Monday, November 20, 2006

Rain for us, Rainforest

A kid plays with balloon animals at camp
When the balloon wars ended, our day had just begun. Leaving drenched, smiling kids behind, we boarded the bus. Our clothes had dried a little in the sun, but we still had to try our best not to soak the seats. For China, this bus was top of the line, and the school was very generous to taxi us around in it. The last thing we wanted to do was mess something up.

For lunch we headed to an outdoor restaurant specializing in food indigenous to our target people group. Not only is the food prepared in their style, but the restaurant also resembles one of their villages. A few free-standing huts surround the big hut at the center of the complex. Each small hut is outfitted with at least two round tables perfect for family dining.

Sweet pork ribs anchored the meal, which consisted of a diverse but balanced mix of dishes, both fiery and dull. The fish were fresh, probably having been snatched from the stream that morning. Even after going through the fire, they still puckered their lips at us. A bitter green herb soup, peanuts and vegetable succotash rounded out the meal. The most interesting thing on the menu this time, though, was the mysterious cornmeal fritter. As its name suggests, the sweet treat is a sticky cornmeal patty, breaded and deep-fried, and served opposite noodles and the spicy sauce I liked to call "death salsa."

Bellies full, we took the bus to our next activity: trekking. As I've mentioned before, JH sits in a verdant valley, and the surrounding mountain wilderness is littered with natural beauty and ecological diversity. To cash in on tourists that enjoy the outdoors, the government has constructed a rain forest park about 20 minutes (by bus) east of the city. The park allows visitors an up-close encounter with this province's humid climate and hilly terrain without the hassle of tents, machetes and gallons of bug repellent.

The park is divided into three basic levels: bottom, middle, top. The bus dropped us off at the bottom level, so we went to the relatively nice bathroom complex while the adults bought our tickets. Fanny pack strapped on and tickets in hand, Frank came to get us from the tourist activity center, where we had struck up a jam session on the huge Buddhist drums. (Drums were basically the only activity there.)

We walked on the paved trail that promised to lead us up to the third level, where the rain forest would actually begin. Golf-cart tram drivers offered to take us up the the modest incline for 15 kuai (each way). The offer enticed the lazy part of me, but the adventurer and glutton within me conspired to make this solution: I'd expend some calories and keep my 30 kuai to replenish them once we got back to the city (shaved ice, anyone?).

We passed a peacock pen and a beautiful pond where Chinese tourists had gathered to enjoy the weather. This was the first day without rain all week. I guess for purposes of clarity, this should be called level 1.5.

When we heard singing we knew we had reached level two. Large crowds had piled into a small amphitheater, which sat within splashing distance of a tall, man-made waterfall. The man on stage wore traditional garb and wailed something into his headset microphone, which was turned up way too loud. He entered into a rhythmic chant and his arms flailed wildly as he lit into the huge drums surrounding him. The crowd loved it.

Across the street (and back a little) from the theater sat an "authentic" minority village that had two points of entry: a long bridge from the main road, or a zip-line across a wide ravine. The bridge was free. The zip-line was 15 kuai (almost two U.S. dollars) each way. We left level two just as a flock of vibrantly dressed women got off a golf-cart tram. I guessed they were up next to perform.

If the image of the tourist trap hasn't solidified yet, it will with level three. To get to the staircase that led to the rainforest trail, we had to walk through trinket shops and a small cafe. The more experienced travelers told the greener ones to obey the Six Flags principle: Everything costs exponentially more at theme parks. And for China, this was a theme park.

Before the rainforest trail began, we found some of the best (or should I say worst) English translations I'd ever seen in China. My personal favorites: "Enter into monkeys, please safekeeping your stuff" and the "tropical rare and extinct plants park."

I stand on the bridge, careful not to sway
We crossed over a bamboo bridge reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie, disobeying the sign that said in English, "No swaying." The trail, a flexible but sturdy path of interwoven bamboo, snaked upward along the sides of the small valley. Along the easy two-hour hike, vendors had set up kiosks (small huts) in another attempt to get into tourists' wallets. You could do anything here from archery practice to taking your picture with a giant python. Almost every kiosk was equipped with a computer and a printer, so the attendants could print your picture on the spot. It seems like digital cameras would've made this occupation obsolete, but these guys aren't dragging electrical cords through a wet forest for no reason. There must be bucks involved.

Halfway through the hike, the rainforest started living up to its name. Fat droplets crawled down the leaves of the canopy above and began to plop on top of our heads. Frank covered his camera with a plastic bag. Abby slipped and fell. The rest of us just picked up our pace a little bit. By the end, the trail had looped back to its beginning. Katy and I stopped to take a picture with the ostrich. Yes, the ostrich. He made his money as a steed, so we didn't even have to pay for the photo-op.

After stopping for some coffee at the tourist trap cafe, we headed back to level one. The downhill trek was a lot easier, despite the rain, which luckily had lightened up a little. Apparently, though, there had been some miscommunication. Our driver had left, and he would not be coming back. After standing in the rain for about 20 minutes, half of our team found taxis. The rest of us flagged a bus and hitchhiked our way back to the city. For a moment there, it felt a little like last year's journey, and I was just fine with that.

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