Wednesday, July 28, 2010

They made it - Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou Airport, by Fabio
It's one of those nights when you abandon yourself to the fragrance of the wind, to encounters, to what life can offer you, not for next year or tomorrow, but right on the spot, on that sidewalk, many hours before the day will come and make you rationalize it all. And this process, at least in my case, is most effective when I am abroad, better if in a place where I don't know anybody, where I don't have any connections, any buoy to hold on to when the current is taking me adrift. If the events unfold in Asia then, or even better in China, where not even one's normal cultural grips can be of some help, it's even more risky, succulent and exciting. 
The right place, for this night at least, is Guangzhou, a city where the majority of the foreigners come attracted by a disproportionate giant that people here call fair. To try their luck, to make money, to squeeze one of the southern tits of this cow, China, that seems to be growing out of any control, a victim of some cell that must have gone mad. And where I, not to be the original type but because of a genuine helpless nature, have arrived by chance, on my way from Hong Kong to Kunming, a place in the South-West in whose tranquility I have let myself be lulled for more than a year.
When I arrived I was planning - a verb that when associated with my life always has the astonishing ability to scare me and amuse me at the same time - to stop for only a couple of days. Those two days have expired about two weeks ago and considering the current situation, in this clear night, with the breeze that blows from the Pearl River and brushes my nape, I don't see how I could possibly leave tomorrow, or the day after, for that matter.I've just got out of a club, a girl who I met inside is about to go home where, with some friends, she will keep on chatting, listening to music, drinking and eating. To my surprise she invites me to join them. There is always that ancestral instinct that urges me to need persuading, not to be difficult, just to conceal that vulnerable condition that is often chasing me, but I put it aside and get on the taxi. The trip is long, very long, and even though it's late at night and there is no traffic it's taking a time that I've stopped calculating, while a Volkswagen that exists only here is taking us further and further away from the river, the city center, along an avenue, across a few intersections, then along another one of those wide Chinese roads, planned to bear not today's traffic but maybe the one that will drive along them in some years.
We get to a typical residential compound in the suburbs - incredibly enough we're not yet in the countryside - with rows of identical buildings, the barriers, the little shops at the ground floor, the desolation of the night in the surrounding streets. We buy food and drinks at a dismal hole, which looks like a medieval store with a modern building on top. We get up, fortunately there is a lift, which in China is never an accessory to be taken for granted.
We spend many hours dazed by beers, chats, by weariness and at the end by the dawn's light too. People come and go: at some point I even find myself lying on the couch with the girl, just the two of us, for some seconds or a few hours that go by too fast between the leaving of a group and the arrival of another one. Then the curiosity, the magic of the situation, the charm of a language that I still don't understand well and a culture that I will probably never comprehend vanish like this, almost at once, with the tweet of a bird that perches on the windowsill. 
It's time to go. I've said goodbye, I'm on the street, I spot a taxi and I wave it down. The money that I've got in my pockets would have been enough to pay the fare from the club to my hotel, topping it up with a snack and a drink, but this is going to be a much higher fare. If I used the subway there wouldn't be problems: wherever you leave from and wherever you arrive to it's always going to cost you just a few kuai, but where do I take it? I'm even outside the perimeter marked on my city-map.
I get on the cab and I tell the driver to take me to the nearest station, but with some difficulty I also add that he should stop when the meter reads the sum that I have with me: from there on I will walk. I don't think this is a nice information to start off with in Chinese a taxi, but I wouldn't know what else to say, other than the plain truth. The driver smiles, he wants to chat, he asks me where I come from and if I like it here. I wonder if he understands. And who knows whether what he doesn't get is what I say or rather what I'm doing?
At the beginning, overwhelmed by my doubts, I'm a bit stiff, maybe he thinks I'm not too friendly, but when the car stops at a traffic light I finally relax. When the conversation gets stuck on a pause he looks at me and smiles, with his tartar-blackened teeth clashing with those preposterous chauffeur white gloves. "Don't worry, you'll pay what you can. I'll take you to the station anyway."
There they go again. They are trying the trick one more time! But I won't give in and I try the pride-move and tell him that it's not necessary, that I'll get a bus, or I'll walk, or I don't know what else, anything, but a taxi for way! He silences me with another smile, mutters something and then speeds up. 
I paid him just a little more than half the right fare. A guy who doesn't even have the money for the dentist. I'm walking fast along the subway tunnel. I'm walking and there it goes again. They tried again and as it often happens they made it again. In surprising me, embarrassing me, in demolishing my suspicions, and in making my eyes shine a little. Oh yes, they succeeded, and how well they did it.
But at the end of the day it's also nice to be surprised. 

Guangzhou, China, May 2007

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