Friday, January 27, 2006

Harvesting Mud

Up a hill. Back down. Another grove of trees. A slight incline. Another quarter-mile.

A hut?

Finally a sign of civilization broke the monotony. I use the term "civilization" loosely, because the small structure standing alone in the woods looked anything but civilized. Since it was ruggedly constructed of bamboo and straw rather than the planks of wood we saw on traditional Dai houses, I assumed it was some sort of storehouse or shed.

We walked right past it, peeking inside the rectangular hole of a doorway. It could be dangerous to be seen so far off the beaten path, but I was beginning to wonder if we would ever be able to find the North Road again. If we found someone, maybe they would be able to help us.

Nobody was home, so we turn our attention to climbing up the short incline a little ways ahead of us. It was a red clay ramp that looked as if someone had steamrolled it all the way to the top, a smooth, reddish-brown version of what a just-completed concrete driveway looks like in the States.Judging by the farm equipment I had seen so far, I guessed that steamrollers hand't made it all the way out here, so I wondered why and how the slope was created.

Weird, I thought, Why would someone spend so much time and effort making a driveway to lead up to a shack like that?

Then I remembered something we had seen earlier in the day:


Off to the side of the road, a man stood under a bamboo and straw shelter. In front of him was a flat surface that served as his workbench. Behind him sat a long rectangular block of reddish-brown clay. Every minute or so, he would slice a long, thin sheet of clay from the larger block. He would then transport it to his work table and place it on a tray. An industrious young woman, possibly his wife, would press a template through the sheet of mud like she was cutting out cookie shapes. Then she took the neatly cut squares of mud over to an open plot of pavement where she slid them off to bake in the spring sun.

As I watched the process unfold and observed the finished product, I realized that this young duo served as the shingle manufacturing company for their small area. I was excited, like I had made some kind of groundbreaking anthropological discovery. I smiled and waved at them and took pictures of their work station. They waved back, but didn't let us break their steady pace. I wondered if we were an equally odd and fascinating discovery to them as they were to us.


Back in the present, I looked at Steve, and I could tell we were both thinking the same thing.

"I bet this is where thy harvest the mud blocks the guy was using earlier," I said.

"Yeah, they must somehow cut them out of the hill and transport them," he replied. At this point we were both stating the obvious.


The other side of the creek brought no change in landscape. Rubber trees stood in line like soldiers waiting for their marching orders. We could barely see the sky through the leafy canopy above.

The way the trees were planted reminded me of driving the backroads of south Georgia, where pecan and peach trees dominate the landscape, planted single-file in the same way. It's funny how we process things. It's like we have a filter in our brains that takes any sensation with remote familiarity and automatically links it to home.

If we lived in Yunnan our entire lives, rubber trees would be common, nothing more than monuments to the mundane. I couldn't help but think that if these workers found themselves trekking through a pecan orchard on the plains of south Georgia, they would think wistful thoughts of the rubber trees back home in Yunnan, planted in rows, providing shade from the summer sun and food for the kitchen table.

Even halfway across the world, I couldn't forget about where I come from.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Rubber Trees

After eating with the Fangs and waiting out the storm, Steve and I were certain that people had begun to find the VCD's we left back in the village. While we were excited to know that, it presented a problem.

We had taken a semicircular route through most villages, going in one way and out another. On this mission, backtracking was a cardinal sin that could get you thrown in jail. If people connected us with the little pieces of plastic that carried the gospel, the authorities might be called into play. After seeing those machine guns earlier, we didn't want anything to do with the guys in green.

But the only path that led back to the main road went straight back through the village we had come from, so we decided we'd have to chance it. Hopefully if someone wanted to alert the authorities, we'd already be gone by the time they got there.

As we moved back toward the village, the road forked. The main gravel path led back to the village, while a more rugged path veered off to the right into the woods. We immediately recognized this path as an escape hatch. We figured we could use our compasses to find the main road through the woods, and we wagered that it would be less dangerous to risk getting lost than to risk being accosted by hostile natives or officials back in the village.

Not too long after forking to the right, we encountered two young women coming up the path. Hunched over, each of them carried a wooden staff on their back with buckets dangling from both ends. With each step on the uneven ground, the staffs bounced up and down, causing the milky white liquid in the buckets to slosh around. What the white liquid was we couldn't quite figure out. We guessed it was most likely milk from some kind of animal.

The trail opened into a hilly area with fields on either side of the path. Men were stooped over, their torsos parallel with the ground as they planted seeds in the furrowed ground. A few of them straightened up to gawk at us for a moment as we followed the trail into a grove of thin trees.

The landscape had descended steadily, and noticed a small creek winding its way through the trees, which were planted in rows for as far as we could see. Looking more closely, we noticed that the bark on each tree had been peeled down like someone had been unwrapping the tree one thin strip at a time. At the bottom of the peel, a downward cut was made, and a spout was driven into the tree to direct the flow of the glue-like liquid that oozed from beneath the bark. The spout drained into a cup that hung on the tree to catch the slowly dripping white substance.

Then it all started to make sense. What Steve and I thought to be milk was actually residue from these trees, and those women had been carrying the harvest back to the village. I didn't think there was an Elmer's glue factory stuck in the middle of the Chinese countryside, but I remembered our trainers saying something about this area being a large contributor the rubber industry. We had stumbled upon a rubber tree plantation.

The sinuous creek blocked our path through the grove. Compasses are helfpul, but sometimes they're like that annoying coworker who's ignorant of a situation and points out a course of action that's equally ideal and impossible. Although our desired direction was west, reality dictated that we head north along the creek bank until we found a way to get across. Once on the other side, we would follow the creek back to the point where the quandary began and head due west from there.

Less than a quarter-mile up the creek we found the solution: a rickety bridge made by tying bamboo chutes together with cords. The chutes looked sturdy enough, but there was only one way to find out. I was worried about Steve crossing with his hefty pack. I bet nobody who had crossed this bridge before even approached 200 lbs., even carrying buckets of rubber goo.

But ever adventurous, Steve went first, tiptoeing carefully but quickly across without losing his balance. The bamboo sagged and creaked under his weight but held up nicely. Now it was my turn. Still young and semi-athletic, it would have been embarassing if the 43-year-old out-performed me on this obstacle. Since the bridge had supported Steve, I wasn't worried about it breaking, but I was tentative at first because I didn't want to rush and lose my balance. I gained confidence as I went, and in the end had no trouble joining Steve on the other side.

With this obstacle out of the way, we now focused on finding our way back to the North Road, our guiding path that we hadn't seen in over 2 hours.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I never thought I'd be taking refuge in a Buddhist temple, and frankly, the thought of it kind of freaked me out. As soon as we returned to the place where we had left our packs leaning against the temple wall, heavy rain began to fall.

The only shelter nearby was the temple. Its roof extended out over a breezeway and covered one of the temple's side entrances. Two lions sat on the steps, situated symmetrically with one on each side of the wide metal door. Fresh grain and rice offerings were placed with care into the square-shaped opening of a spirit house next to the door. There were little shrines of the kind all over the temple's courtyard. Although we had seen and heard no signs of life within the temple, the offerings let us know that it wasn't completely obsolete, even though the outside was unkempt.

Steve unearthed his "waterproof" (ziploc for those of you who don't speak army lingo) bag from within his crowded pack and began to put our itinerary and other important documents inside. Th one thing I hadn't prepared for was rain. Our trainers had told us that we had come during the dry season when there would be a lot of sun and virtually no chance of rain.

We waited a few more minutes until the worst of the rain had passed. We could tell by the color of the sky that it was one of those Florida showers, the kind that sneak up on you unexpectedly, rain buckets for a few tumultuous minutes, and then leave almost as quickly as they had come.

The grey mass of clouds glided like a lopsided spaceship across the otherwise open sky, taking with it the heavy, pounding rain drops and leaving behind a slight drizzle through which we could easily travel. We shouldered our packs and exposed ourselves to the cool mist. I was glad to be safely outside the temple compound. I kept having visions of disgruntled monks coming out and charging us with desecrating hallowed ground. I have to admit; I was being less than respectful when I stuck a VCD in the mouth of one of the lions next to the door.

Breakfast with the Fangs-Part II

Downing the first melon was no problem. We had worked up an appetite, having hiked about 4 miles so far. As soon as our spoons scraped the rinds, our little hostess dashed back to the chopping block and cut another melon in half. She put a half in front of each of us and urged us with her eyes to continue eating.

"If she insists..." we thought, knowing that lack of both time and stomach capacity would hinder us from having anymore. We plunged our broad soup-spoons into the second melon.

I took a break and invited the little boy, up to this point watching us curiously from the safety of his grandmother's arms, to watch me dispose of my first melon. I reared my arm back and hurled what was left of it into the fish pond. A sheepish smile told me that the boy was pleased with the distance of my toss.

I wondered if he had ever seen the white skin of foreingers before. If not, he was a pretty brave kid to be sitting right next to me without showing any signs of fear. Growing up in America, we take diversity for granted. Many people, specifically those involved with universities, complain that we don't have enough of it. When you come to a place like this, where the people in villages are basically monolithic, you learn to appreciate the broad spectrum of ethnicities represented in the U.S.

For the most part we sat in silence, we foreigners enjoying the peculiar tranquility of the moment, the Fangs watching our every move with keen interest. They paid particular attention when we spoke to each other in English. I guess they were worried that we were saying something negative about their little plot of land. To allay such anxiety, we were careful to smile and nod a lot as if to include them in the conversation.

We said nothing but good things about their hospitality and how they welcomed us so easily. How many Americans would be eager to open up their homes and pantries to some non-English-speaking Chinese people who showed up on their doorstep? Not many.

It's funny how many allegories there between this trip and Jesus' sending out the 72 disciples in Luke 10. He tells them to find hospitable people to stay with and to eat what is put in front of them. If their hosts treat them well, he tells them to "let their peace remain on that house." Conversely, if their hosts do not bless them, he says they'll be punished worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. The Fangs definitely got this one right, and I hoped God would bless them for it.

Before the girl could chop another melon, Steve and I got up and prepared to leave. We took pictures, one of each of us with the entire family. Then we rejoined the curvy trail that led us back past the well toward the run-down temple. As we walked by the well, we used it to shield us from the Fangs' curious eyes, eyes which had been glued on us ever since we started back up the trail. Effectively hidden, I dropped a VCD at the mouth of the well, hoping that someone would find living water.

We emerged from behind the well for one last glance at the family. They were still staring as if they thought we were spirits which had magically vanished into thin air. We waved at them, noting that they represented three generations of people who our efforts would hopefully expose to the gospel.

Real China

Our hike had only begun yesterday, but while eating with the Fangs I began to see some signs that I was slowly getting acclimated to this strange culture. Resting on that little stool next to a hut and a fish pond gave me time to relax and reflect on the journey so far, to take an outsider's look at the unorthodox course that God had charted for us.

For me, this was one of those "What the heck are we doing here?" moments. I was in a state of awe, not because I was uncomfortable, but because I was shocked that I was comfortable enjoying a watermelon on an overcast morning with a family that couldn't even speak my language in a country some 15,000 miles away from my own.

I had tackled China before, but never in this depth. I had never been immersed to the point of assimilation. I had been inside the borders, but had remained incubated from the daily grind of agrarian minority groups. I had been locked in a city, a special economic zone with bustling shopping malls boasting the tell-tale bastions of globalization like Wal-Mart and McDonald's. Until this trip, I had mingled with intellectuals and business people, those interested in learning my language. Now I was faced with people who knew no English and could care less. Their only interest was preserving authentic Chinese life. It was my job to get my hands dirty and my feet off the concrete sidewalks and go to them.

And when I did, I encountered a semblance of what it feels like to belong. Next to this hut, I was no longer a tourist, but a traveler who was allowed to take a glance at real China. While the cities seem to hide their true identities behind apartment buildings and billboards, the countryside felt ancient and unfabricated, like a soft whisper of truth that I could finally hear once I left behind the din of city life.