The Train We Missed

Yesterday we left in plenty of time to catch our train from Guiyang to Chengdu. When I say "plenty of time" I refer to an amount of time which is typically needed plus fifteen minutes due to the holiday rush (Spring Festival is like Christmas around here). After having difficulties catching a cab we finally secured one and 3 of the 5 of us piled in. As we watched the clock in our taxi and thought about our 2 friends still waiting for another taxi at the curb, we realized that it was possible that we would miss our train.

Suddenly hope appeared on the horizon. The silhouettes of our two friends could be seen in a taxi which had just pulled into the crowded lane ahead of us. Somehow their taxi had made better time and was more successfully navigating through traffic. Our driver happily waved people into the lane, waited for people to cross in front of us and, at one point, began clipping his nails indifferently. Never have I seen a driver with such courtesy and never have I been in such a hurry.

We pulled into the train station about 5 minutes before our train was scheduled to leave and we sprinted, laden with bags, to the x-ray station at the station entrance. After cutting in line without shame we dropped our bags onto the x-ray belt, picked them up, and chose the stairs instead of the escalator because there were no people blocking our way.

When we arrived at our gate and asked about our train, the conductor pointed to a train just outside the window which, for a moment, was motionless. After that brief moment passed, train began to move and our 7 friends (who had boarded and were wondering where we were) officially lost all hope that we would make the train. We all dropped our bags and looked at one another with a sense of being robbed. The Chinese people in the train station, understanding what had happened, looked at us with a mixture of wonderment and curiosity.

I have never seen so many cars and people, or felt so overwhelmed. People were everywhere and the lines for purchasing tickets stretched out of the station, into the plaza, over the steps and into the street. Hundreds of people waited in each line and we didn't know how to change our tickets or what to do.

Getting a call from our Chinese teacher (from last summer) who was on the train with our friends, we were told to get on a bus to Zunyi immediately, where we could pick up the train again. Excited, but still not realizing that the crowds of people were all waiting to travel too, we rushed to the bus station to try and catch a bus. The tickets were sold out for several days and the only hope was a man with a sinister smile who told us he'd sell 5 tickets for 1000 yuan (about 4 times the actual price).

We called the Peace Corps office in Chengdu and they told us to try and get tickets for the next day. We thought about the length of the train station lines dejectedly. Because we had so much luggage we decided to split into a group of 3 that would take the bags back to the house and 2 of us who would try and exchange tickets for another train. Because of the universal ticket shortage we thought the possibility of exchanging our tickets for anything but money was not likely.

A Guiyang Volunteer and I went to face the long lines at the train station and our friends returned home. When we arrived I wanted to ask in which line we should wait. I have had the unfortunate experience of waiting for a long time in the wrong line and these lines did not look like comfortable waiting. The police officer told me that changing tickets could be done at stall 16 or 17, on the far side of the station. When we got there the lines were very short and we had to wait behind only about 15 people. These two lines were the smallest by far, and we felt slightly fortunate.

The police officers standing there talked to us and mediated line disputes during lapses in conversation. The people were generally very relaxed, but a select few did things like pushing to cut in line and asking people close to the ticket window to buy their tickets for them (both are things which bother me to no end). Somehow our conversation with the police officers led to them helping us out. We are volunteers, we said, we get a stipend from Peace Corps but the schools at which we work do not pay us. Besides, this was a business trip for us and not simply traveling for enjoyment. They were pleased and talked to the ticket sellers for us. We were a special case and they had us wait on the side of the line while they tried to see if there was anything they could do for us. We waited and continued talking with the police officers.

After about 15 minutes another ticket seller came back with 5 new tickets for the same train the next day. We were overjoyed. Our adrenaline levels lowered and we felt a strange sense of accomplishment. Somehow we had done something which I still think was impossible. I don't know how it happened that all tickets were sold out for all trains for several days, and yet they happened to find 5 tickets for us. I guess I will wonder about this for quite awhile.

And now we are sitting around at Todd and Jessica's house in Guiyang, watching the clock. It passed noon awhile ago. We are quietly talking, but not without sneaking glances at the clock, making sure we leave in plenty of time to catch the train today, rather than "plenty of time," as we did yesterday. Our talking has been interrupted only by a phone call from our friends, who had only just arrived in Chengdu.



Today I'm leaving on a small adventure:
A few days in...
Guiyang (visiting one of our favorite married couples ever!)
Chengdu (Peace Corps In-service Training)
Kunming (Wait for Visa processing)

and, finally, a few weeks in
Vietnam (because we hear it's warm there)

I will probably not be posting anything for awhile, but I plan to update my www.flickr.com account so the slide show on this site will include more pictures from my travels. If you want to look at my pictures on flickr you can create an account and become friends with me (dustinooley).




A brief wish-list if you are feeling benevolent:
Realia (restaurant take-out menus, real-estate brochures, ANYTHING with English)
Any board games (used)
Any Lit Magazines (used)
Hand Puppets (used)
A large pizza with extra cheese (new)


On this rare day I saw the sun. Outside students could be found doing...absolutely nothing. Instead of moving constantly to stay warm, everyone tried to catch the sun while it was here. After all, it is the middle of winter, right?!

At night while returning home I realized that I wasn't wearing 15 or 16 layers of clothing and I could almost compare my attire to that of what I'd wear on a typical day in America. I looked up and I could see the stars; though they have different stories, the stars are the same.

The warm, clear night reminded me of another place and another time, but I couldn't figure it out until I smelled the late-night dinner: This night brought me back to my training. Though only 6 months ago, events and circumstances make it seem longer...and shorter.

I think that I probably miss training because I don't look at it like I did when I was there. 4 hours of mandatory language study does not equal 4 hours of voluntary language study because it's required. From here, though, I can see that we were all together, the Southwestern China volunteers. But then, when we were all together we had less need for one another (reliance, support, whatever you want to call it).

This time has been short and I have gained so much. I'm still looking for ways to give, but it's hard to keep up with the things I get from this experience.

As I prepare to leave for IST in Chengdu I look back at what has happened in this short time and realize that, though I have accomplished some things, I have a lot to do. Now I can speak Chinese well enough to do just about anything I need to do, including mailing packages, traveling, making conversation, making jokes, and buying anything (if I can afford it). Though I am able to communicate, often I have difficulty understanding people. My communication tends to be me telling people what I want and crossing my fingers (perhaps my tones were correct!). I can currently read over 500 characters, but I can only write about half of those. And every day I learn how to "be" more Chinese, though I am constantly reminded (in many ways) that I am indeed a foreigner.

After one semester of classes my students understand what I'm saying most of the time. I can explain things and almost everyone gets it the first time.

The cultural differences can be daunting. Sometimes I get angry and frustrated. Sometimes it's easier to complain than to try and understand.

There are days when I really miss home. There are days when I miss home so much I start imagining myself doing things in America: the silly little things like shopping at Safeway, watching a tv show, or eating ice-cream. And there are so many people I would like to talk with, too.

I don't know how to describe being a Peace Corps Volunteer yet. People say it's "the hardest job you'll ever love," but for me that's not quite it, exactly. One thing that I do know is that I have learned more about people, culture and poverty in the last 6 months than the entire rest of my life.


Grades, Giardia, Journey

The stack of 213 final examinations has been graded, the grades entered, and my first semester in China complete. The exams took around 20 hours to grade and process, making me envy doing Elementary report cards.

On another note, I called the Peace Corps doctor about some of my stomach issues. There has been a pattern of problems since August, but finally it has been resolved: I took the Giardia medication yesterday and my stomach has never felt better (except, perhaps, when I first arrived).

In the coming week I have freedom at my site. Most of my students are going home today or tomorrow, and the only thing left is to study and prepare for the Spring Holiday. After our In-Service Training in Chengdu I will be going to Kunming for a week (waiting for a Visa) before leaving China for a 3 week Vietnam vacation. We plan to take the train down through the country (from Hanoi to Saigon), stopping at various cities and beaches along the way. This is wonderful compensation for having to work on Christmas Day.