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Robert: Xishuangbanna!

October 16, 2009

My trip to Xishuangbanna was, as predicted, a mix of spur-of-the-moment decisions, short-term plans, small accomplishments, and the occasional minor failure. Melissa, Rose, and I were a capable bunch with a good mix of language skills (my weak point) and travel experience both within and outside of China. We left ready to spend a great deal of time in transit, to smell increasingly foul, willing to get soaked by any number of downpours, and catch sleep anywhere we might find sanctuary. With the welcome exception of rainfall, we essentially got what we expected. And we got thoroughly schooled at billiards by a one-eyed man.

Of course, we had no shortage of unexpected developments and revelations as well, the first of which was perhaps the most devastating: After boarding a bus that took an inordinate amount of work to get to, Mel discovered she didn’t have her bus ticket. The reason she didn’t have her bus ticket was because she no longer had her wallet, which contained all of her cash, a credit card, and student ID.

During the stop in Tonghai that followed, I contemplated what could have  happened, realizing that the state in which we found ourselves was the ideal circumstances for a thief. There had been only one scenario during which an opportunity to slip Mel’s wallet from her purse ostensibly could have taken place. But all eyes were on the culprit, and her purse was secure during this episode– a diversion perhaps? On the other hand, I had to consider the possibility that she had somehow misplaced her wallet; it just seemed so unlikely that an opportunity to have her wallet stolen could’ve occurred. But Mel seems too responsible and experienced to let something so major happen so easily, and if the wallet had been stolen the most likely scenario was that the thief was still on the bus with us. Stalemate. Genius.

After sleeping on it for another few hours, I decided that it would be totally ridiculous to not loan Mel the money to stay on with us. It was a matter of about $100 and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I had an extra ¥400 and a few hundred dollars in traveler’s checks that I could cash once we got to Jinghong. Of course, I’m glad Mel stayed on with us. The dynamic among the three of us was basically a steamroller of hilarity. We met a new friend on the bus, Tidan, an Israeli who spoke no putong hua and would spend the next two days with us as we made our way toward Jinghong.

At Yuanyang, we trekked through the rice terraces with a “guide” who was nice enough to take us to some places we didn’t have to pay to get into. The irony of having to pay to see a rice terrace in China would become painfully obvious during the twelve hours of bussing through rice terraces we would endure the next day. Tidan took a spill into one of the rice paddies, soaking most of what she had on her, ruining her camera in the process. While she dried off, the three of us made our way across the slopes, balancing everything on our backs as we hoped to not meet the same fate. After admiring the intricacy of the terracing– particularly the key-point irrigation method employed to get water across and down the hillside, we met some Hani women returning to a small, three-house village carrying screeching black piglets that liberated themselves from their pens. As they dragged their livestock by their hind legs, we followed them to the gate surrounding their concrete dwellings, and asked to come in.

During this visit, I recalled that Charles (one of my instructors) had previously said that the Hani tended to be less than hospitable to tourists, demanding money for photographs and whatnot. As much as I enjoy taking photographs, I’ve lately found that the most unusual, resonant, and singular experiences are potentially undermined by the presence of a camera. The mere acknowledgement of a person’s interest in photographing someone else threatens to create a hierarchical relationship of subject and object between people, and not surprisingly can bring about any number of negative reactions. As we sat with the women in piecemeal but genuine conversation, I thought about every time someone here mockingly issues a “hello” in passing, whistles at a female friend of mine, or blatantly tries to overcharge me for something I don’t need in the first place, and enjoyed the respite. I opted to not be the lao wai with a camera in some farmer’s face.

The next morning, in Xinjie, I watched one of the only foreign tourists we saw grab his Chinese tour guide squarely by the shoulders and start pointing both her and his beer gut toward a row of buses as he loomed over her. Then he turned her around, still grabbing her by the shoulder, and cranes his neck to put his face directly in front of hers and says Now, why don’t you ask some more fucking questions? Always ask questions. (Pointing) Where are all these buses going? That’s the kinda stuff I wanna know. Ask lotsa fucking questions. Jesus. First of all, the buses either have signs or full-fledged windshield decals displaying the names of the towns to which they go. Not that he can read a single character. Secondly, she’s a tour guide, not a mind reader. Ask the questions yourself.

Without some serious prefacing (like a meal, a game, or an actual conversation), I feel like I run serious risk of becoming a little more like that kind of lao wai when wielding a camera. At the same time, photographing people is especially rewarding, and I recognize that establishing some kind of personal connection with someone before you photograph them is a necessary step in the process of successfully doing so. There’s a reciprocal aspect to this undertaking that I’d like to bear in mind in future situations and explore further, as I think it’s part of the same skill set employed when doing ethnographic work.

In Menghan, I took the ferry to the town across the Lancang (Mekong) River, and biked out of town toward the hills that run south towards Burma. We came across two ruts that left the road into a banana plantation. After passing an elderly man with two gigantic baskets of bananas hanging from a pole across his shoulders, and a woman herding water buffalo, we came to a series of Dai style huts at the boundary between the banana and rubber tree plantation. This scenario has become a potential topic for my ISP: A case study of people living on this plantation, at a social, economic, and cultural confluence derived from a food system with both local and non-local implications could touch on a number of my interests. It would certainly further my experience as a student of anthropology, giving me valuable ethnographic experience. Furthermore, it would provide me with my first opportunity to explore the topic of foodways– the values, relationships, and habits people maintain with regard to food– as a primary cultural attribute in a setting of favorable depth and breadth. The population living on this plantation is (presumably) under 50 people living in relatively close proximity to one another, all of whom take a three to four hour siesta to escape the mid-day heat– a prime opportunity to conduct interviews. Because they both live and work on the plantation, their day-to-day lives are intrinsically linked to food in many ways, beyond nutrition or even cuisine. For example, the situation is made more interesting by the fact that they exist at the source of a supply chain that’s potentially lengthy, export-based, and part of a modern/industrial food system; meanwhile, their lifestyle consists of a modality that can potentially be contrasted in a number of ways with those at the other end of the chain. Thus, there appear to be economic, public health, political-ecological, and even structural/symbolic effects to be found.

Anyways, I’ve spent the week since returning to Kunming living with a host family, which is going great– more about that later. Tuesday is the last day of the seminar portion of our semester, upon which point we’ll be heading up to Dali, Lijiang, and Zhongdian/Shangri La. I’m hoping to make it to a dwarf village on the south end of Dianchi Lake that’s generating a little bit of an international buzz as a number of organizations squabble over who’s going to get the rights to shoot a documentary on the place. Between that, homework, prepping to leave, and the two “American” meals I’ve committed to making people this weekend, it should be action packed. I’ll try to post more by Tuesday morning when we hit the road.

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