We were unable to read the characters on any of the buses, so we hoped to get some help from the locals. Although we were in a hurry, I paused for a moment to take a picture of Steve next to a large hog wallowing in a mudhole in an alley branching off the main street.
I spotted a family sitting in front of their feed store, not doing much of anything but enjoying each other's company and watching the day go by. They looked friendly enough, laughing with one another and talking in that loud, animated style used so frequently by Chinese in their conversations.
A few of them went silent when I approached; the others continued their rowdy conversation. To the ones that paid me attention, I did my best to convey that we needed to get on a bus to base city.
"Bus...we go..[city name]," I said in flustered Mandarin.
The lady that I had approached personally acknowledged my words and told us to sit and wait a few minutes. From what I gathered, she said that they would let us know when a bus to our base city came by.
As we waited, a shirtless young man took a particular interest in us, joking with Steve about how big and strong he was. He lugged Steve's pack over to the scale in the feed store and weighed it. The reading he got astonished him. Then, like any macho guy would do, he heaved it up onto his shoulders to test his strength. The whole family applauded heartily as he took a few bumbling steps, and we all had a good laugh together.
Every time a bus would come near, we would get up from the midget-sized stools and get ready to leave. Each time, they would plead for us to sit down again. Apparently they were watching out for us. We had no choice but to trust them.
Soon, a purple and white bus crunched toward us along the gravel and dirt road. Steve's shirtless friend jumped up to check it.
They all shouted our city's name, pointing frantically to the oncoming bus.
"Thank you! Goodbye!" I shouted in Chinese as we lugged our packs across the street to flag it down. This wasn't an empty 'thank you'. It was a truly heartfelt expression of gratitude. I couldn't believe how hospitable they had been to us. Without their help, I have no idea how we would've selected the right bus and gotten back to our base city.
Just to be sure, I asked the driver if this was the right bus. He affirmed it, and I let out a sigh of relief. For the next few hours we would settle into some cushioned seats and save some strength for the next leg of our journey.