West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The far side of the world

Well, I am finally back in Costa Rica after the annual meeting of the ATBC (Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation) in Kunming, China. The local time here is 1:32 pm, but for me it feels like the middle of the night. If there is one word that sums up the experiences of the past week, it would be “overwhelming.” I’m glad I went on this trip, but I’m also glad it will be a good long time before I travel anywhere again.

My China trip began with three days in limbo. I was supposed to fly out on Saturday morning, July 15th, but the flight was canceled and the earliest they could send me out was Tuesday. I went to the airport every morning at quarter past four, just in case. The rest of the day I spent in the weirdly aseptic world of the Hampton Inn Alajuela and Denny’s Restaurant (the only place, sadly, where airline meal vouchers were accepted. I think I had every vegetarian thing on the menu there at least twice.). Aside from the few words of Spanish on the revolving sign for the rental car companies across the street, there was nothing to remind me that I was still in Costa Rica. I did manage to get some work done, at least—I have seldom been in a place with so few distractions.

On Tuesday, I finally managed to leave Costa Rica, only to find that the rest of my flight reservation had not actually been updated as promised. To make a long story short, I had to buy a new ticket from Miami to China, at a cost upwards of $2000. To emphasize the moral of the story, don’t fly American Airlines. (I am attempting to get my money back. I’ll keep you posted.)

Thursday morning—or on what passed for Thursday morning in that part of the world—I arrived in the bewildering bustle of Kunming, China. The echoing open space of the airport terminal was crowded with people and luggage, and vendors selling fruit and mushrooms and bits of unidentifiable dried things in bags. I was the tallest person in the room by several decimeters. The signs around the room were all in Chinese, aside from some haphazard English phrases which my jet-lagged brain found somewhat poetic: BAG RECLAIMAGE and RUBBISH RECEPTACLE and, outside of customs, DONOT STAY HERE LINGERING. Without knowing any Chinese beyond “hello” and “thank you,” I managed to find an ATM, get money, and get a taxi to the hotel.

ATBC was my first international scientific conference. I had hoped to arrive under better circumstances, but I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I just barely had time to splash water onto my face, change into more acceptable clothes, and throw on some makeup to look a little less zombie-like, before I headed to Meeting Room D for the session that my advisor and I were scheduled to co-chair: Plant Diversity and Functioning in Forest Ecosystems. A very fast two hours later, fueled by caffeine and Advil (thanks, Robin!) I was standing at the podium myself to present my research on the diversity and structure of regenerating forests in Costa Rica. My talk was pretty well-received, though a professor later commented to me that I looked “exhausted but determined.” That about summed it up.

The conference passed far too fast. I wish I could have been there for the whole thing—I missed many of the talks I had hoped to see, and I never met some of the people I’d been hoping to get to know. I did get to see a wide range of talks, on everything from the breeding systems of tropical forest trees in southwest China to the importance of cryptic species for conservation. In the evenings, we were treated to lavish banquets. Being a vegetarian, I missed out on some of the more esoteric dining experiences: smoked cow stomach, a soup of tiny fish with their heads still on, and a platter of chicken feet (apparently you bite them off at the knuckles).

One of the greatest surprises of the conference was the chance to re-connect with my friend Simon, whom I hadn’t seen since I graduated from college six years ago. A few days before I left for this trip, a mutual friend emailed us both to let me know that Simon’s living in Kunming and teaching English, and to let him know I was coming (thanks, Emily!). Simon showed up at my talk, looking happier and somehow younger than he had in college. He’s as thoughtful and engaging as ever. Right now he is studying the history of Chinese script, and some of the parallels he’s found between Eastern and Western symbology are truly staggering. He said he’s met a lot of people who, like himself, came to China for a short stint and then found it impossible to leave. I can understand the draw of it: the intellectual challenge of a culture, language, and writing system that seem on the surface so distinct from our own. When I’m presented with a huge amount of consistently organized information that I can’t fathom, my first instinct is to work and work until I do understand it... I guess that’s why I study tropical ecology.

Through Simon, I was able to get a closer look at life in modern China. We took a bus across Kunming to have lunch with his friend Zhou. As the bus sped past throngs of bicyclists and concrete high-rises, I remarked to Simon how nice it was to see parks and grassy open spaces in the city. He made an ambivalent face. “A month ago, these were probably marketplaces. The government is bulldozing the unofficial shops in the name of modernization. The thing is, a lot of these shops were also people’s houses. So now they have no livelihood, and no home.”

I hadn’t seen many homeless people on the streets. “Where do they go?”

“Most of them go back to the country. If they’re lucky, their relatives still have farmland and they can work there. The population of China is still about 70% rural.”

We passed another park with banks of flowers and bright green grass. “It is pretty,” he admitted. “But whenever I find something that seems unequivocally good about Chinese society, I almost always find another side to it.”

Zhou is a woman in her late forties or early fifties, living with her mother and three cats in a small apartment on a side street. Simon had explained on the way over that her father had been imprisoned as a counter-revolutionary, and her family had been ostracized ever since. She makes ends meet by teaching Chinese to foreign students. Zhou brought out strong bitter tea and bowl after bowl of delicious vegetables and tofu, and we shared small talk and travel stories. I wondered what kind of society would marginalize a woman like her—intelligent, perceptive, kind, witty—for something her father had done forty years ago. I wondered what it was, exactly, that he’d done: criticized the government? Refused to rat on a neighbor? Expressed an independent thought? But I didn’t ask. We stayed with safe topics.

After lunch Simon gave Zhou a small package of tea and told her, “I brought you two presents today. I want you to hear Susan play the piano.” I was thrilled, but a little embarrassed—it’s been months (well, nearly two months) since I’ve touched a keyboard. Zhou ushered us into the next room, and I played a few pieces by Chopin and Brahms. At first I stumbled through, but after a few minutes the music worked its familiar and inexplicable magic. I have never felt so clearly that music is a universal language, touching the core of joy and sadness we all carry, as I did in Zhou’s tiny apartment on a side street in Kunming.

In the four days following the ATBC conference, I went on a tour of the Xishuangbanna region of southern Yunnan with a group of scientists. Xishuangbanna (which I finally learned to pronounce on the fourth day there) is a name that sounds like it should mean something lovely and mysterious, like “Land Between the Rivers” or “Jade Mountain.” The actual translation is something like “confederacy of 24 sub-regions.” Bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, southern Yunnan is the only truly tropical region of China. It looks tropical, too, with red laterite soils staining the rivers, and dark overhanging banks of viny forest. There are groves of bananas, papayas, and oranges, but also flat green rice paddies in the valleys and terraced tea plantations on the higher mountains. The fragments of natural forest—few and far between—are stunningly similar to the forests I’ve come to know in the Neotropics. There’s a huge amount of overlap in the families present, and even some genera that occur in both areas. When I think about how long it’s been since these forests were contiguous, it’s really breathtaking.

One of the advertised tourist attractions in Xishuangbanna is the number of minority villages there. Unlike other parts of China, which are almost all Han Chinese, Xishuangbanna has something like 20 different government-recognized ethnic groups. Having thought about it for a while now, I’m still not sure how I feel about minority villages being a tourist attraction. How would I feel if a tour bus pulled up in my back yard and people started taking pictures of my front porch? (Well, to be fair, growing up surrounded by a national park, I did have a fair number of tour buses come through my town. But people were there for the scenery, not for the quaint local culture. I think.) The tours provide local people with a livelihood and provide the tourists—us—with a chance to see what life is like in rural China (the short answer: full of chickens). It was amazing to wander through markets where cell phones and mp3 players were sold next to mounds of pickled vegetables and cages of live ducklings. I felt embarrassed, though, when our tour guide led us through the back streets and started asking people if we could look inside their houses. It seems like such an intrusion. The most uncomfortable part of the trip, for me, was a visit to a theme park dedicated to the various nationalities in the region. It felt like a human zoo, or a freak show: look at these people in their little white hats! Aren’t they cute? And these people are fierce. Watch them eat raw meat... Parts of it were unexpectedly magical: the teenagers from a hill tribe who sang a compelling, discordant song; the unguarded smiles of the old women with heavy silver discs in their extended earlobes. Mostly it was just strange and awkward. I felt handicapped by my inability to communicate, but it seemed like communication was not the point of the enterprise: it was more about titillation than understanding.

Food in the countryside was even more various and surprising than the banquets in Kunming. Chicken soup was a common entrée, with every part of the chicken included. One unfortunate fellow bit down on a chicken head before he realized quite what it was. The soup contained other things, too; one of our traveling companions commented, upon unearthing a lump of grayish meat with fibrous strings attached, “this kidney is clearly mammalian.” Whole fish were a common feature of our meals as well, with their gaping heads watching reproachfully. I did find plenty to eat, though: cabbage, celery, carrots, corn, and a host of unfamiliar vegetables, almost always fried and heavily salted. (One of the professors on the trip was involved in compiling an online atlas of famine food plants. He said the comments on about 80% of them are “found in China. Prepared with oil and salt.”)

Overall, the trip was an amazing experience. The flight back was (thankfully) uneventful, aside from a random security check, an equally random and unexplained first class upgrade, and the nearly inevitable loss of my luggage. It had better arrive soon, because I am down to two pairs of undies...


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