Life’s journey is not to arrive safely at the Grave, in a well-preserved body; but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, “Holy Shit! What a ride!”
It all started with deciding to sleep at the airport till my flight to Singapore. Only to realize this particular Haikou airport, claimed to be the best of recent chinese revamps was not a disappointment. Neither did it flatter me entirely.
They simply do not function 24 hours.
After the last plane takes off, life at the airport turns off too. Now did I mention the itinerary, albeit boasting to be a transit protocol doesn’t quite cover the “keep my baggage for me while I roam bit”. Hence a significant amount of cash was spent in getting a member of the airport security and information counter to take responsibility of my baggage. One that held medical equipment and a pair of fairly adequate speakers.
That was 40RNB for two days. And for my question on what to do in Haikou, our friend had only one answer “take the shuttle bus to downtown”. Now downtown had to be the choice, given how everything about this place reads abandonment and far from what Shanghai is to me. Home.
Nevertheless one needs to explore. There is no other way of replacing the void that screamed “why can you not make plans”.
Off I picked a shuttle service that was heading towards a place where lots of food was available. Ten minutes into the journey, all I witnessed were dark windy roads. Lots more dark windy roads.
Downtown varies from places to places? Or some dark Fae party was taking place. I mean what is the idea of downtown for the people in this part of the world?
Decided to ask the girl sitting a seat away.
“Where exactly does this bus go?”
“Where do you need to go?”
“Do you have an address?”
“Ermm…Any address will work I guess”
The classic look of bewilderment with a tinge of doubt regarding my sanity was all over her face.
“I don’t have a place to go. I was thinking maybe you can tell me what people do at night, I might just alight at one of these stops and join in the fun…”
“Okaayyy…” This time she was convinced I was insane.
“Well it’s my first time here, and I was planning to stay at the airport for the transit till they told me it had to close. So I thought I’d check out the city after dark instead”.
“So you have nowhere to go?”
“I will if you provide me with one” followed by my million dollar smile.
I initiated the conversation. Again.
“Where are you from? Are you a student? Working? What do people do here when they are not working?”
Pause. Either she was hesitant or was trying to phrase her statement.
“I am a student at Hainan University studying (something along the lines of aviation I think)”.
“You’re a student? Nice. Where you headed may I ask?”
“Meeting a friend for supper. You can join us if you want”.
Vegas neon lights took form of capitalized Y.E.S. in my head.
“Really? That is very nice of you. Can I really? I mean I don’t mind, but wont it be a little troublesome for you?”
“Nah, its fine. We’re gonna have supper at this (insert Chinese characters) Street.”
The rest of the journey was filled with just me asking questions and her answering them enthusiastically often complimenting on my rusty Mandarin and the intense effort I took to understand them. DID I MENTION SHE SPOKE NOT A SINGLE WORD OF ENGLISH?
My patience and level of concentration was never tested this much in my life. The last time I maximized my Chinese language ability was when we had to fight for our rights against an evil, money bugger of a landlady. I digress.
Finally the stop came and we got off at a place that was not any less darker than the previous streets we had passed. Seriously what kinda downtown was I being introduced too.
Nevertheless I followed her lead. It didn’t end, we had to take another bus, this time a less comfy, much cheaper public bus that took about 20 minutes to get to the Food street. She paid for me. Shameless, I have become.
Food Street was freakin' crowded! People eat here after dark. It's almost like a hobby.
As I took in the happenings, her other friend came by. This time a Chinese Muslim girl from Henan province. She was amazingly nice and hospitable. They enquired about my background, about Singapore, my Shanghai life. They shared their life in Haikou and how one of them actually dislikes Shanghai for larger cities have a faster pace of life, compared to the laid back one that Hainan poses of.
I was convinced this was no downtown. I never saw foreigners in my 20 hours here. The only whites I saw were coming in from other flights landing at the airport and me the lone brown woman, loitering the streets with two other amicable young ladies I met ten minutes ago, in a bus that I decided to board; giving myself the benefit of doubt of heading somewhere nice and perhaps different.
Different it was.
People crowded the streets on their uber low tables and even lower wooden stools for a dessert bash. This particular dessert was made from tropical fruits, especially young coconuts with raisins, white fungus and a whole bunch of Chinese herbs whose names fail me. I was even greeted to one of the best Red Bean Bubble Tea I have ever had in my life. Yum!
Now you probably have labeled me a frugal, stingy, good for nothing traveller who leeches of others. Allow me to explain. What happened was the way these girls refuse to accept my cash. They actually had a look of “are you insulting me?” You do not want to mess with girls who may misinterpret your actions and abandon you in the middle of nowhere.
When desserts were over, they were asking for my plans.
“ahh the 'P' word. I might just walk around till dawn and take the shuttle back to the airport”.
“No no no. You will be tired. You need to rest.”
“Well I didn’t book a room. And I don’t want to check into a hotel for a night when I don’t even have a change of clothes. What is the point anyways?”
“This is not a safe town for you to roam alone. This is not Shanghai.”
“Oh okay. What do you suggest then?”
“We’ll find a cheap hotel”.
They started scouring phone numbers for motels on the food street and prices below hundred.
“69 bucks for a night and separate electricity and water fees”.
“I only have a hundred. How about I swipe”.
“No cards. Only cash. There’s an ATM outside.”
ATM only accepted Chinese cards. I had successfully cleared my Chinese account. Semester ended for Christ sake!
“How about 130RNB?”
“Only 150RNB. I’m just doing my job”.
Can’t stay there any longer. Not when a clearly annoying old woman was out to make your life miserable.
We resorted to a rather dilapidated, peeling walls, scribbled graffiti, forth floor motel, whose “windows” by the way were made of barbwire. >.<
I wanted a cheap room not a junkie’s ghetto!
Although I had barely slept in the last 61 hours, I was still able to differentiate between a cheap hotel and an emancipated building.
However, the kid who was in charge of this serenely intimidating motel was kind, nice, and polite and the rooms were freaking big for the meager amount he didn’t even demand but requested. There was even hot water. There were clean sheets and there I was looking forward to cockroaches.
Under a tattooed mafia exterior laid a sterile Operating theatre.
At this point, the two girls were extremely tired and possibly unsure what exactly I was up to or wanted to.
“You don’t want to rest?”
“I can appreciate a rest, just not here.”
I actually would have relented to that room, if they were keen to stay there with me. But that was just too much to ask. And I was not comfortable with the ambience. Neither were they. But they were a lot more concerned about my lack of sleep in the previous days then my potential lack of sleep if I had agreed to actually take that room.
“Its 24 hours, they have internet, I can stay there till dawn and cab to the airport. How much does it cost to get to the Airport”.
“Hmm..20 minutes and 50 RNB. Tell him not to run the meter and fix a price of 50 and no less”.
Downtown was not downtown and meters are for cheating.
We politely declined rundown motel to KFC where it was 24 hours and always crowded. The girls were happy that I was in a sound place. They accompanied me to KFC, set with me till I was settled into my space. Whatever that meant.
Told me to sleep well and be rejuvenated. How ideal was KFC for a good sleep? Beats me. Passed me the packet of milk they bought when they saw my cereal packets. With the reference to the clock at the KFC outlet whilst I’m typing this, all this kindness, altruism, caring manner was from two girls I met 4 hours ago.
Moral of the story being if you’re into Aesop’s Fables, sleeping in airports are convenient, fun, and if I had agreed to spend my 20 hours indoors I would not have met two amazing girls who are now my friends I’d be writing too (preferably not in chinese), the fact that creepy motel owner was nicer and a lot more likable compared to that crappy old lady in charge of hotel 59.
Now you know why I travel. The world ain't that bad. So far.
Next stop; Home.
Who would’ve thought the journey towards home would also include a harrowing experience on the road. When I exited KFC to go hail a cab, a cab driver was in the midst of getting my attention. I gave him my divided attention and a wave to signal that yes I would consider his help. Note: I do not have a sensitive nose in addition to the 74.5 hours of non-sleep pretty much every other organ was functioning at half if not a quarter of its original ability. Negotiating the price and finally fixing on a 50 bucks ride I settled in the front seat behind him. And my nose picked up the alcohol. Surprise! I’ve entrusted my life to a drunk driver.
I have never been this awake in my life. Not even in class. He was on the walkie-talkie, he lit up a cigarette and soon he was picking up speed on an extremely narrow road filled with hairpin turns. And there was no other car in sight. I had to let him know that I was not prepared to die that day. Not in a car. Not by a drunk driver. Not in China please!
“you might wanna drive a little slower”.
For the rest of what was supposed to be a 20-25 minute journey was the LONGEST 25 minutes in my 25 years of living. Every time a long vehicle was making a turn, I was watching out for it. I was making sure, my driver was not about to fall asleep in his drunken stupor. Ensuring he doesn’t beat red lights or fails to see a pedestrian or turns a little too fast for his own good. He may have been a good driver, but he was drunk at 4am in the morning and that is sooo not cool!
When we finally reached the airport and I was very sure it was the airport, I thanked him profusely.
For sparing his life and mine.