surf, long lazy hours of nothingness but pina coladas) or mountains (climbing, testing one’s skill and strength against the elements, munching granola on snow-capped peaks).
I am a beach person: lazy and lizard-like to the core of my being.

We spent two weeks outside the city of Sanya on the island of Hainan, said to be “the Hawaii of China.” It did not disappoint. We were outside the city at a grand hotel, the kind of hotel where they supply plush white bathrobes with matching slippers to patter around the marble floors. Our room had a balcony with a humongous bathtub that overlooked palm trees and beach and sea. There was a killer breakfast buffet with flaky, buttery croissants, real coffee and an assortment of cheese (Zephaniah would wax romantic about the waffles).

The hotel, The Grand Fortune Bay Hotel, included several pools of different temperatures and depths that ran right up to the beach. One of the pools included a host of little fishes that would nibble on you as you lounged in it. This sort of “flesh eating fish” is a type of massage in China. When one is walking down the back streets in the cities, one can see shop stalls with chairs and fish tanks set up so people can get a “fish massage” on their feet. This pool offered the whole body version of that in

beautiful gold and blue mosaic tiles. The fish creeped Zephaniah out, but I rather enjoyed wee, biting nibbles up and down my legs, arms, hands, and feet.
There are several differences between a high-end beach hotel and a mid-range one. Here are some:

-          Every room faces the beach and has a fantastic view versus some rooms having a “pool view” and some rooms having an “ocean view”

-          The lounge chairs on the beach and at the pool are all nap-inducing in their comfort, unlike some hotels where the deck chairs are made of vinyl strips that mark your back and legs as if you were beaten savagely with a switch

-          The towels are as thick and soft as a Midwest snowstorm (only deliciously warm) and big enough for an Amazonia warrior

-          The morning breakfast buffet includes features like brie cheese, fresh sushi, crusty bread, poached eggs, papaya and pineapple cut into flowers, watermelon and mango juice chilled on beds of ice instead of cold cereal, cold, hard pastries, and Nescafe

-          You can choose to eat outside on white sand under straw umbrellas (who wouldn’t?) instead of inside by the toaster oven

-          The lifeguards roll around on the beach on Segways instead of simply strolling and twirling their whistles on idle fingers

-          The bathroom amenities include shaving kits, q-tips, bamboo combs, tooth brushes and paste, and luxurious smelling bath salts, all packaged in gold decanters and boxes instead of bad shampoo and watery cream rinse

-          There was a scale in our hotel room; this could go either way depending on your disposition about body image and scales. For me, someone who only gets weighed once a year when I go in for my well check at the doctor’s office, I was uninterested in the scale but Z found it fascinating and would weigh himself several times and report on the differences, speculating on the reasons (major entertainment if you are nine)

-          The breakfast buffet doesn’t end until 10:30 (it seems most hotels think 9:30 is the outside limit that  they are going to wait around for vacationers to roll out of bed and find their way to the dining room); this is huge because it allows lazy people like me to sleep in and have a run and still amble leisurely down for breakfast

Why would anyone ever want to leave? I would get up and go for a long run on the coast while Zephaniah whiled away the hour watching cartoons or The Discovery Channel (the two English channels on the hotel t.v. were Discovery and Cinemax). I’d run along and watch the women on bikes hauling sundresses, scarves and hats set up a spot along the surf to sell their wares; I’d see the coconut men re-create their drink stands; I’d pass the tai chi groups doing their morning constitution on the warming sad. Once back and after a shower, we would head down to gorge ourselves on carbs, caffeine, fat and sugar. After that, we waddled upstairs, put on our bathing suits and head to the beach for some serious shelling. The beach outside our hotel was said to be a “good shelling beach.” I think this was largely due to the few number of people around (the closest public beach was at least a mile up the coast). While we were there, the waves and pull of the ocean were extremely strong, which we loved (red flag days every day except one yellow flag day). We would bound into the ocean and get swept out and knocked down and then scurry in when a lifeguard was approaching in order to avoid the inevitable reprimand: on red flag days one was only allowed to “wade” in the water. After an hour or so of being tossed about by the pull of the South China Sea, I would retire to a chair and read; Z would continue his frolics, occasionally reporting on his booty, scraped from the sands and surf. Eventually we would move back to the pools for no reason other than a change in position and scenery. After the first day, Z had burn lines where I had tan lines. After that I got serious about applying sunscreen to his fair skin every couple of hours. His natural complexion is the bluish white of skimmed milk, no friend of the sun. The Chinese have products and processes to “whiten the skin” – one of the spring water pools at the hotel promised to do just that. I told Z to steer clear of that one, but after his first burn he said, “I think I need to sit in the whitening pool for a while.” There was one Chinese woman on the beach whose skin was so white she looked like Michael Jackson. A beach vacation seemed like an odd choice for her. She was swathed in gauze and hats and black glasses, hovering under a beach umbrella like a spooked rabbit.

As a former pool rat and life guard, I could spend weeks in my bathing suit and wouldn’t be happier. There is, however, a down side to living in one’s bathing suit . . . especially when one is turning the corner to 51 and one is hanging around with a brutally honest nine-year-old. “What is the ratio between your arm flab and your belly fat? Here. Hold still. Let me calculate.” Me: grimace and gritting my teeth, trying to suck in my belly (no hope of doing that with arm flab). “Hmmm. About 1:1, I’d say.” Whew. Not bad. I’ll take that. I exhale. “No, wait. I’d say . . .” Never mind. This is why I don’t home school. The math problems can become painfully personal. Not unlike this one that Z is still pondering: “If mom takes 5 gingko biloba pills a day, but one day takes 4, what will happen? She will a) have a severe loss of memory because the gingko biloba is all of her memory, b) not much because she has no memory anyway, c) nothing at all because she needs all five before they have any affect. This could also be the argument for not having a child when one is 42: when one is 51, you are the butt of geezer jokes told and retold by your kid.

Z’s idea of a great vacation is being able to spend equal amount of time in front of the television and at the beach/in the pool, so he was often flipping from Discovery to Cinemax while I was drooling into, languishing limp on a deck chair. One night he wanted to stay up late to watch a show called “Forbidden” that had been advertised on Discovery. We ended up watching the show all about people who had social “oddities” or engaged in taboos. One was a man who wore a mermaid’s tail, another was a man who dressed up like a lion and ran around London. But the one that caught Z’s eye enough for him to want to stay up and watch the show was a philosophy professor who was a “plushie”: a person who fetishizes stuffed animals (plushies). This philosophy prof talked to his plushies (and they talked back, of course; he created cutsie baby voices for each to personify their different personalities). He had “speed dating with plushies” so that his plushies could meet/date other plushies. It likely goes without saying that he didn’t have a love interest/partner. Zephaniah, who is very attached to his Lambie, was captivated by this grown-up soul mate. Lambie and Z both watched the segment and conversed about what they saw during the show. At one point, Z turned to me and said, “I feel bad that Lambie is so . . . basic. I mean his plushies date and have political causes . . . his bear is an environmentalist! Lambie is only good at two things: snuggling and being cute. It isn’t enough!” I assured him that Lambie was perfect and that it was, in fact, a bit odd that a grown man would still be wandering around talking to his plushies, but that it was perfectly age appropriate for him to have Lambie. “But why is it odd? Shouldn’t he get to have his plushies?” O.K. Right. Yes. It’s all good. Everyone is different. People can be all sorts of things and do all sorts of things. It is all good.
Please, oh, please. Don’t let my child grown up to be a plushie fetishist. Before I thought my biggest worries were Z becoming a Republican or a Fundamentalist Christian. Now I have to worry about him becoming a Plushie? Thanks, Discovery Channel. Reason #413 that television is inherently wicked and serves only to damage people’s brains and lives.

Every other day or so we would take the bus into the town of Sanya. After these excursions, I was always happy to get back on the bus and have it carry us out of town and into the quiet. In China, there are loads of people and without even realizing it I had become acclimated to being around hoards and hoards. The cacophony is daunting and exhausting. After even two days of being at the quietus of the hotel, it was difficult to go into town and be surrounded by the mobs and their noise. Shops blare music to entice you to come in and shop (does this ever work?), handicapped beggars scoot along on trolleys with boom boxes blaring music hoping for some spare tourist change in their grimy plastic bucket, women hawk fruit and sugar cane from baskets, and tourists mill about like cattle in a feedlot. There are just so many people. And lots of people means lots of noise. No one has ever accused the Chinese of being a quiet bunch.

The shopper in our small family was thrilled with the bazaars and there were plenty of those to pick through. Purchases included many bead bracelets and necklaces, a ring that has a watch in it, a laser pointer to drive one’s mother crazy by shining it in her eyes at all hours of the day and night, a water blaster (also designed to drive one’s mother crazy to squirt her with cold water just as she is dozing off in a beach chair), and small statues of Buddha that turn color when hot water is poured on them – I am not sure whether this is a commentary on Buddha or just a cheesy tourist tchotchke. Z has become adept at bargaining and happily uses his Chinese skills to engage with shop keepers and street peddlers. I knew that Z was learning the language in incremental steps forward, but I didn’t realize how much he had zoomed ahead of me on his language skills until this trip. On the beach, without thinking, he was writing Chinese characters in the sand instead of English. I would have to make a conscious effort to do that. One night we went into Sanya for dinner, and once we had settled in to a table, a woman came up and began asking him questions (How old are you? Are you a boy or a girl? Where are you from?). She was so delighted with this American boy who could speak Chinese, she sat down. Before I knew it we were surrounded by ten adults all firing questions at Z who was deftly answering without hesitation their rapid-fire Chinese inquiries. At one point, one of them said, “Your father must be Chinese, right?” Z turned to me and said, “This is going to be a looooong dinner.” Fortunately, once our food came, the interrogation ended and the adoring crowd politely disbursed. During the trip, I came to rely on Zephaniah to hail cabs and tell bus drivers and pedi-cab drivers where our stop was; he also was aware enough of what was being said around him to know when people were talking about us (I tune out what people are saying unless I am talking directly to someone). He can decipher most characters on signs which helped us get the general information we needed to know. All those brutal hours in the Chinese classroom have paid off, if only for the language skills. But that was the point, wasn’t it?

We also went on a couple day trips, one to Monkey Island, a Rhesus monkey preserve on a small island north of Sanya. There was an acrophobic-inducing cable car ride to get to the island, way above the tree tops with a stomach-lurching view of the bay. Once we got to the preserve, we walked around encountering monkeys everywhere. The monkeys are quite tame; I felt as if I might step on one if I wasn’t careful. At one point a baby monkey kept trying to jump on Zephaniah’s head. Zephaniah was interested in the idea of having a baby monkey on his head, but the reality of a monkey leaping at his face caused him to finch and shriek which would cause the baby monkey to launch back to its perch. This went back and forth several times before the monkey finally gave up.

On the preserve there was a “monkey circus,” “monkey color guard” and “monkey comedy show” – funny for whom, I am not quite sure, but I am pretty sure, not fun or funny for the monkeys in sparkly vests, neck chains, facing handlers with intimidating whips and sticks. We didn’t last long at any of these performances. The first time a handler hit a monkey with stick for walking the wrong way or going too slowly we stomped off in an indignant huff. “Why can’t they train the monkeys with positive reinforcement and give them treats instead of hitting them with sticks and yanking chains on their necks?” Z asked as we walked off. Indeed. Where is P.E.T.A. when you need them? Clearly they need to create a chapter in China . . . the Rhesus circus performers need a liberation action.
Other snippets of Sanya:

-          Street sweeping women in straw hats and calico veils to keep the sun and dust out of their face

-          Beach bead sellers with baskets on their arms, dripping with strings of pearls like a treasure chest

-          Smiling beetle-juice teeth, stained red and splats of orange spittle on the streets and sidewalks

-          Women in flowing dresses and floppy hats meandering barefoot along the surf, swinging sandals in their fingers

-          Bored lifeguards on the beach killing sandcastles with deft Segway skills

-          Sugar cane, mango, papaya, dragon fruit, and star fruit carts every two meters

-          Rice paddy workers with cone-shaped straw hats, bending over endless green rows

-          Enormous black sows suckling litters in the dusty sun

-          Sea creatures plaintively treading water in murky tanks, waiting to be someone’s dinner

-          Minority women, faces creased by the sun, in straw fedoras and colorful aprons, walking arm-in-arm through the market
After two weeks, it was difficult leaving Sanya. It is unbearable to shake the sand out of sandals and put on long pants and sweatshirts to cover up tanned skin. It is depressing to bag up beach bounty and say goodbye to blue skies and ocean air. It is weep-worthy to take the last walk along the beach, watching footprints disappear in white froth.

When we arrived back in Xian it was cold. Back into winter coats. I went to the bathroom in the airport and wanted to scream with the stench of it that can only be likened to a summer camp outhouse, mid-August, raw sewage fermenting for months in a cedar box: is it so difficult to flush after you go, people? We got into the bus to take us home and I felt sick just looking at the pollution haze that hung over the city.

The day after we got back, I became violently ill with the kind of illness that sweeps through your body like a hurricane and has you chattering with chills and raging with fever and unable to do anything but lie in bed, sweating into sour sheets. Zephaniah brought me breakfast in bed (the sentiment was sweet, but idea of food brought me close to vomiting) and was a regular champ about entertaining himself that day. I think it was my body’s rebellion at being back in reality after two weeks in beach bliss. The next day I was fine, but the beach felt like a distant memory. All I had to show for it was a big plastic bag of shells and fast-fading tan lines. 

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