Buses, ballroom dancing and the best travelling framework (day 67)

There are people everywhere all the time. There are ballroom dancers on the corner of my street every evening. Couples dancing on the white paving stones. Old people chacha-ing with children. People waltzing with invisible partners. Always with the cheesy ballroom dancing music in the background, the same everywhere in the world. But still great to see the public use of the public space. Can’t say as I remember the last time I saw people dancing cheek to cheek on the pavement in Wellington.

There are kite flyers, people selling laser pointers, and people trading dvds from the back of their bikes (for a quick getaway in case the guys from Miramax show up, I guess). Guys selling sunglasses. Women selling books. Students trying to convince you to come see their art exhibitions. People selling what looks like the entire contents of those boxes that you put under your bed and never look at again for 10 years. You ever wondered what happened to that stuff? Well it ends up laid out on coloured cloths on the footpath in Beijing.

I discovered that you can’t read the CNN website from China. Or the BBC. But do not be concerned – you can still read six million other Western news websites. And I am sure you can still get porn. In Chinese if you prefer.

To get to my hostel (the Jing Hua – I unreservedly recommend it), you have to take the number 66 bus from Chian Mien metro station (excuse me, if you will, for my Chinese transliterations. My mandarin is a little rusty). All kinds of groovy stuff happens on the ride, which could take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic (all the roads in the Chinese capital seem to be under repair – perhaps the Olympic spirit is building already).

Today looked like a pretty normal sort of trip. On you get. Pay the nothing it costs for the fare. Well, slightly more than nothing. But not much more. Abandon all hope of finding a seat (there seem to be a paucity of seats built in to the design – which makes you wonder if this is some grand Chinese gesture intended to encourage the people to develop strong leg muscles (or arm muscles, given how strong you need to be to hold on to the handrail to keep yourself upright when careening around the (always under repair) streets of Beijing)). Hang off your arm, staring out at the teeming masses beeping and bumping their way down the avenues.

Hmmm. Everyone seems to be going faster than us. Even that old guy with the walking stick. Hmmm. Everyone is getting off the bus. Alright. So I get off as well.

Ah, insight. It seems the bus is broken and needs to be pushed.

So here I am, pushing a bus in a nowheresville street in south central Beijing with a whole bunch of Chinese people.

This seems a little strange. I mean, it is not like the bus needs to be anywhere else. We do. So why push the bus? Why not just leave the camel behind and push off across the desert towards the next oasis? Shouldn’t we conserve our energy in case the next bus takes ages to arrive?

Now all becomes clear. In fact, this is a special kind of crash-starting bus. If we push it just enough, the driver can chuck it in gear and away we go. Not sure I am that overjoyed to be getting back on. But everyone else is still keeping the faith, and this particular number 66 eventually makes it way to my destination (the stop after the smelly canal) without further ado.

It is funny how being surrounded by people who speak another language makes me want to learn it. I know that once i leave China my motivation to learn Mandarin will fade to a memory, and I will wonder why I thought it might be a good idea to hang out here for a year or so and pick up some Chinese. But for the moment, it is fun to think about figuring out the tones and the facial expressions, about ordering in restaurants without needing the guidebook, and being about to have that conversation that starts with some Chinese person wondering how a big tall white guy can speak the lingo.

If you happen to be in China, one thing you do have to do is go see the acrobat show. Amazing. Balancing, jumping, throwing knives, and smiling all the time. In theory I could learn to run and jump and throw knives (or perhaps not, given my normal standard of coordination). But I don’t think that I could do all that and the smiling. Like ballroom dancing. I mean it is just not at all obvious to me that anyone doing that stuff is having that much fun. Not that their smiles actually say that anyway. Holy, how cheesy are they?

But I digress.

I have met a lot of people on my holidays now. And one thing you always talk about (so much so that it sometimes becomes tedious) is travelling. Where you have come from. Where you are going. What you have seen. And it seems to me that there are a few different frameworks for travelling, different approaches, different philosophical stances on travelling. I tend to be fairly serendipic (if that is a word), taking a few chances, leaving things open, seeing what life throws at you, grabbing opportunities as they come. My approach is typified by hitchhiking. Maybe someone will pick you up. Maybe they won’t. Maybe you will spend half a day on the side of the road. But maybe the next person who picks you up will become one of your best friends. An approach that works if you are more interested in journeys than destinations. And definitely not the method for the unlucky.

Another approach is more scientific. Plans, dates, calendars, diaries, tickets. Not my scene at all. But magnifique if you have limited time (which sometimes happens) or a lot to see (which is ocassionally the case – okay, that might be an understatement). Sometimes scientificism is necessary. Border officials tend not to be the most flexible or understanding of creatures, so ensuring that you get into and back out of the country before the last date on your visa is probably a good plan. Similarly, airline company staff can sometimes be very helpful, but also sometimes lack the required generosity of spirit when you need to change an unchangeable ticket because you were a few minutes (or hours) late in realising you had to get to the airport.

And the other approach is a bit more creative. These people are not necessarily sure what they are doing tomorrow let alone next week. Great to hang out with, fun to share stories (because they have lots of missing trains, getting arrested, losing things and generally being in the wrong place at the wrong time), but not necessarily the best people to be travelling with, and there is not much point in making plans for breakfast/lunch/the museum because time means less to this group of travellers than it does to you.

The best approach is probably a combination. Isn’t it interesting/revealing/depressing that the right answer usually lies somewhere in the middle, no matter what the issue? Providing you have drawn the range of possible opinions properly, that is.

My cold continues to annoy. Why am I punished with this in the middle of summer, he says, demonstrating the egocentricity of a three-year old.