After an excruciatingly long bus ride, I arrived at the Dragon Back Rice Terraces.
We were given lunch, and then a time limit: be back at the bus in two hours. Not a problem, I thought. Plenty of time, I thought.
I sat with a two fellows. One was nose-hair-curlingly RIPE with traveler's funk, that pungent smell that comes from lots of foot travel on low funds, and restricted access to showers and laundry facilities. The other, also low on funds, opted to drink his lunch.
As lunch progressed, Mr. Sips-a-lot he got chatty. He was from Germany, he told me, Bavaria, actually. Had I heard of it?
I resisted the urge to confess that I did not know that was a real place. When I think of Bavaria, I think of gingerbread lederhosen, and yodel-hikes up hills that are alive with the sound of music. And pretzels.
I ate my fried rice and listened to his life story. He was on exchange, he said. Living with some flatmates in Hangzhou. His program was mostly guys, but one girl, he said. She’s really cool.
I could already guess where this story was going.
He sipped and continued. “We’re all traveling around together, which is fun,” he said.
“You and your flatmates?” I asked.
“No, a couple people from my program,” he said. “and the girl.”
All my life, people be tellin’ me they business, even when I don’t ask ‘em.
“I had a girlfriend back in Germany,” he said.
“Of course you did,” I said to my rice. I did not laugh out loud, but my lips were smirking around my chopsticks.
People always be tellin’ me they business.
“At first, I was good. But it’s hard to be so far away.” he said, flipping his hair out of face, and looking at me through his eyelashes.
“So you broke with your girlfriend?” I asked.
“Yeah, I had to.”
“Does she know you broke up with her?” I strove for an innocent look. I strove not to laugh out loud. I ate my rice.
It was friggin’ good rice.
“Yeah, yeah, of course.” he said. “I mean, think so. I told her it was so hard, the distance.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Twenty four,” he said. Actually, he made me guess his age. I nailed it. Not because he looked it, really. More because of the story. Because of the girl left behind, the girl in the program, the fact that neither girl was with him and he was looking at me from under his lashes, watching my eyes and my mouth as I ate.
Twenty four is always the age for that story.
“How old are you?” He asked.
“Older than you.” I said. I thought that would make that silly look in his eyes go away. I was not at all interested in becoming a part of his sordid little story.
“I like you,” he announced.
So much for that.
He decided to join me after lunch as I walked around the rice terraces, taking pictures.
“Really?” I said, “your friends won’t mind?”
“No, of course not.” he said. “let me just get another beer for the road.”
The young Bavarian traipsed after me, swigging and telling me more about home. About hiking. About how he hiked all the time, so this little walk was nothing for him. I took pictures. We wandered through a small path cut into the side of a hill. The sun was shining, the rice was tugging gently at my skirt. We were close to a shining pool of water that I was trying to shoot at just the right angle...when the Bavarian screamed.
A whopping bellow of terror that stopped me mid-click.
Then he screamed again.
I turned to see what the devil was making he cause that kind of racket and saw him standing, petrified, arms flung wide, fingers death gripping the neck of his beer. He was staring at the grass of the hill, screaming and screaming.
I looked, mildly curious, from the hill and back to him.
“What’s going on back there?”
“SNAKE!!” He screamed, “Did you see it? It was a huge f*cking SNAKE!!”
I burst into giggles. “You’re afraid of snakes?” I said, “I thought you hiked all the time at home?”
“Go, go, go!” he said, pushing me down the path.
“It’s probably more afraid you than you are it,” I said, trying to be soothing.
To be honest, folks, I don’t believe snakes are afraid of anything, especially not big mama jama snakes. But I had to say something to keep the Bavarian from trampling me in his attempt to flee.
He stopped pushing, but we kept up a brisk pace. His feet were slapping loudly on the ground.
“Snakes are afraid of loud noises,” he told me. The Bavarian had worn open toed shoes.
I snickered again.
“You didn’t see the snake?” He said, furious to be the only one scared. “You really didn’t see it?”
“Nope,” I said.
He calmed, eventually. We pressed on. His feet stopped slapping and he began to look around.
“What do you think this is?” He said, running his hand through the grass, and heavy with lots of golden hulls.
“It’s rice” I said.
He stopped. He ran his hands through the grass again, reverently. "You think this is rice? Like, real rice?”
“We are in a rice terrace.” I said.
“So this is actually where they grow it?” He asked.
“What did you think was in the Dragon Back Rice Terraces? Wheat?”
He pulled a few hulls off a stalk. “I doesn’t look like rice.” he said.
“You have to open the hull,” I said, “the rice is inside.”
He peeled back the hull with his thumbnail. Slowly, a soft, milky grain was revealed.
“Oh my god!” he said, smiling, grinning big. “It’s f*cking rice!” He shook the little grain at me between his thumb and forefinger. He popped it into his mouth taste it. “IT’S F*CKING RICE!”
He laughed at his discovery. I laughed at him. It was fun to watch someone discover rice.
“Want some?” He asked. He pulled another hull and began to peel it.
“No thanks,” I said, “I don’t eat uncooked rice.”
He peeled and ate a few more hulls, praised the rice for its freshness, then decided to collect it to take and cook for his flatmates.
“how much do you think I’ll need for 6 people?” he asked.
“A lot.” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Good thing I have so many pockets.” I watched him shoveling rice into his umpteen pockets. Why do guys always have a million pockets?
I took his picture. Then I took other pictures. I was not interested in the freshness of the rice. He collected grains, I collected impressions of the light, warm and golden and looking like something out of an impressionist painting. Or a dream. Or an fairy tale picture book.
All of this wandering took up a lot of time. We noticed that people were starting to come down from the top of the terrace and head back to the bus.
Thirty minutes and counting till the bus leaves.
We ran into our lunch companion, sweating nearly visible funk waves and smiling. “View’s brilliant” he said. “But I don’t think you have time to see it.”
I felt my afternoon crash around my toes.
I had come all the way to China. ALL THE WAY TO CHINA. And I wasn’t going to have time to see one of its most famous sites.
The Bavarian looked at my disappointed face.
“You wanna see the top?” He said.
“Yeah, kinda” I said, digging my toe into the ground.
“Okay, we go.” He launched into a sprint.
I was shocked. For someone who was tipsily maintaining his balance, that boy was movin’.
“Come on, Michigan!” He shouted down to me.
I lumbered behind him.
This was supposed to be an easy day for me. But desire to see the sights pushed me to hike up my stomach and climb quickly. I pushed and grunted, trying to make my short legs match his lanky stride. About halfway, in between bloodied, short breaths, I asked myself, seriously, how many f*cks did I give about actually seeing the top of this mountain.
I stopped. The view from halfway was actually pretty nice. And for someone who’s nearsighted like me, actually much more pleasing than seeing the same from further up. I stopped to take a few pictures and catch my breath.
The Bavarian jumped back down the mountain, to my side.
“Come on!” he said, “Don’t stop here!”
“I’m good,” I huffed.
“No, you’re not good.” he said, pulling at me, “You have to see the top! You want this little halfway view? What about the satisfaction about knowing you made it to the top of the mountain.”
Hikers always be trying to feed me that B.S.
“Come on!” The Bavarian pulled me away from the view, and back to the path.
“I’m tired!” I pouted, “I can’t make it!”
“You can!” He insisted.
“Do you need me to carry you?” He asked.
“Say what now?”
He grabbed my hand, and pulled me up the side of the mountain.
I kid you not.
One minute my feet were on the ground, the next I was flying through the air, up the mountain, holding hands with the Bavarian. I’m know I must have moved my feet a little in order not to trip. But I can’t be sure.
We flew up for a minute or two, until the girl appeared. You know...THAT girl. That girl from his program. That girl that was making the distance “so hard” for him and his Germany girlfriend. Yes, THAT girl.
He put me back on the ground and let go of my hand, but she had seen. She looked at me so coldly that I actually shivered through my sweat.
“How far until we reach the top?” The Bavarian asked her, in a completely nonchalant, “hey! great to see you!” kind of voice.
Boys are so silly sometimes.
She looked at him, incredulous. "About 10 minutes" she said.
“Come on, Michigan!” He launched into motion again, sans hand holding.
Fifteen minutes until the bus departs.
We raced again, my lungs feeling like that were going to explode. He cajoled and bullied me, all the way to the top. Once we got there, he insisted on taking my picture.
I was a sweaty, awful mess.
“There,” he said, “aren’t you glad you made it to the top?”
“No!” I told him, pure petulance.
We took a few more photos, than raced back down, joking about what we would do if we missed the bus.
“Maybe it’s a sign,” he said, “That we are supposed to spend some more time together.”
I quickened my pace down the mountain. Boys are so silly sometimes.
We made it! Of course, the bus took off late. In the safety of the parking lot I waited for the bus alone, the Bavarian having been snatched back up by THAT GIRL who backed me out of their little group and announced that they were leaving. So I sweat on the sidewalk and flipped through my pictures, looking at my day. Looking at the rice fields, and me, a sweaty, awful mess at the top of the mountain.
And you know what?
I looked at that picture. The light is reflecting off my sweat, my shirt was stained through and I was so exhausted I had my “I don’t give a damn about my paunch” stance. I look pissed, I look tired, I look too through.
I was also smiling. I was smiling, though I was clearly trying to fight it. With one of the most famous tourist sites in China behind me, I was looking at that crazy, silly boy, who is off-camera somewhere waving an empty beer bottle and shouting, “One more! One more! Smile!” And secretly...
I was glad.