A New Years Tale by Richard Bowen, HTS Board of Directors, Emeritus
Feb 2 & 3, Preparation
What a way to start a new year, and not just any new year, but 2008, the auspicious year that is to be China's "coming out." Anyway, others can comment on the ironies of that better than I. Right now I’m part of a small group assembled by Half the Sky to attempt to get relief to the children in the Chenzhou Social Welfare Institute.
Chenzhou is half-way north-south between Changsha (to the north) and Guangzhou (to the south), about a 400 KM drive in either direction. During all the planning over the weekend, we'd concentrated on trying to get to Changsha by air, since the road heading south is less mountainous and there were reports that it was in better shape.
But not knowing if we could rely on air travel in, we kept a Plan B (the drive north) in play, even though all advice was that it was the least likely to succeed.
At 7 PM Sunday the decision was made to try to pioneer the southern route.Two ways in: 1) by rail, since it appeared rail service north from Guangzhou was revived, but one look at the CNN reports of the train station nixed that. And besides, even if we could somehow crush our way to the front of the crowd and get on a train, then what? We might get ourselves to Chenzhou, but we'd never get needed support in. All reports were that after 8 days of no water, no electricity and roaming crowds of stranded migrant workers, Chenzhou's shopkeepers were closing up tight, having sold out most of their goods....saving what they had left for their own families.
2) by road. It seemed the only hope, slim as it was, was to try the drive from the south, so, we headed off. "We" is myself and an amazingly resourceful and adventurous woman named Miranda Zhuang, who works as a movie production coordinator out of Shanghai and had relented to my begging to give up her family holiday to give this mission a try. She'd just come back from the road, scouting locations for Disney, and was exhausted, but something about this project got under her skin and she said ok.
Feb 4, Day 1
Miranda and I each flew to Guangzhou and arrived about 10 AM. We were scheduled to meet our driver, Mr. Deng, who also had agreed to give up his family holiday to help, telling Miranda, "We were all babies once and all babies need help" (or something like that).
Deng, with luck, managed to hook up with "Paul" the driver for Birgitta Soderstrom, a Swedish expat living in Guangzhou who‘d emailed Jenny with an offer of help.
Birgitta and Paul went on a shopping spree and found us everything on our wish list....even though the only thing I could tell them about how much to buy was "enough to almost fill a jeep." I don't know how they did it, but when we hooked up with Deng, the Jeep was "almost full" of all I'd asked for — dry milk, candles, blankets, flashlights, batteries and rice.
Deng and Paul had coordinated by phone, met somewhere in Guangzhou traffic and loaded up the Jeep. According to plan, by the time Miranda and I landed, Deng was already on his way to meet us at the airport.
The other critical Guangzhou hookup was with Mu Hong, Half the Sky’s Nanny Supervisor from the Guangzhou Children’s Welfare Institution, who was wired 100,000 RMB at 2 AM by Mei Jiang, Half the Sky’s finance director in Hong Kong.
That was our first big snag.The wire was held up somewhere in the pipeline and Ms. Mu was stuck at the bank, with Mei and Half the Sky’s Managing Director Zhang Zhirong (ZZ) working the phones, trying to find the money. We diverted Deng to the bank, hopped into a cab and headed for the bank ourselves.
Mei from Hong Kong, ZZ from Beijing, and Mu Hong from Guangzhou were all pushing to turn Mei's 2 AM electronic transfer into an actual RMB transaction. I found myself utterly useless, so I focused instead with Miranda and Mr. Deng on a plan to fill up every last corner in the Jeep that hadn't already been filled by Birgitta and Paul. Although our next stop would be to pick up a truck in Shaoguan and fill it with supplies, I wanted to be sure that, if only the Jeep made it through, we'd be bringing in as many goods as possible.
As Miranda and Mr. Deng headed off to shop, I conspicuously paced in the bank lobby, hoping it might provide added motivation to the powers that be. After another 3 hours of effort, the group managed to push the funds through the electronic pipe and I was staring through the bullet proof glass at a money counter preparing a huge pile of fresh bills....just for me.
By the time Deng and Miranda reappeared at the bank an hour later, I had a big brick of hard cash well hidden, I hoped, under my coat, and our Jeep somehow now contained 12 down comforters, 15 large flashlights (with batteries we hoped), 400 candles, 10 cases of baby formula, 10 cases of dry milk, one large thermos, one gas stove, 3 backpacks of warm clothes, a huge tool bag (to "keep the jeep running"), an empty gas can, ("in case") and an unknown quantity of rice and water.
Escape from Guangzhou
And so we headed north towards Chenzhou, a 330 KM drive that, we were told, couldn't be done.
Nevertheless, Mr. Deng, Miranda, myself and our provisions, were somehow shoehorned in and rattling though traffic, the whole Jeep one big blind-spot. Our quickly improvised lane-change system had me looking back out the ice cold window, yelling "Hao!" every time it was safe to merge right. Somehow we made it to thin-enough traffic to roll the window up and I'd bet I have the longest nose that's ever been frost-bitten in Guangzhou.
But it all felt great...we had a crew, a good vehicle, money, provisions and clear sailing ahead...or so it seemed, briefly.
After about 10 minutes of barreling northward in light rain down the near-dark highway, we finally felt we'd escaped the orbit of Guangzhou, some 15 hours after the alarm this morning, with only, we hoped, 3 hours of driving ahead. Our goal was to make the half-way town of Shaoguan, where we would do our really big shopping and spend the night.
Suddenly, there were flashing lights,cones, barricades, all business...no traffic allowed beyond that point. Disappointment's not quite the right word. All cars were being turned around and a few dozen big trucks were idling on the shoulder of the road.
Miranda and I got out of the Jeep and waded into a group of angry truck drivers jabbing cigarettes at two un-amused cops. She turned on her charm and had no trouble diverting the attention of one of the officers, with whom we stepped out of the confrontation and explained the nature of our mission. He seemed skeptical and asked for our papers. Having none, I did the best two-handed presentation of the Chinese side of my Half the Sky business card I could muster and told Miranda to tell him I was going to get Beijing on the line, because Beijing had told me to call them if I had any trouble and Beijing would be happy to explain to him how unhappy Beijing would be if we didn't reach the destination Beijing has asked us to reach.
I drifted away to dial ZZ and no sooner did I reach her, than Miranda called out. "Let's go, he's letting us through." I'm pretty sure she didn't exactly translate what I said, ‘cause when I asked what happened, she just said he was a really nice guy, that he loves kids and wanted to help and that we should hurry before the truckers caught on, which might make him change his mind. We jumped in the Jeep and zig-zagged through the barricade.
After only a few lectures at toll stations about how foolish we were, by about 9:30 PM we were on the outskirts of Shaoguan following tomorrow's truck driver, who came to meet us at the highway turn off and lead us to "his boss," an amazing man, Mr. Alex Poon. Mr. Poon insisted on feeding us dinner and bedding us down and refused every attempt on our part to pay him money for anything, his truck, the driver, the upcoming trek to Chenzhou. What exactly is it about China?
Just before dinner, we visited the largest supermarket I've ever been in (imagine the three-story Walmart of food), where we spent about an hour placing our order with the "bulk buying department,” a couple of nice ladies who sit at computer terminals comparing your wants to their inventory. We covered all the basic food groups. It went something like this:
How much rice would you like?
How does it come?
.5 Kilo, 1 Kilo, 2 Kilo and 5 Kilo bags.
I want 50-5 Kilo bags.
We only have 42.
OK, 42, and give me 50-2 Kilo bags.
Is this all hulled?
(The Foreigner looks unsure)
Wouldn't that be better for babies?
(Incredulous looks at the foreigner)
I'll take hulled, but before we go further, can you tell me how big a Kilo of rice is?
I mean, how much room will, say, each 10 kilos take up in the truck?
Then let's double the order.
But we only have 42-5 Kilo bags.
I mean double the weight, in whatever sized bags.
But the smaller bags cost more.
More than the bigger bags?
More per Kilo.
That makes sense. Actually, let's triple the order, as long as the driver says there's room in the truck.
.....anyway, you get the idea.....this was only about the first 1/3 of the "rice" conversation. We had similar conversations about baby formula, powdered milk, powdered rice (whatever that is), bottled water, diapers (I learned a lot), apples, oranges and the rest.
Having sorted out our now bulky bulk order, we joined Mr. Poon and his party of five (we are now up to a full banquet table)....at midnight in a restaurant that stayed open just for us, for a very generous spread. Mr. Poon is a 30-something businessman with quite good English and a deep love of children. Like many in this part of China, he's in some kind of non-specific "importing and exporting." Anyway, he's got trucks and that's how fate brought us together.
Feb 5, Day 2
Up at 7:00 and over to the Supermarket by 8:00 to finalize and pay for our bulk purchase, and try to figure out, in the exhausted chaos of last night, exactly what I've bought (actually, I wasn't all that worried ‘cause everyone but me seemed to know).
First crisis....no Pampers....ten minutes to take the 1500 Pampers (150 babies, one per day x 10 days I figured in last night's stupor) I ordered last night off the bill. OK, done.
Do you know somewhere else we can go to get diapers?
Oh, we have plenty of diapers, we're just are out of Pampers.
You have other diapers?
Yes, all types and sizes, just no Pampers.
Did I say Pampers last night?
(More incredulous looks at the foreign male).
I couldn't care less what kind of diapers they are if they're disposable and fit, more or less. (These disposables are a necessary "green lapse,” required because without water or power, there's no washing the usual cloth ones and if the babies soil their blankets in the cold, it's actually a very serious problem.)
Give me 1,500, no make that 2,000, of the next best thing.
We have ?&%$#@* brand, and they are on special (for 1/4 the price of Pampers).
Are they good? I mean will they....you know....?
Yes (defensively). They're Chinese-made and just as good as Pampers.
Great, at that price, give me 3,000.
I try to tell a joke; "Now that the babies will be eating so much more, they might need twice as many."
Nobody shares my humor. Another ten minutes to get the new diapers on the bill and do the payment (3 people count and cross-check all cash transactions).
Are you sure there's nothing else?
Well, the only thing we're missing, I think, is that all we have right now is life-sustaining staples. There's nothing that's ...you know.... fun.
They ask for guidance as to what 150 cold babies would find fun and I call Jenny, figuring she'll know, and she did.... "those little flavored yogurt bottles with their own straws....the babies consider those a real treat."
While Miranda finishes with the rice, baby formula, etc., I run up and down the aisles, find the yogurt drink, take a sample to the bulk order desk.
I'll take 500 of these, every flavor you've got.
Sorry we're out of stock.
But I just saw a whole bunch on a shelf over there.
Sorry sir, those are for our regular customers.
I figure by now I qualify as a regular customer so I grab a cart, empty the shelves, roll it up to the checkout counter, pull out a wad of cash and smile. The checkout girl smiles back.
Miranda heads to the rear of the store to get the truck-loading started and I start back to the hotel to get something to eat, email and pack. On the way, I see a lady selling brightly-colored balloons on the street. I call Miranda. Please translate to this lady and tell her I'm buying all her balloons and ask her to follow me to you.
I arrive back at the truck with the balloon lady in tow, (she cut her price in half when she learned they were for orphans, and we didn't even ask!) and it's now clear that loading will take longer than expected (what should I have expected anyway?)
We call the blanket lady, she offers to bring the blankets to us, which will save us an hour of driving. I tell her thank you on behalf of the orphans.
These blankets are for orphans?
Yes, we're taking them to the orphanage in Chenzhou.
Then I can drop the price 10%.
An hour later, we're making our last pickup....the coal. Actually it turns out to be charcoal, a preferred fuel and better for us, weight wise, to get over the snowy mountain. We do the deal and finally ....finally at 1:15 are heading out on the road to Chenzhou!!
Almost immediately, the balloons break loose from their moorings and start to come out the back of the truck. Oh no, stop the truck....honk, honk, yell!!!
Our truck driver hears us, stops, comes around back just before the balloons waft out the back door, presumably to float away to who knows where. He grabs hold, scrambles over the load of coal and ties them down, deep in the back of the truck with a few truckers’ knots.
We call our "Army buddy," who is going to meet us at an appointed off-ramp on the way out of Shaoguan, to fit our vehicle with chains for the mountain pass. He says, "Good news, the road's open, you don't need chains!" We thank him over the phone as we blast past the meeting point.
Over the Mountains
About an hour later we are inching along at about 1 KM an hour, in four-wheel drive over sheets of snow and black ice....crashed cars strewn along the side of the road. But our drivers are pros, not like all those guys from Guangzhou who've never seen snow. Mr. Deng tells me for the 22nd time that he has driven in winter in Tibet and "this is nothing." Other than our snail's pace, I agree.
For the next 4 hours we alternate back and forth between a nice steady 40 KM per hour and Beijing-like stop-and-go (with lots of stop), but never once losing our forward momentum.