Hainan Island, Part 7
Touring China’s Hawaii; To the Southern Tip of China
Hemingway wrote that he always felt regret as left any place he had lived. That is a good description of my feelings at the conclusion of my trip.
For the final three days, Angeline and I joined a bus tour and got to see Hainan Island as part of a group of Chinese tourists, including the southernmost city of Sanya, before flying back to home and normalcy… with regret.
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For three days, Ellen’s family had done everything possible to make me feel welcome and comfortable. They had accepted me as a member of the family. Wonderful food, scenic tours, and cooling tropical breezes – even the daily typhoon showers - formed pleasant memories that would last forever. Now, however, it was time to move on to the next phase of my vacation trip. On the last morning, with my backpack loaded again, I felt a genuine reluctance to leave my new friends. While walking the short distance to where we would board the waiting tour bus, I looked one last time at their home and neighborhood. Now, it was also my home and my neighborhood that I was leaving.
Through yet another “sister”, Ellen had arranged for Angeline and me to join a tour bus group as it passed through Qionghai. The bus would continue on to a number of tourist destinations, including the southernmost Hainan Island city of Sanya, before returning to the north coast and Haikou on the third day. Meals, seats on the bus, and hotel accommodations for me and Angeline were all included in the surprisingly low price Ellen had negotiated. I knew I couldn’t expect luxury accommodations at these rates; I would be getting the same experience as a typical Chinese bus tourist, which was exactly what I wanted to learn about.
Sipping the strawberry drinks purchased from a vendor as we walked through Qionghai one last time, Angeline and I waved and called out last goodbyes through the open bus windows to Ellen and her family. Then, doors and windows were closed, everyone took their seats, and the air conditioner was turned on. Slowly, the small bus made its way through the city traffic, left the city, and rejoined the coastal highway. Our ultimate destination was Haikou, the capital city on the north coast. But, before we got there, we had numerous stops to make. Thus, we initially headed south, following the island’s eastern coastline. Angeline told me that, by the end of the second day, we would reach the city of Sanya, Hainan Island’s southernmost point, then begin making a long loop back to the north, arriving in Haikou on the afternoon of the third day.
For the next three days, with Angeline at my side as interpreter, our group visited parks, mountains, jungle villages, local sites of historical interest, and a botanical garden. At the various stops, Angeline and I saw minority ethnic groups in colorful garb performing their traditional dances and ceremonies in authentically reconstructed jungle villages. Additionally, we stopped briefly at every souvenir stand, factory outlet, gift shop, and tourist trap along our route. Meals were also included in the ticket price but these were not the leisurely, lingering meals I had become accustomed to with Ellen’s family. I learned to get in the serving line rapidly when we stopped at the pre-selected restaurants, then find a table and begin eating without delay. Our meal stops were brief but adequate, which was also true of the food served to us on this package plan. I learned to eat quickly because our guide would suddenly stand up and announce that the meal break was over and we would be herded back onto the bus to continue on to the next stop. On the three-day tour, our overworked guide was always hurrying us to the next destination and trying to stay on schedule.
On the bus, I was the only waiguoren, a foreigner. Initially, as Angeline and I found a bus seat, I could feel the unspoken questions all around us. What was a foreigner doing here, on Hainan Island, on a bus with a Chinese tour group? My height, pale skin and green eyes, along with my Tilley hat and bright Hawaiian shirt all made me highly conspicuous. However, whenever the small children turned in their seats and stared at me, I would smile and give a little wave of my hand. Soon, they were smiling and giggling and shyly waving back in response. The adults, seeing that I was friendly to the children, began to speak to me through Angeline. Always, there were the questions about which country I came from, what I was doing in China, and how long I had been in the country. With Angeline graciously translating, the other passengers and I began learning about each other. Radiating outward in a circle from our bus seat, things gradually warmed until, by the end of the first day, I was fully accepted and the children had found new attractions to stare at.
The three day bus tour was fun, chaotic, interesting, and exhausting. The weather was bright and very hot, alternating periodically with rainy and very hot. Wet or dry, as soon as the sun rose in the morning, it quickly became horrifically humid. Still, the constant tropical breezes made even this bearable as we trouped from location to location; fortunately, the bus was air-conditioned. The second day, at a tourist stand, with Angeline’s help, I purchased three additional lightweight cotton shirts to supplement those I had brought. Due to the heat and humidity, I was now changing to dry shirts at least three times during the day. Angeline explained that these inexpensive matching shirt and shorts combinations were called the “Hainan Island uniform” because they were so common among the native men. Very loose and cool, with elastic waistbands instead of belts, they were as colorful as my Hawaiian shirt but they were made of much lighter, all-cotton material and were not permanent press.
The days began early. Each morning, we breakfasted at our hotel as part of the tour package, then the bus roared out of the hotel parking lot about 6:40 and our harried guide ensured that the group never stopped moving until the day ended as we pulled into that night’s destination at about 7 PM. Between the friendships developing among the bus group, the nonstop shuffling through tourist stops, restaurants offering prearranged meals, and the scenic views, my three day tour was a delightful blur. One distinct memory, however, was of when, along with all the others from the bus, I was walking through a huge, immaculately manicured botanical garden filled with an immense number of tropical plants, flowers, and trees. I discovered that, in this lush garden, one had only to leave the group momentarily - by simply walking around a curve in the path and getting away from the others - to feel the peace and solitude of the tropical jungle again. On a bus tour, such moments are rare.
For three days, we toured temples, walked through factories where the tourist souvenirs were being made, visited modern reproductions of ancient villages occupied by indigenous groups, and climbed paths or rode ski lifts to the top of Hainan Island’s modest mountains where Angeline read aloud to me the Hainan Island legends inscribed on the bases of statues on the mountain peaks. At the end of the second day, we had arrived in the city of Sanya. One stretch of beach outside Sanya featured some huge boulders, locally famous, which I was told represented the very southernmost point in all of China. Standing on the beach with our backs pressed to these monoliths, all we could see was endless ocean to the east, south, and west.
In the evenings, we were free to go out on our own. Following dinner at the hotels, we could sample local sights and nightlife. Always, there was much curiosity as people noticed my presence. I never saw another foreigner during the three day tour. With lovely Angeline as my guide, I explored the markets and local night life on those long, hot summer evenings. Leaving our tour group, Angeline and I walked through the areas around our hotels and once I delighted the crowd by joining the local entertainer at a small bar in singing John Denver’s Country Roads. But, because of the early morning starts, we didn’t stay out too late on those nights before heading back to the hotel.
By the end of the third day, it was with genuine regret again that we prepared to part from the tour group. As the bus entered Haikou, I was struck anew with the question of what it would be like to live on Hainan Island. Would the fresh tropical fruits and seafood, the soft breezes, the spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the turquoise ocean waves, and the jungle greenery that seemed to go on forever become commonplace if you saw it every day? Would the mosquitoes, heat and humidity, lack of four definite seasons, and scarcity of Western foods and amenities become more important factors? Living here permanently might not be as satisfying as visiting for a short time. All I knew was that paradise was more or less as I had always imagined it to be; its name was Hainan Island.
Getting off the tour bus for the last time that third afternoon, Angeline and I were met by Dr. Ding and his wife who then hosted our going away dinner in the evening. Later, there were more goodbyes as Angeline and I entered the airport terminal that night. My final memory of Hainan Island was of my new friends waving goodbye outside.
That night, on the return flight to Zhengzhou, I was in a quiet mood. My mind was still absorbing the many new memories and sensations. Thanks to Ellen and Angeline, I had been privileged to enjoy a unique experience. As much as possible, this waiguoren had been given an insider’s view of island life. I was going home to Zhengzhou again but, in my heart, I had brought part of Hainan Island with me. Best of all, I knew that I would always be welcome to return to Hainan Island. Until then, my backpack was stuffed with the Hainan Island coffee, the tea, and the colorful Hainan Island uniforms, and I had my journal and digital camera filled with photographs to remind me that I really had visited paradise.
Once again on the ground at the Zhengzhou airport, I was in familiar territory as Angeline and I caught a taxi back to the new campus. The taxi ride took over an hour. Zhengzhou’s dry July heat felt almost comfortable after a week of unrelenting Hainan Island humidity. Now I was back in my old reality. Arriving at the welcome sight of silent and empty Building 20, I said goodbye and a sincere thank you to Angeline and officially ended my vacation trip by trudging upstairs to shower and unpack and begin doing laundry.
This concludes the account of my Adventures in Paradise. Tune in next week as we return to the theme of working remotely - one of the expat life’s preeminent attractions. Come along, though, as I explore the Dark Side of that lifestyle choice in “Singing Them Ol’ Reinstalling Blues”.
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