chapter 3: sino synchronicity
august 8, 2007
(1 year countdown to the beijing 2008 olympics),
i remember back when i had cancer. hodgkin's disease. cancer of the lymphatic system. stage 3B. 1989. after the initial shock of the positive biopsy and doing my due diligent research on every steve mcqueen, alternative mexican cure i could find on the early world wide web, i opted for, and committed to, treatment by chemo therapy. whereas hodgkin's disease had, just a generation before, killed a good deal of my boyhood hero, mickey mantle's, family in the 40s and 50s, and used to be an absolutely fatal diagnosis, by 1989 it had a 92% cure rate with a day glo chemical combination called MOPP/ABV. this radioactive high ball that i took once a month for 8 months in a dentist's oncology chair consisted of mechlorethamine, vincristine, procarbazine, prednisone, aboo-boo-mycine, and 2 other kamikaze chemicals, that effectively killed all the fastest growing cells in the body (eg. hair, sperm), including, and best of all, the malignant and fastest growers, the subversive hodgkin's cells.
during these intense, transformative, and ultimately life-saving 8 months, i lost 40 pounds and was high all the time. high on the 7 MOPP/ABV drugs - and high on going through the crucible of cancer. my moods were mighty and many. i raged, cried, loved, and feared, in no particular order -- every day -- on an emotional roller coaster that opened me up in a way i'd never been before, nor have i ever been since. it wasn't like psychedelics, not colorful hallucinations or exaggerated fantasies; no, these feelings were real: fear of dying, disappointment in those who shunned me because they couldn't deal with the cancer for their own personal reasons, extreme humor at seeing the divine desperate comedy of all of our fears, poses, and avoidances, and most of all, overpowering feelings of... love. extreme gratefulness for all the people i had in my life -- who loved me. and even more surprisingly, an open heart for all the friends and family who -- i loved.
travel, in its best incarnation, is something like chemo therapy. not the pain. or the nausea or vomiting. but the wild, roller coaster ride that, like the drugs and the cancer, it can take you on. with travel, you never know what to expect. you have to live in the moment. and to stay open. open to chance meetings. to happenstance. to accident, incident, and synchronicity. not that it's easy. sometimes you want to plan things. which train to take on which day? which hotel? where to eat? how to get home in the taxi where the driver doesn't speak a word of english? when to leave one town and go to the next? what to do when you're totally lost and sloshing, ankle deep, in the thundering rain? when to call it quits on adventuring and when to go back to the hotel for some much needed r & r? travel, like life, is about making choices, and then rolling with the punches and swinging at the curve balls life throws. it's just with travel, the curves are harder and the punches less predictable, and sometimes you just have to laugh when you strike out, lose your passport, or end up on your ass.
swinging and rolling in china has been fun. i feel like it's been a good trip. i've been open to accidents and incidents. right from the very start. like when we roll into beijing after an 18 hour flight, we're supposed to be greeted by chen lin from the LDTX modern dance company, where i'll be teaching in a few days. but - as accident would have it, neither surya or i see any "trules" sign when we come out of the chute. the lovely wife says "let's just take a cab", but i figure, "this chen lin dude is supposed to have met us here. what if he's come and we just act like he didn't?" i decide on the spot, against all guide book advice, to buy a china sim card for my cell phone right there in the airport. and yeah, the guide book's right, i pay another 100 yuan more than i would in town, but i have a NEW phone number. i call chen lin, and sure enough, he's down the way at terminal B - waiting for us with "helen" (all the chinese give themselves english names to make it easy on us gringos). they're both young and smiling, and although fragilely built, chen couldn't be giving us a more sturdy beijing welcome.
he doesn't actually have a car though; he's taken a taxi to "pick us up". "let go of expectations", travel says right off the bat. i feel a bit spoiled, but we drive to dong cheng, the area in the center of town where i've booked a budget hotel from the internet. bad idea. "too much pre-planning," travel says. turns out the sexy red chinese lanterns are still there like in the cyber pic, but hey, the “new dragon” doesn't have our reservation, and the room they offer us is decorated with garish green whore house couches, is flooded, and smells like the last typhoon's moldy sheets. travel, that jackal trickster, is having its first good laugh. at my expense, of course! on gut reaction (and smell), i decide to forfeit our deposit and have chen lin take us to another hotel. what do i know? "trust", travel says, "the first rule of synchronous meetings." chen takes us to the hua feng (pronounced hwa fung), right near the dance studio, and he insists on paying for the taxi. the hua feng has no chinese lanterns but it's clean, air conditioned, and sells local tsing tao beer, the large bottle, for 5 yuan (60 cents). a definite shout out and confirmation from my good travel companion, dumb luck!
travel continues its lessons as i start teaching improvisation (the very act of swinging & rolling) to this spectacular company of beijing modern dancers, none of whom, bye the bye, speak english. that is, more than "hello", "good morning", and "first position". i mean why did the director, who i've never met except thru the internet, invite me to teach the company? there must be a reason. fate? coincidence? synchronicity? never mind, i've
worried about it long enough. now it's time to show up and just do it. the first day i watch the 7-man, 7-woman company take class with another guest teacher. their joffrey-like technique is daunting; what can i teach them? i haven't danced in 35 years! well hey, i decide to start by putting us all on common ground. since i can't remember any of their chinese names, i give them all new ones. "hong lin" (the only chinese name i do remember) becomes "apple". then there's dragon, sonny, candy, flower, boy, money, john, tao, yem, tutu, titi, and tiger. thank god, for tiger; he's the stage manager who takes company class. at least this week. tiger speaks english. he's my interpreter. accidents and incidents, eh? me? i'm "danger"! what can i say? it was their idea.
after a week, we're all laughing a lot, learning a few things from each other, and... having fun. turns out that underneath these serious, perfection-driven dancers lie just a bunch of 20 year chinese old kids. and kids, like girls, chinese or otherwise, just wanna have fun. and if there's one thing trules knows how to do, it's have fun. at least in dance and theatre classes. sure, in real life, he can be broody, stubborn, and anal compulsive. but trules is traveling now. he's swingin' and rollin'. going with the flow. he's the fish out of water. the 190 pound gulliver amongst the dancing lilliputians. the going on 60 ex-dancer clown amongst 20-something flying and leaping beijing ballettophiles. at times, even tiger doesn't understand what he's talking about, or what he wants the dancers to do. but fortunately there's the international sign language of mime, sound, and movement, and fortunately these dancers have been learning new styles and new techniques since the age of 10. they're expert at it. so after a while, they all do pretty well at trules' style: moving from the center, contact improv, weird sound and movement exercises that at first have them all completely self conscious and embarrassed. mongolian john doesn't like following directions and both titi and tutu can't seem to get their voices or faces connected, but by the last day, the entire company is doing a completely improvised half hour performance, by the end of which they have lifted trules onto their collective and ex-communistic shoulders, and carried him out of the studio. high? you betcha!
then there's the case of the mysteriously re-appearing lenny. lenny, formerly of germany, LA, and israel. now india. you remember lenny, right? he's the dude i went to see in india last summer in mumbai and goa, but who i discovered was so lost in his own private idaho that i never got to see him at all. even though i was 20 minutes away. well now lenny calls from rajastan, hops a plane to hong kong, then comes to see me - in beijing. lenny finally materializes in the flesh. just as brilliant, efficient, annoying, charming, paranoid, bemused, and compulsive as ever. he's come to tell of me tales and misadventures. of accidents and incidents. like the time he took a plane from LA to berlin and ended up arriving in new york and spending a month there. lenny is open to life's winds and currents. he's in perpetual motion - both inner and outer. it seems now he's advising indian heads of state, running to and from the mob, giving stock tips on the advance and decline of international commodities, and best of all, in love with an evasive bollywood princess. whether it's all in his head or just the chartreuse glasses through which he sees the world, travel says, "doesn't matter, dude! what the fuck's 'the truth' anyway?" well, that said, it doesn't take more than a day for lenny and i to lock horns again; we're too much alike, and soon i'm shouting at him in taxis and hotel lobbies. but travel laughs, knowing that lenny and i have a kind of "magnetic attractive-repulsive cosmic connection". we're "reflecting mirrors of opposite poles". and fate, travel's other longtime companion, keeps winding us around her elusive fingers. what can i say? i'm always a sucker for another dose of lenny: doctor-savant, philosophical guru, and arcane theorist of jfk conspiracies, CIA cabbalas, and international intrigues.
on the way home from lenny's five star hotel to my no star hostel, DA calls. he's in beijing too. but we can't connect. he's flying out in the morning. hah! one of travel's missed coincidences. but as soon as i walk into the hostel's lobby, i hear "oh my god, that's my old college professor, eric trules! what are you doing here?" it's mary. i just sent her an e-mail this morning to say i was in china. now she's in my hotel lobby with her trans-mongolian railway tour group and her husband to be. and then there's mick from USC, head of the alumni association, who has not only taken me out to eat at three different 5 star hotels, but who has also arranged for danny and chip, also alums, to take me and da wife out to szechuan and cantonese eateries, where they say there are so many different unique dishes, that you can order a different one every day of the year for ten years straight, and never repeat the same dish. and travel says, "right. every day, a new day. every moment, a new moment. every cantonese meal, a new cantonese meal." if only we knew that back in the 50s at gam wah's, the new yawk suburban chinese restaurant where i grew up. where my new yawk jewish, chinese food-loving family ordered the same egg rolls, spare ribs, wanton soup, chow mein, and egg foo yong - every sunday - for far longer than 10 years straight!
and i'm thinking about all these accidents and incidents. how i just seem to be in the right place at the right time. like how it was in edinburgh in '88 when 3 out of the 5 people in the audience seemed to be from the BBC. or bali in 2000 when i met the future-to-be wife in front of the kuta beach ATM. or like now, china 2007, how i go out for a little 1 dollar chinese breakfast, and because the 4 table place is completely full, i sit next to a chinese dude. and just to be polite, i ask, "do you speak english?" and whereas 90% of the chinese people i meet won't even bother to answer (because they don't), this dude isn't even chinese, he's japanese. and he's studying around the corner at the most famous acting/theatre school in china. and why don't i come by and meet the foreign affairs cultural officer? and i do. and i do. and i do. so it goes. so yes, i am mary's "old" college professor, now at USC, going on 22 years! "old in chronology," travel reminds me, "but still young at heart." and spirit. "the most adventurous 60 year old i know", another voice who knows me well, reminds me. it's my less-than-adventurous younger sister, e-mailing me from the toney suburbs of walnut creek. "be careful," she says. "come home," she says. "your leg," she says. but "hey", i say, "i'm still walkin' here. i'm still talkin' here. i'm still writin' here. making up my own cosmology. still ratso. a little more fatso. i'm still dancin' here." as i'm reminded by trickster travel, of an ancient chippewa saying: "to travel is to dance".
last night, i finally left beijing. on a soft sleeper to nanjing. it's hot as hell here. 100 degrees fahrenheit and humid as indonesia before a tsunami. but it's not. hell. or indonesia. it's china. and i already miss the imperial capital. it was my home, on and off, for over three weeks. same hotel. the hua feng. same neighborhood. the nice little "hutong" (alley) behind the hotel where i had my new chinese trousers altered by the local tailoress. i miss the dancers: apple, candy, dragon, and money. they're finally out of "danger", me thinks. i miss the dance studio and the noodle and dumpling (baoze) shop where i had my dollar lunch every day after class. and i miss the local satay grillers, and fruit peddlers, and pretty hawker girls who'd try to have me sip and buy oolong tea every day. 'cause now chen lin has delivered me to the beijing train station (making new york's grand central station look like a waiting room!). he's still smiling and wheeling my trolley suitcase through another travel hall. i'm looking up at the neon sign board, trying to figure out where the D407 will speed at 200 kilometers/hour to nanjing. when all of a sudden i hear, "yo, where ya goin'?" it's a distinctly new yawk accent, if you know what i mean. i turn around and there's a smiling dude in a baseball cap. "whereya from?" he grins, knowing a "brother" when he sees one (i think it's the nose)!). "i'm from new yawk," i say. "you?" "brooklyn," he croons, like the cat who's swallowed the name-that-culture canary. "goin' to shanghai?" he asks. "no. nanjing," i say. "no problem. same train. follow me." and i do....
as i'm sure it's just another guise that trickster, travel, has taken.....
glad you're along for the ride.
hope it's better than chemo therapy.
namaste from nanjing (i know, wrong culture, but i like the alliteration!)
--comrade laughing danger