Sunday, February 08, 2009

Packing for carry-on...

Like anyone who has done a fair amount of traveling, I have a weird relationship with luggage and how much stuff I carry on a given trip. The first time I went to China, well, to begin with, I didn't know I would be traveling to China. Instead I was going to Switzerland for three months, to live and work in the sort of Swiss equivalent to Walmart.

I started out with way too much crap. I really had no idea what I was doing. I was twenty years old; I'd just had wisdom tooth surgery and was doped up on codeine, and I was going to a foreign country to work when I barely could speak the language — German, which in point of fact the locals didn't really speak. Swiss German is a whole other deal. But I digress..

I had a hundred dollars in my pocket. That was it. I had this wacky backpack, back in the days before internal frame backpacks had been invented, it had this "hi-tech" polymer frame that was supposed to be way cool and which also broke almost immediately. Hell, it was cheap. I had a sleeping bag (not hi-tech, the thing was HUGE) and a cassette recorder that I'd bought with baby-sitting money in elementary school. This was before iPods, people. This was before Walkman. This was 1979.

I flew to Zurich. I somehow found a youth hostel. I honestly don't remember how. It wasn't like I made reservations or anything like that. I just kind of blundered my way to it. I took some kind of light rail to get there, and I had to walk a lot, and all I remember is that I had so much crap that I could barely carry it, I had some weird flimsy light orange day-pack that had the tape-recorder and a bunch of other stuff, and it was not designed to carry heavy things over any kind of distance, and I remember thinking, I am not going to make it, this is really painful, why do I have all this shit?

Regarding the youth hostel, what I remember is meeting some nice Europeans who had really great pot. I believe it was from Africa, or so they said. We smoked together and I got so stoned that my heart started racing, and I honestly thought that I might die. I remember sitting in the bathroom with my book, and I wish I could remember what that book was. I don't think it was Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" (I read that later), and I don't think it was Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook." It was something weird and intense and profound, or maybe it just seemed that way because this pot was so strong I was practically hallucinating. I just sat there in the white tile restroom, trying to read my book, hoping I wasn't going to have a heart attack in this alien environment, with a hundred dollars in my pocket - well, less by that point. It's another one of those things that when I think about, I realize how different the world is now. No autotellers. No credit cards. Just a hundred bucks cash down to sixty or so.

I had to get to Basel, Switzerland, where my job was. I wasn't exactly clear on how I was going to get there, but one thing I'd already decided - I was not going to carry all that fucking crap all that way.

The sleeping bag was the first thing to go. I gave it to the nice Europeans who'd gotten me high.

Working in Basel was a whole experience I don't think about that much because of what happened after - going to China as a part of the first wave of Americans to live and work there since the 1949 Revolution. Basel is interesting in its own right, though, and one of these days I'm going to get back there, give the place its due.

The reason I went to Basel, and then to China, was my high school friend Paul. My whole relationship with Paul is one of those things that is so complicated I can't get into it here and yet is ultimately so simple that I could reduce it to a few sentences.

Because he's dead, and I'm not. So I get to write the history.

What I can say here is that the two of us were a dozen miles apart in Switzerland, during that summer of 1979. He worked at the groovy Goethe-influenced theater that didn't pay much money, and I worked at Swiss Walmart, because I had to make money in order to support myself. This seems to have been an essential dynamic in our relationship.

His parents were members of the US/China Peoples' Friendship Association, and they traveled to China as a part of a teacher's tour in 1978. While they were there, they heard that the Peoples' Republic of China wanted to hire Americans to teach English, for the first time since the Revolution. On a near whim they applied. They got the jobs. And on a near whim of my own, I agreed to go there with Paul to visit them.

It was all very complicated. We had to get special visas. I was Paul's "fiancee." We traveled from Switzerland to Rome to Thailand, and then to Hong Kong.

From Hong Kong, we took a fancy special train to Guangzhou. What I remember about Guangzhou is that the taxi drivers only turned on their lights at intersections. They also honked their horns every time they came to an intersection. I also had one of the most amazing meals I've ever had in my life there. Which was ironic in a way, because at that time in China, not many restaurants had survived the Cultural Revolution, and I would later have a lot of very bad food. Except in Sichuan. But again, I digress.

I could tell you about the train ride from Guangzhou to Beijing. I could tell you about how we argued to be allowed to ride hard sleepers, which were cheaper than soft sleepers. It wasn't done at the time. Foreigners were segregated - and charged extra - whenever possible. Somehow we managed it. Hard sleepers are arranged like this: lower, middle and upper berths, open compartments, one set of hard pallets facing the other. It was a 36 hour train ride to Beijing, and we were such a rarity that all during the journey, passengers would file past our pallets, like they were in line for the best ride at Disneyland, eager to have a look at the mysterious foreigners who had somehow materialized among them.

What I noticed was, there were an awful lot of very tall Chinese men on this train, dressed like everyone else in PLA-green Mao suits. It turned out we shared the train with the Chinese national basketball team.

What was supposed to be a three week stay in Beijing turned into half a year. A lot of stuff happened during that time. We both taught a term of Conversational English, for one. That's the biggest thing and the easiest to summarize, but it was far from the only thing.

Beijing during this period was not an easy place to be. Not like now, with Starbucks on every other corner, and cell phones and the internet. And more than that - now you can have Chinese friends. You can go to peoples' houses, and nobody cares. There are bars and restaurants and stores. Whatever negatives you can cite about the Chinese government these days - and you can certainly cite a string of them - you can lead a normal life in Beijing.

It wasn't like that then. It's hard to understand if you didn't experience it. You were constantly monitored. Constantly spied upon. Everything you did was fraught with a terrible significance.

Once more, I digress.

After our five months in Beijing, Paul and I ended up traveling for a month. We did this mostly on our own, which simply was not done in China at that time - February 1980.

What I remember was how cold we were, much of the time. There wasn't central heating back then. Most buildings were warmed by coal, if that. I remember being in Xian, wandering the medieval streets, and finding a vendor selling sweet potatoes cooked in an oil can. We didn't want to eat the sweet potatoes, we just wanted to carry them, because they were warm. Hey, I'm a Southern California native. We don't DO cold. It was quite an adjustment.

I mention all this only because, we'd heard at some point in our journey of a place in the southwest called Kunming, "The City Where it is Always Spring." The longer we traveled, the better it sounded. Hell ya. Get me to this place where it is always spring.

We got there. The journey involved a crazy Swede who wore short denim shorts while the two of us were fucking freezing in our pants and long underwear, whose Chinese was good enough to connive us into a Chinese dormitory hotel at a time when this was simply Not Done if you were foreigners. We conned our way into a local bathhouse too.

Kunming was warm. I had a great meal there, a bowl of noodles that cost maybe 40 cents tops, one of my favorite meals the whole time I was in China. Plus it was Spring Festival, Chinese New Year. February 1980, and the first time (I think) since the Cultural Revolution that people were allowed to celebrate in traditional ways. There was a tiny dragon parade. Lots of firecrackers. And a total solar eclipse. That was pretty amazing. We sat out in a rice paddy and watched the eclipse, with two other foreign teachers, a couple, who were having their own personal China meltdown (it happened a lot back then, because it was hard to be there, and you were spied upon, and nothing worked right, and at times it felt like everyone was trying to fuck with you and make your life hard), and the woman, I forget her name, practically had a nervous breakdown on the spot because of all the firecrackers going off, and Paul, meanwhile, had a horrible case of the runs and had to keep running off to some outhouse hut in the rice paddy to relieve himself.

But we saw a total solar eclipse. And it was cool.

The day before that, Paul and I had been at the Stone Forest. At the time, this was a natural wonder in a rural area, populated by what the Chinese government likes to call "Ethnic minorities." We both thought it was a pretty spectacular place. The rock formations - "typical karst structures," according to the signage, whatever that meant - gray stone pillars thrusting out of red earth, emerald green grass, so many of them that it really did look like they'd grown there, strange stone shoots in a fertile field.

We both loved it there. We returned that evening to the guesthouse, where the other guests were Hong Kong students, and we were entertained by "ethnic minority dancers." And then we all had to sing. By this point in our China stay, Paul and I were familiar with this obligation, and when asked to provide an example of "American Folk Music," we sang "Rocky Raccoon", sitting around the fire ring with the "ethnic minority" performers and the Hong Kong students.

It was my birthday.

So...some thirty years later...I am heading back to China for a month. I've been back to China plenty of times since that first trip, but this one is different. I'm going to be traveling for most of the trip, for one. So I've had to think very carefully about what I'm packing, and how I will carry it.

For another, I'm going back to Kunming for the first time. And I'm going to the Stone Forest.

My friend Paul, a year or so before he died, when we were still speaking to each other, said to me, "If I die, you know what I would like? I would like my ashes spread at the Stone Forest."

And I said, "Sure. Okay. Yeah. I'll do that."

After Paul died, I went to his memorial. In spite of the fact that I was furious at him, that at the end he'd hated me. I went because we'd shared too much for me not to have gone. And besides, I was the winner here, wasn't I? I was still alive.

It's odd that I can't remember exactly how this happened, or maybe not. I've always had a pretty bad memory for events (as opposed to my eerily excellent memory for factoids, foreign languages and songs). I can't remember what sort of memorial there was for Paul. I can't remember anything about it. I can remember the commemoration some of his best friends, including me, gave him. We'd all been so close to him and so hurt by him. We got together in one friend's apartment, and we lit candles and said our angry pieces, about how we'd loved this person and how angry we were at him. I think we drank a lot of tequila.

Whatever the memorial was that Paul's dad held (Paul's mother had died some years before, which is another story), at the end of it, Paul's dad said to me, "Paul told me that he wanted some of his ashes to be spread at the Stone Forest. He said you promised him you would."


I've had these ashes in a wooden box for years. Sitting on the top shelf of my bookcase. I've had to make a list of the things I need to remember to take on this trip, and somewhere in the middle is scrawled, "Paul's ashes!"

Don't forget the ashes, you know? That would be lame.

I climbed up on my library ladder and retrieved the box an hour or so ago. It's the first time I've looked at it in years. A carved wooden box, one of those cheap carved boxes from India with the flimsy hinges held together by a penny nail.

The cremains themselves are in a Baggy. Ziplock, thankfully.

They look like cigar ash combined with burnt-down barbecue coals. I know this because at one point, right after Paul died, when I first was given the ashes, I was so angry at him, and so gleeful, so joyous that I'd survived, I opened the box, I opened the Baggy, and I put my fingers inside, felt the residue, the unexpected grittiness of it.

I'm alive, and you're not.

That was years ago.

Anyway, I'm going back to Kunming now. It's time. It's my birthday.

It's going to be very cold, and still, I don't want to carry too much. I've had to learn that lesson, over and over. I'm going to be on and off airplanes, in and out of trains, and I'm not going to be staying in any one place for too long. So, I've tried to pack carefully. Only what I can carry. Only what I need.

But I have to take Paul's ashes. I promised I would.

It's not like I have room for the carved wooden box. So I put the Baggy in another Baggy. I mean, the last thing I want is for the ashes to spill inside my luggage. That would be, well, messy, and weird. But what do you do with a Baggy full of cremains? I don't want to put them in my toiletries kit. I'm already living dangerously by not putting my 3 ounce bottles and under of liquids into the proper 2 gallon ziplock bag (for whatever reason, I have not been stopped for lack of this for my last six trips through LAX). Do I, I don't know, stuff them inside a sock? Put them in a ceremonial envelope? Isn't that asking for trouble? Are there some kind of laws governing the transportation of human remains across international borders? Do I even want to know?

So, after double-bagging the cremains, I've just tucked them in the main compartment of my suitcase, beneath a pair of socks. I'm trying to practice my explanation in Chinese, should someone ask me about them. "Wode lao pengyoude gugede" uh...something something. The word for "ashes" that I can look up involves burnt trees, and I'm not sure if that translates.

But if nothing else, I've got everything down to two small bags. Down to what I can carry.

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