Kunming -> Xishuangbanna -> Lancang -> Menghai -> Xishuangbanna
Last week I got to go on my first business trip since starting my job in Kunming. I had been told that the purpose of this trip was to visit some of the field sites for our malaria program, in order to provide “support and supervision”. In summary: it was amazing. Unique in my life. Possibly even transformative. More on that later.
It was absolutely certain that this trip was going to involve going to areas where people did not speak Mandarin and, even when they did, that they would speak it in an accent incomprehensible to me. Of course, no one would speak English. So I was both nervous about being unable to understand anyone other than my colleague from the Kunming office, NM, and also confused about what useful role I might be able to play in the whole affair. This would all become clear soon enough.
The flight from Kunming south to Xishuangbanna (XSBN) only takes 45 minutes. What could we possibly being doing with the rest of the day, such that we had no meetings planned for the afternoon? It turns out that our first stop was to be at the CDC in Lancang, a 5- or 6-hour drive from XSBN in a 4×4 truck. On a guess, I would say that if there were real roads between XSBN and Lancang, this trip would take maybe 2 hours. Ninety minutes if my Dad were driving the car.
As it stands, the roads are awful – appallingly pocked with craters and strewn with boulders. The kind of roads that lift you out of your seat and have you clinging to your coworkers for dear life for hours at a time (which they do not appreciate). Not only are the roads bad, but you periodically have to stop because there is a random crew of people using minor explosives to excavate rock from the side of the road. Or a group of peasants felling bamboo. Or a giant bus that has collapsed in a giant ditch right in front of you, and now people are pouring out of the bus like ants and swarming around the tires trying to figure out how to get the thing moving again.
So you wait.
I should stop here and apologize: I have almost no pictures from this trip – a trip that took me through southern Yunnan’s breath-taking scenery tropical scenery – because my colleagues never wanted to stop the car so that I could take pictures, and a lot of the areas we were in otherwise were deemed “sensitive” by the CDC and I wasn’t allowed to photograph anything. But on some of our breakdown stops I got to snap a few pictures that will give you an idea of what the scenery looks like:
All of this driving and waiting left plenty of time for me to consider my surroundings and current situation. In the truck with my three Chinese colleagues, chatting about this and that, singing along as the radio alternated between blaring operatic nationalistic ballads and tunes by, as NM put it, “The Spicy Girls”, our merry band of public health pranksters rolled along through mountains and valleys.
I can’t believe that someone is paying me to do this, I thought. I can’t believe that I managed to con someone into giving me this job. How lucky am I?
We pulled up to the Lancang CDC before dinner that evening, and suddenly my role was made clear to me, 5 minutes before we were to meet with the local CDC director. “Ok,” says NM to me, “you’re the big boss from Washington. You’re like our boss’s boss’s boss. And you don’t speak or understand Chinese. Just speak English and I’ll translate for you. Be serious and impressive.”
Let that sink in for a minute, bearing in mind that I was wearing a slightly stained t-shirt and wrinkled pants. Also, if you are reading this blog it means you’ve met me, so you know that I don’t look old enough to be anyone’s boss.
Of course the CDC Director had not been informed that I would be there, and when he found out who I was he is falling all over himself to impress me. (This is all relative, by the way – it does not mean that he stopped picking his teeth or answering his cell phone in the middle of my sentences.) This guy turned out to be a good friend to our organization and an all around nice person – in addition to being a serious character, given to making grandiose proclamations like “I am the eighth most handsome man in Lancang!” Incidentally, he would not explain who numbers 1-7 were, so don’t ask. (This was also a lot funnier in Chinese, for those of you who speak the language: “我是澜沧第八帅!”)
He hustled us all over to a Wa nationality restaurant nearby and – surprise! – announced that, before dinner, we would be playing a Chinese version of Black Jack, with mysterious rules that kept changing. Also, it was the drinking game version of Black Jack, and the drink we would be consuming was the local corn liquor that was finished being made not half an hour earlier in the kitchen.
A little note about drinking and doing business in China: this is extremely common, and is both a show of hospitality and respect to your guests, as well as being something of a open challenge to your business partners. Women can often get out of these drinking games and endless hard liquor dinner toasts by demurring from the outset, but I figured Hey! I’m the big Washington boss. I will drink with this guy.
Now don’t go getting all upset – I managed to hold my own and didn’t even embarrass myself. (Which is more than I can say for the CDC director, who ended up complementing me loudly on my “excellent figure,” and poor NM who finished the night by throwing up.)
Lest you should think you can escape without a description of what we ate for dinner, I will just say that much of the Wa food we ate was extremely tasty – fish soups, a kind of steamed corn bread, an interesting potato porridge.
And then there were the water buffalo ankles. (Ankles? I checked with NM. Like, between the leg and the foot? She nodded.)
The CDC director conveyed the bowl of ankles to me grandly, informing me that I was to eat four of them, for some unknown reason. And yes, they were crunchy and cartilage-like. And ridiculously spicy. And all I could think of for the rest of the meal was that some poor water buffalo was staggering around a rice paddy on little stubs because I ATE ITS @#$%^&* ANKLES.
The next morning we went with the CDC director to visit some of the villages where we have doctors selling mosquito nets. NM informed me that I was to ask them some questions, as the interested foreign boss. “About anything in particular?” I asked. “Whatever, just make it up.”
After thinking about it for a moment I realized that since I know so little about public health in China, this was an opportunity for me to educate myself about the health problems of this area and what kinds of challenges the village doctors face – so it was actually fantastic to be the one getting to ask the questions.
They told me about why villagers don’t use mosquito nets, about their areas’ endemic diseases, about what the differences are between the health situation in China and just over the border in Burma. (That’s why I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, by the way; this place was about 75 miles from the Burmese border and if I had been seen taking pictures the police might have hauled me in for questioning.)
In case you’re curious, the general health picture is much worse on the other side of the border. Malaria prevalence, nutrition levels, life expectancy – there’s no comparison between the stable state of China and Burma, whose infrastructure remains in a shambles.
We visited one last village before leaving and spoke with some villagers whose situation seems to have improved markedly over the past 5 years due to increased grants from the government, but who are still very poor. They grow only corn, which they harvest once a year and the stores of which must last them all through the winter, spring and summer until the next harvest. If these people need to go to the doctor for something minor like the flu, it is covered 80% by a kind of insurance from the government and they must fund the remaining 20% themselves. If it’s something more serious, well – they’re SOL. Not enough money for anything else.
After lunch at a Lahu nationality restaurant (the first of two meals at which pig brains were served) it was back on the road to XSBN, by way of Menghai to meet with the CDC over dinner there. This was a friendly and brief meal, during a sudden tropical thunderstorm, where we toasted with a grain liquor of much lower alcohol content such that all of the women drank. Plus, we ate Dai nationality food and folks, let me tell you that as far as I am concerned, the Dai are the clear winners in the cuisine contest.
Perhaps it’s not fair – I am hopelessly in love with Southeast Asian flavors. Does your dish involve sticky rice? Pineapple? Coconut milk? Peanut sauce? Something steamed in a banana leaf? You have my heart. Dai food wins on all counts.
And how else to end an exhausting day back in XSBN but with a cold treat?
Good Gsught, everyone! More coming up in Part II of the story.