I’ve never been more scared to travel.
I was never more scared to travel. The previous 13 years I’ve spent on the road seemed like fluffy cupcakes compared to what I was about to attempt. I picked up my EDC bag, added a few child care items to it, scooped up my two and a half year old daughter, and headed out into the streets. We were going to Nanjing for two days — without the mamma.
Apart from various solo jaunts, I’ve been traveling with daughter for the past two and a half years, but this was always with the accompaniment of my wife — who is so adept at parenting that I’m usually flung into the back seat. It came time to step up a little and take the parenting challenges all by myself as the kid and I go out for a jaunt with just the two of us. If we could pull this off, our travels here in China would be revolutionized. The wife could hold down the fort, working and we could travel, collecting content to write about.
As we stood in the streets of Taizhou waiting for a taxi I have to admit that I was filled with apprehension: What if I screw something up? What if she doesn’t have any fun? What if she just screams ‘I want mamma!’ the entire time? What if it becomes evident that the kid really doesn’t like traveling anymore? There would be no mommy safety net here — just me. This would be a new experience for both the kid and I. I considered just turning around and returning to the apartment — we could just go to Nanjing as an entire family in a couple of days when my wife has off work, I reasoned. I realized that I was just scared.
I was coming up with the logical justifications which allow a person to avoid facing something they are a little afraid of doing. Cowardice is often backed by a mountain of good logic. It usually always seems far smarter to not take risks, to not push your boundaries, and reason rarely works in the favor of bold acts. But these bold acts often provide the colors that enhance the mosaic of a life — the building blocks of memories of an existence well spent.
Cowards are the most practical, the most logical, the smartest people in the world. But cowards often spend their days dreaming about what they could do, not about what they’ve actually done.
I’m a rash individual, and I’ve learned that fear often births a counter reaction: determination. When I feel myself being pulled back by fear I often feel an opposite push that propels me to continue on — if for no other reason than to extinguish the fear through facing it. Fear can only be slayed through action. This means stashing away worry and doubt and taking that first step off into the abyss.
I took this step as I tossed my kid into the backseat of a taxi. I got in next to her and as we rolled through the city I looked down at her: she was contently looking out the window. She did not appear to have picked up on my apprehension — she was cool. She chilled me out. I opened up my bag to grab something and she peaked inside. “Daddy, you brought my seahorse shirt!” she proclaimed with satisfaction. I knew then that everything would be alright.
We got our train tickets without difficulty. It seems as if children can ride for free on Chinese trains up until they’re school aged — and I’ve even seen some kids that appeared older than this riding in the laps of their parents or just standing in the aisle. A country were most public services are run by the government often leads to a lot more leeway than services run by corporations whose only pursuit is to turn the largest profit possible. In China, the government is the biggest business, and the fact that there are still some “socialistic” checks and balances on commercial pursuits here makes this country far more livable than it probably would be otherwise.
Petra sang the Dinosaur Train song as we boarded. We were soon moving west towards Nanjing. I called my wife to give her our status report. Petra took the phone and said, “Don’t worry mommy, we’ll be back another day.”
This was not rehearsed. It was clear that we both were on the same path.
The kid then nodded off to sleep and I looked out the window. Everything looked half dug up. Dirt emerged from hundreds of fissures in the earth. Openings were cut near storage houses, pits made for ditches, piles of raw soil in ag fields, and in miscellaneous holes were made here and there for miscellaneous purposes. Everywhere the landscape was dotted with bare patches of raw earth — in piles and in holes. The very ground of China is churning with change and transition.
Around a half hour outside of Nanjing Petra woke up. We ate Snickers bars and played little traveling games.
“I see a Happy Sheep out the window eating grass,” my daughter proclaimed.
“Yeah, well I see a Happy Sheep running around,” I countered.
Happy Sheep is a cartoon that’s on Chinese TV. I am unsure what the Chinese name for it is, but it’s variably translated as anything from Pleasant Sheep to Pleasurable Goat.
Pleasurable goat??? We prefer to just call them Happy Sheep.
“Maybe we will see real happy sheep at the Nanjing zoo,” I tried to get my daugher excited about the place we were visiting.
“Silly daddy, we can’t visit real happy sheep at the zoo, we eat the real ones.”
Very correct. Petra then followed this up by saying that she wanted to eat a Happy Sheep when we arrived. Now, instead of playing “I see happy sheep out the window” we played “how many mutton kebabs do you want to eat.”
This may sound strange that my daughter delights in the prospect of eating the cartoon characters she adores, but she the same kid who at a year and a half of age looked at a huge sow at a country fair and declared, “It looks delicious!” I have no worries about my daughter acquiring vegetarian tendencies.
Upon arrival in Nanjing we rushed to the Jasmine Hostel and booked a room. It was the size of a shoe closet, but the price was right. The owners of the hostel showered Petra with chocolate. The owner delighted to no small measure as Petra sat in her lap and ate as much chocolate as she could fit into her stomach.
We went to the Nanjing zoo. It was full of half dead penguins and garbage eating monkeys. I tried to encourage Petra to get excited about the penguins, as they are currently her favorite animal, but she seemed to find it difficult to enjoy watching four beached birds laying on a blue tiled floor in their own excrement gasping for breath. She preferred to hang out with the penguin statues outside the exhibit. The exhibits for the other birds proved more stimulating — as least they squawked and looked alive. Petra raced around the zoo and I followed. She yelled and screamed at the animals and shrieked with delight when they reacted to her like a proper zoo goer.
Old man falls down
On the walk back to our hostel I saw an old man fall down. He was sitting up on the sidewalk and then, for some reason which I could not fathom, he keeled over on his side. As I walked by him it became apparent that he couldn’t get back up. He was struggling, bouncing his face up and down on the concrete, but his right arm was pinned by his body and did not seem strong enough to free itself. I stood over him for a moment trying to gauge if he was old and drunk or old and broken down. He had full cloth grocery bags positioned around him, his clothes were not ragged, and he did not smell like Chinese wine. I determined that he was just an old guy who got too tired walking home from the market and keeled over in the street.
Knowing that one person staring at something in the streets of China is often enough to draw a crowd, I tried to make it obvious that I was looking at something interesting. I stood over the fallen old guy with the hope that someone would notice and come help. China is not my country, I don’t know what to do with keeled over old people here. But the only people around who took notice was a couple of high school girls. They seemed even more clueless as to what to do than I was, so I reached out my hand and instructed the elderly guy to take it. He did and I yanked him back upright. I did not want to lift him to his feet as I knew that there would be a good probability that he would just fall back down to the ground again — potentially injuring himself even more. As I stabilized the old guy in a sitting position I asked him if he was alright. He said he was. What he needed was for some family members or an ambulance to come and get him — two things that I would have difficulty doing on my own. But I had by then garnered the attention of a crowd of people, who then took it upon themselves to help their elderly brethren where I left off. As I walked away I turned around to see a group of people helping him to his feet. I could only hope for the best.
Chinese people are many things, but they are not insolent. They truly care about each other, they do not fear their neighbors, they talk to people in the street, and they step up when someone needs help. Speaking generally, they still possess the basic elements of humanity that are so often parched by urban living.
Back at the youth hostel: why do I keep doing this to myself?
My daughter and I returned to the hostel at night. We sat in our room and debated if it would be worth going out in the common room to socialize. We decided in favor of being friendly, and went into the room. I admired the set up of this hostel: couches, tables, chairs everywhere. This was a place for hanging out. The problem was that this room was jam packed with people from all over the world who had their heads stuck in personal electronic devices. Nobody talked. Everyone just clicked on their computers or sat memorized by their smart phones. It was a very uncomfortable place to try to be human in.
Petra and I walked into the room and not a single person looked up. Petra played with the Foosball table and I tried to make eye contact with someone — anyone — as a prerequisite for conversation. Nobody took the bait. 15 minutes went by, I found myself disappointed in what traveler haunts have been degraded to, and collected up my kid and made to leave. Upon exit a group of young Chinese and British guys came in with guitars. They were led by an English guy who demonstrated keenly the reason why his antecedents came up with the term “wanker.” They were loud and cocky, hell bent on getting a buzz on before heading out to the bars. They began playing horrid American pop songs on their guitars, acting a little cooler and cooler with each note. It was a real joke that could not have been scripted any better. The sociable crowd proved worse company than the wall flowers stuck in Facebook.
Hostels: I have no idea why I keep doing this to myself.
My daughter grew tired of one of the hotel workers following behind her saying “She’s so cute, she’s so cute” over and over again and I grew tired of my incongruous placement among my “peers.” We both found refuge in our room.
We had trouble sleeping because of the noise coming from the common room. I could do nothing about it, the volume was enough to keep us awake but it was not obnoxious. It was my choice to stay in a hostel on a Friday night — I knew what we’d be in for — but I maintained hope that people congregating all together may have provided a good atmosphere for the kid and myself. I thought wrong.
I really need to scrap my naive illusions about backpacker “center of the universes,” about places where travelers meet up to compare notes on the road ahead — I’ve been traveling for far too long to believe in these fairy tales.
As we laid in bed trying to usher in some sleep the kid whimpered a little and said that she wanted to go home. She said that she missed her mother. She has never been away from her for the night before, this was a completely new experience. I grew nervous — this could go bust, and I imagined my embarrassment at having to call my wife to sooth the kid to sleep from the other side of Jiangsu province. I imagined what a dip-shit I would feel like limping back into Taizhou and having to report that further fanciful daddy/ daughter voyages across China would need to be put on hold until a later date.
But the night didn’t go bust. Instead, the kid sucked it up and decided that it would be more fun to tease me by sticking her feet in my face and trying to jump on my back. I told her some stories and she flopped like a fish for a while before falling to sleep.
I give my kid’s breakfast to a beggar
The following morning we ate breakfast in a noodle restaurant. The spices proved too hot for the kid and she stuck out her tongue and began yelling somewhat comically. The other diners got a kick out of the little white kid who could not stomach their food. I wolfed down my noodles and split to find the kid some milk to ease her burning tongue.
After stocking up on milk and yogurt we set out to find a place to sit down to eat it. We came upon a guy that had one of his legs sawed off at the knee laying prone on the bottom rack of an industrial cart. The cart had wheels and was similar to the type used in factories to move around tool boxes or other heavy pieces of equipment. On the top rack of the cart was a sound system blasting traditional Chinese music. The beggar was laying on his stomach while pushing the apparatus along with his hands while simultaneously knocking a pink plastic alms bowl out in front of him in increments. His shirt was off and I admired the form and tone of his lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles. This guy worked hard for his living. Impressed with his effort, I tossed a coin into his bowl and he looked up and thanked me. It was then that I saw that he was only around 18 years old.
He had dyed his hair sort of purple. He seemed to be an otherwise fashionable teenager except for the fact that he lost half a leg somewhere and now paddled himself around the business district of Nanjing begging alms. He seemed friendly towards me and unashamed of his work, but we only passed a smile and not words.
China, like India, has some incredibly contorted — freakish — looking beggars. I’ve seen all types of human malfunctions: from missing parts, to joints where joints should not be, to people who had their pelvises spun around 180 degrees from their torsos who would walk around upside down on their forearms. There are no retardations that match some of these beggar’s conditions, and I can only conjecture at how someone’s ass can be flipped around to their front.
But the guy laying prone on an industrial cart was just an amputee, so normal in China that it hardly even warrants stares from passerbys — and this is a culture that gathers in crowds just to stare at just about anything. I once watched a dwarf attracted a mob of finger pointing and picture taking Chinese people from doing nothing more more interesting than walking down the street being a dwarf.
Petra and I found a place to sit on a bench facing the street and she dug into one of the two yogurts I bought her as a consolation price for trying the spicy noodles. Soon enough the young amputee who was pushing himself through the streets on the cart began passing by us. Petra looked at him transfixed. His method of locomotion and begging alms was not uncommon in China, and the my daughter has seen this before, but she was still amazed none the less. I was amazed too that this kid was pushing himself so ably through such heavy traffic for such long distances. He then looked up at us and flashed a smile of recognition. I held up Petra’s half finished milk and offered it. He nodded yes and paused his forward progress. I got off the bench and, feeling stingy, grabbed Petra’s second yogurt from out of the grocery bag as well. I put both into his bowl.
Realizing what happened Petra began wailing. I couldn’t blame her: I’d just given away half of her breakfast. “My yogurt is all gone! Why did you do that!?!”
“We can buy more,” I tried to console her. It wasn’t working. I really had to give some kind of an explanation here. Already on this morning I’d scalded her tongue and then gave her contingency meal away to a beggar. What kind of father does that?
I started to explain that some people are less fortunate than we are so we should try to help them, but the stopped short: I don’t want my daughter to ingest this self-righteous, bleeding heart bullshit. So I countered by starting to explain that giving food to people who are less fortunate makes us feel good about ourselves — which is the truth, but I did not want to teach this lesson so outright. I again stopped mid-sentence. I ended up just explaining to her that the guy has a very hard job and he works very hard and gets really hungry, and we decided to be nice by giving him some of our food. Petra stopped crying and I watched as she mulled this over. “He works hard and is hungry?” she confirmed. “Yes,” I replied. She understood.
Enough about that.
Tourists not permitted entry
Now that Petra’s breakfast came to an abrupt end we continued on our way to Xuanwu Lake. We stopped at a strange artificial rock wall that had colored spotlights and fountains all over it. We walked around the monstrosity. It was a big fake giant rock outcropping that was roughly 40 feet high, but it looked very realistic. From even a close distance you couldn’t really tell that the rocks were made of plastic fiber. Petra played on some of the surface level rocks near a sign that said in Chinese and English: “Tourists not permitted entry.”
An artificial cave was built into the side of the fake rock outcrop and I watched through a window as a security guard did his morning exercises. He had clothes hanging all over the inside of the cave and had shelves with nick knacks all over them. It was obvious that he was just waking up in the morning, and it appeared that he lived, or at least slept, inside of this artificial cave. I felt as if I should have been more surprised than I was, but I’m fully accustomed to the idea that Chinese people tend to live in just about any nook large enough to place a bed.
The security guard opened his mouth to speak, and I figured that we got too close to the “no tourists allowed sign,” but instead he invited us into the exhibit — or whatever it was. He did not have to extend his offer twice, Petra and I ducked beneath the red rope and zipped past the no tourists sign and made for the top of the man made rock outcropping. There were boardwalks, and only a few other people. There was a decent view of Nanjing skyscrapers from the top of the hill that the fake outcropped connected to.
We then exited the exhibit and made our way up the large hill that rose behind it. Petra took a crap on the side of a road. I proudly cheered her potty training prowess. This is one of the cool things about traveling in China with small children: it’s socially acceptable for them to go to the bathroom just about anywhere. For a kid that’s in the final stages of potty training this is truly clutch. Whenever Petra needs to go to the bathroom we don’t need to run manically looking for a toilet, as she can just drop trow and go where she stands. I always try to take her over to a grassy area, under a tree, or near a bush, but, from my observations of the local people, this does not seem to be overtly necessary.
We continued walking up the hill. Working class high-rise communities extended up the sides of it, but there were plenty of trees, green, hiking paths, and old people. Petra looked at one old lady and wailed: “That person is picking its nose!” She thought it was funny. Everyone in the world picks their nose but the Chinese have the tendency of looking you straight in the eye while doing so. I’m not sure if this is the intention but I must admit that it sort of punks you out.
Escape from Xuanwu
We soon found Xuanwu Lake. It sits in the middle of Nanjing’s downtown district, below skyscrapers and on the other side of the wall that once served as a protective palisade for the city. Creating natural areas and brush-stroke-landscapes smack in the center of a modern cityscape is a Chinese specialty — they’ve been building such parks for thousands of years. The duality between neon light metropolises and wide open lotus lakes does not seem to be too much of a contradiction in China.
We walked through a huge gate that was cut into the side of an even huger brick wall. I suppose this wall once repealed outsiders, now it attracts them. Tourists flocked all around the gate, shopping for souvenirs and taking photos. Vendors selling all the crap that tourists buy lined the entrance. Petra tried to run back through the gate and away from the lake, but I scooped her up. “I don’t want to go to the lake!” she yelled. Perhaps she knew what was to come.
We found some grotesque rocks and the kid began climbing all over them. Since the Song Dynasty the Chinese have had a thing for going out in the mountains and bringing back huge, gnarly rocks to set up in the parks and gardens of their cities. They call them scholar rocks for some reason. For over a thousand years these ugly rocks have been collected in Nanjing, most coming from the shores of nearby Lake Tai.
But Petra did not seem to care where the rocks came from, what they are called, or the reason why people piled them up in huge piles on a causeway in the middle of lake. She just knew that they were fun to climb on. I would hold onto her hands and she would walk her way up to the top of the grotesque works of art. Soon enough we made our way to a small rock laying on the ground and I sat down with the intention of resting for a little while. Bad idea.
As soon as we stopped moving we were swarmed with picture takers. First one teenage boy tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could have his picture taken with me. Sure. Then another did the same. OK. Then an entire group of boys wanted to get in a picture with me. My daughter fell off a grotesque rock. I was sidetracked by people wanting their picture taken with me and could not catch her. She sat on the ground bewildered, though not too hurt. We had to move.
In another part of the park we stopped on a boardwalk on the bank of the lake and I stooped down to take a picture of my daughter. This, apparently, gave the OK for an entire crowd to do the same. Then a hoard began descending with cameras and smart phones extended in their hands. My daughter humored them for a while. She cocked her hips to one side, her head to the other, and flashed a big smile which she topped off with a peace sign. Unfortunately, my wife thought it would be cute if she posed like this. She was correct. This did nothing to help our cause, as we found ourselves surrounded by an ever growing mob of Chinese people with cameras.
This attention seems friendly at first, but eventually it got severely annoying. My daughter and I seriously could not enjoy the park because so many people wanted to either get a picture of the bearded guy with tattoos or the cute little blond haired white kid. It became a challenge to even walk as the swarm kept jostling for position to take our photo. This was not fun. A college age boy and his girlfriend came over and began snapping photos of us with a nice looking Canon. I humored the kid as he was more or less my peer and struck a pose with my daughter. A big mistake. This kid and his girlfriend then followed us all through the park snapping dozens and dozens photos without any sort of clandestine intention.
Everything we did in this park was photographed. The flattery had ended and the embarrassment began. In China, one person stopping and photographing something is often enough to provoke a crowd of people doing the same. Just about everyone has a camera with them at all times in China — they are built into their phones — so it was neither possible to deny them all permission to photograph us nor get away from them. We tried to ignore them, but it was difficult: we were being made into a public spectacle. We were chased through the big gate and out of the park.
The photo takers are annoying enough, but what is worse are the people who want to pick my kid up and have their photo taken with her. It is my natural reaction to think that people will treat me and my daughter respectfully, but, all too often, they don’t just pick up Petra and pose for a photo but they start pinching and prodding her to get her some kind of reaction. Petra does not really mind people taking her photos, but she gets incredibly offended when someone grabs her up and tries posing for pictures with her for five+ minutes when she just wants to be running around enjoying the day like a normal kid.
At the zoo the day before the attention paid to my daughter also got out of control. Petra became an exhibit along with the monkeys and macaws. In fact, many people seemed more interest in ogling over her than the animals in the cages. I think she made the giraffes jealous. A couple of ladies by the monkey exhibit gave Petra a juice box and shrieked with delight as she drank it in the same way they do when they toss cookies their cookies into the monkeys.
It’s a shame when a kid can’t enjoy looking at the animals in a zoo because mobs of grown adults refuse to get out of her face. I generally let my kid fight her own battles in instances such as these, and to make her own choices as to what to do. Petra is not shy. If she has a good feeling about a person who wants to give her attention then she is friendly. If not, she screams at them in anger, points her finger as close to their face as possible, and reams them out with the worst insults her two year old vocabulary can muster:
“I want to wrap you in tape!” seems to be her favorite.
I want to wrap you in tape???
I could not teach her this.
Only when people do not listen to my daughter’s warnings do I step in. When they become too obnoxious I tell them to back off, which is definitely effective.
Isn’t she cold?
The sky over Nanjing was grey. There was a good wind and the temperature was rather cool. In such a situation parents in China bundle their kids up in multiple layers of heavy clothes, scarves, anything to ensure that they’re toasty warm and sweating. The Chinese think that cold weather makes kids sick. To an extent they are correct, but what they call cold I would call a nice spring day. It is common to see little Chinese kids sweating balls under layers upon layers of clothes on what seems to me a warm day. Air conditioning in a room full of children, regardless of how warm it is, is often considered a brash taboo. Petra has little aversion to the cold, she is from Maine — where it’s not cold unless there’s snow on the ground and your fingers are frozen stiff. 60 degrees is nice weather as far as Petra is concerned, and she chose to wear short sleeves on that second day in Nanjing. This was enough to make many old Chinese ladies virtually flip out.
“Isn’t she cold? Isn’t she cold?” they kept asking as we would walk by. Some would try to reach down and touch her arm to see if it’s cold.
“She’s from the north,” I would tell them, “this isn’t cold.”
When traveling in places where the parenting culture greatly contrasts against your own it is easy to look like an awful parent.
Returning to Taizhou
The Nanjing rail station was pure insanity. But it was just the normal insanity, nothing special. When thousands of people file into a single train station an organized sort of mayhem is bound to occur. I already had a ticket so Petra and I went straight for the departures floor. We squeezed into a quickly moving line that seemed to be dumping hundreds of people per minute into the station. We were outside and had a view of the city before us.
“What city is that?” I asked Petra.
“Nan Jing,” she replied without hesitation.
She is learning her world.
We flashed our ticket, ran my bag through an x-ray machine, and entered the railway station.
I walked hand in hand with my daughter as thousands of people swarmed around us. We walked slow, just looking around, checking out the scene. I looked down at my kid and became incredibly impressed with her cool yet again. She was calm and collected as a storm of human chaos spun around us. The flashes of sights, screeching sounds, the vibe of a place full of people hurrying in every direction did not faze her. All good travelers are able stay calm in chaos, they are able to float through the insane masses of humanity as a spectator, unfettered by concern or worry. Petra seemed to be digging the scene of the railway station as it ebbed and flowed like a kaleidoscope in the hands of an ADD youth on a sugar high. She appeared unaffected.
The human mind craves stimulation. The sharper the mind, the more stimulation it needs. The minds of children are the most supple, sharp, and hungry of all. I’m proud that my daughter seems to prefer the stimulation of travel over the simulation of flashing frame cartoons. She not only took the overnight trip to Nanjing alone with her father well but enjoyed it as well. Petra was raised in travel, the movement of landscapes, people, things, is the prime stimulation of her life. It’s my impression that all of the travel could either make her disinterested and passe about new places and people or it could plant a seed of sheer curiosity in her that could last a lifetime. Petra is still very young, but so far the stimulation of travel seems to be an adequate substitute for the more conventional stimulation of cartoons, video games, and electronic toys.
Once in our waiting area Petra and I pigged out on mochi balls and Oreos. I chatted with some young Chinese guys about their future in a country that continues to rise. They just finished university and were overtly hopeful.
Once on the train Petra immediately went to sleep. I watched the scenery roll by. When she woke up she seemed happy to be on a train. She ate more mochi balls and then went and played with some little girls. One of them had a Happy Sheep purse which Petra admired. They gave her some peanut butter crackers.
When we were almost back to Taizhou and Petra began petting my leg. She sang me a song and when she was finished said, “I had fun with you today.”
The Sunday travel story is a new weekly installment on VagabondJourney.com. Sit down, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy a story from another part of the world.