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.

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