I am the last one on the plane. There is an empty seat between the guy at the window and me. He scans me over as I sit down, noticing the folded China Daily that the stewardess just handed me. He asks me in English where I am from. I say New York and ask him, already feeling combative, the same question in return. My tone, while steady and polite, is tinged with hostile sarcasm as if transmitting the inanity of the question. I don’t want to make small talk, a fact he has not considered and seems unable or unwilling to observe, so he has already crossed a line.
He asks me if I am going to Beijing, and I tell him Shenyang. And he asks me if I learned Chinese, and I pretend not to understand. He repeats the question, and I again feign perplexity. This childish trick makes him abandon further attempts at practicing his English and instead proceed, now deflated, in his common mother tongue. We are now on the same field. If he wants to trivialize me he will have to play the game he has started. And he senses this. And I ask him question upon question, now relishing in practicing my Mandarin: what he does, why he is in Kyrgyzstan, and so on. And he soon loses interest and faces the window and closes his eyes. It is a long-winded way of saying it I know, but somehow more satisfying, and far more civil, than simply barking ‘fuck off.’
The 40-minute drive from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International to the capital of Port Louis reveals the island’s scattered chains of contorted and jagged mountain crests. After several days traversing Mauritius, the peaks will remind me of the surreal mountaintop drawings of Doctor Seuss. To my now untrained and jetlagged eye, the rolling fields of green sugarcane dotted with plush trees and capped in low floating clouds resemble more the English countryside than my image of the isolated topics.
I arrived to Port Louis inferm with a tracheal infection from the harrowing journey: Shenyang to Tokyo for a night, then to O’Hare for an eight-hour layover, and finally to my first perch in Tampa for three more sleepless nights of full-on meetings and drinking and early mornings conniving in the Hard Rock Casino’s poker room. But it was the Miami-Heathrow-Dubai leg that finally capped me. Upon arrival the hotel room wasn’t ready, so I had to attend afternoon meetings and a late dinner and another drinking session still unshowered and unchanged in a suit I had been wearing since Florida.
The restaurant manager delightfully offers complementary drinks. I graciously order my usual, which is always whatever the bartender feels like making. A colleague asks for a Jack and Coke. The waiter confirms if he’d like it with or without Coke, a question so odd as to become immediately apparent. “A Jack WITH Coke,” he repeats. Minutes later I receive a cherry garnished chute of sparkling wine and watermelon juice. My friend receives a Jack and ice. We look at each other with delightfully brief speechlessness. “Can you please add Coke to this,” he politely but briskly requests. The manager hops to in cordial obedience, and returns only moments later after little more than splashing what must be the remnants from a flat liter bottle. Stephen takes one, maybe two, sips and inevitably recoils, again hurriedly beckoning back the waiter. It will be five minutes or more before his cocktail finally and correctly reemerges, but it is now time to drink up and go to meet Navin, our driver, to take us to dinner.
One of our dining companions that evening is the former Deputy Chief of Police, an aging, bug-eyed, Tamil Mauritian whom enjoys getting sauced on Chivas Regal and boasting about his former prominence in keeping the island safe from Subutex, a synthetic opioid smuggled almost daily onto the island from France, and reportedly the country’s biggest crime issue. Our chatter moves to the hypocrisy of outlawing some substances, like marijuana, that are not connected to death, while accepting liquor, which clearly has a more adverse effect on one’s health and society. He agrees, but the more I pursue the topic the less convinced he seems. Eventually he tells me I’m wrong and I raise my Chivas in a toast of congenial defeat, and we finish the bottle.
On another day, a Wednesday morning, torrential downpours pound the island for hours on end, uncharacteristically closing schools and 90 percent of businesses: an unprecedented rain day. In the dining room water rushes over the aluminum sided roofs and through every crevice being collected in buckets and with rags by the few staff whom have managed to arrive to work. The water taxi that shuttles guests for the 45-second trip around the docks has stalled and floated out to sea, and eventually towed back before wisely ceasing service. My breakfast waiter Neelesh caringly yet casually imparts this news while delivering salmon eggs Benedict and a pot of hot tea and honey. The morning before be proudly announced that in battling my throat virus I had drunk out the restaurant of its entire tea and honey rations which they had managed to restock just before the storm cancelled further deliveries.
On my last morning Navin’s brother Pravin takes me on a half-day jaunt around the South of the island. We briefly investigate the famed Mauritian-made Floreal brand of cashmere wear, soon confirming that I’m not in the market for a scarf or cardigan. We then wind the Toyota Belta up narrow mountain roads to Trou Oaux Cerf Crater, which Pravin claims is one of the two Seven Wonders of the World from Mauritius, but it is closed. He points out the hazy view and says that inside there is a big hole.
We drive along a natural reservoir Mare Aux Vacoas, which Pravin says is nicknamed the Mauritian Ganges. Fluorescent orange and yellow sparrow like creatures flitter about. Further along he stops the car just long enough to peer out the window to snap with our camera phones a towering statue of Lord Shiva erected three years before. We turn around in the parking lot of the Hindu temple, behind it sits along a lake in another crater. Tourists pile out of buses to pose along the banks with the temple and maybe statue in view. Pravin asks if I’d like to get out, but I decline with a smile and he laughs.
Our day takes us to two mildly impressive overlooks, one at Alexander Falls. Inappropriately attired in a long Speedo swimsuit and Kenneth Cole dress shoes, we wind through stalls of souvenir hawkers and navigate the mossy rocks, non-committaly snapping away on our PDAs when a storm hits and propels us and the grove of other tourists to flee from the woods.
We stop along the road at the Chamarel run distillery, and Pravin says that it’s better to buy their spirits at the supermarket. Pravin takes a few photographs for his Facebook page.
Two days before his brother Navin and fellow cabbie drove me and two colleagues to Mon Choisi beach where I floated in the Indian Ocean for the afternoon and cloud gazed in stoned bliss. It is a local beach and it does not have proper show facilities. Instead, I clean myself down with a two liter Coke bottle cut in half, using it to scoop rain water from a plastic oil drum.
On the drive to the airport I know that I’ll not likely return here. I think how I have often sentimentally taken note note of how life is little more than circumstantial fleeting moments. But I am not sad to leave Mauritius. After all, I was only just passing through.
It’s 6:45 on a humid Sunday morning in Wuhan. The sticky asphalt and crumbling pavement secretes the soot and refuse from the night market vendors whom have just vacated the alleys. After one, maybe two hours of sleep, after a night guzzling the local formaldehyde-laced beer and befriending self-proclaimed criminals and out-of-work whores, sweating in the rancid early morning filth my taxi grumbles and squeaks at the rendezvous where I await true hell.
I’m about to be piled onto a minivan for four-hours of bumping and weaving along the Yangztee River to the Three Gorges Dam. But I won’t see the dam. In fact, I’ll be lucky to get more of a glimpse of the City of Yichang, though with a bent back and craned neck from aboard the short bus or possibly through an open sliver in a bathroom window at the conference hall while standing to take a piss. The aging venue will no doubt be sparkling in tacky grandeur, with worn upholstery and marblesque tiled corridors that waft of spilt Chinese spirits and unplumbed urine. And before I alight from the taxi to wake up to my nightmare, I remind myself of the treacherous return to Wuhan that night. At this point in the morning, however, the totality of the exhaustion and sensory dullness is just too insufferable to bear.
I contort myself exiting the taxi to avoid muddying my pants in the doorway, and this invariably causes my leg to cramp. Still reeling while the muscle throbs and sets, a woman in her sixties eagerly approaches as if waiting for my arrival. She is oblivious to my shattered state and animated to the point of offensive. Fervently, she accosts me at the curb and draws me onto the pavement. I am unable to acknowledge the gaggle of her young associates huddled outside the van, who seem sour and vague, and suck into pursed lips or through straws unrecognizable breakfast snacks that steam from sundae cups or plastic bags. The morning industrial traffic thunders close behind.
She does not introduce herself. Instead she forcibly launches into an unprovoked tirade about how Chinese are smarter than anyone else. “The Chinese are the best at math, and they’re the smartest people, much smarter than Americans!” As if hearing these words for the first time she bursts into laughter. “Chinese work so much harder, and I should know, because I was a middle school English teacher for over 30 years.” “Don’t you think Chinese are the smartest people?” she rhetorically exhorts. “We have 5,000 years of history. We can do anything. We are the smartest ethnic group in the world, even smarter than the Jews!” And she repeats these last two points twice.
I’m too riled to reply, too beaten to engage. The others waiting for the bus are too blasé to take notice. Their generation aside, I doubt their opinions would differ. Were they not so aloof to take notice, they might even find her behavior amusing, if not endearing. But this is irrelevant. My discomfort does not even cross her mind. And if it does, she could doubtfully comprehend her inappropriateness or simply wouldn’t care.
Hours later he would still brood over it, as if he had misplayed something, as if he should have said this or that, and he promised to get the words right next time. And there would always be a next time. More than a decade in China had taught him that. And the more he thought about it the more it infuriated him.