Ruijin Days

Ruijin Days

All day I wanted to write, but now that I’ve sat down to it, I’m exhausted.

By 11am the heat and humidity wipes us out, weigh us down. It’s near impossible to think through that dense fog, let along move. Or maybe I’m still suffering some from the shock of jetlag and removal from California’s chilly summer coast. I spent most of the early afternoon sitting on the stone floor of the [slightly] breezy upper hallway writing down Chinese vocabulary and, after I drooped from that, lolling on a rattan summer sleeping mat half sleeping, half reading. We’ve nearly forgone furniture here, living in this half-built house; in the summer there’s no need for more than a desk, a table, a temporary wardrobe, a few chairs and stools. At night we roll out sleeping mats in the hall, which runs the length of the house, a balcony on either side. At noon there’s nothing I can do until I acclimate to this heat. We hide inside, hibernating from eleven to three.

By three-thirty I needed to get out, so we hopped on the motorscooter and rode up to the base of a nearby [short] mountain, then hiked to the temple on the top. Twenty steps up the mountain we were covered in sheets of sweat, so slick we were swimming up the hills in our own perspiration. When we reached the top we heard – what? – the shuffling of mahjong tiles. This past year some innovative soul built a two story hotel right under the temple, cut into the side of the mountain. But honest hotel it is not. The open courtyard facing the mountain slope and half the rooms upstairs are filled with mahjong tables, bone cards clattering, hushed voices shuffling in the temporary breezy cool, money piling, bets growing far from the ever-watchful eyes of the city government (for gambling, and playing mahjong for money, while a popular pastime, is illegal in China).

We then sauntered down the hill, dipping our feet in the cold spring that dashes from cool stone tunnels, and passing several groups of people who remarked among themselves that I must be Russian. Serving the foot of the mountain are a dozen or so small restaurants, mostly offering up deep-fried food, milk tea, and beef soup. The last one in line, however, has tofu from Rentian (壬田豆腐干), a town within Ruijin county famous for its varieties of tofu and weak “water spirits” (水酒). So we stopped to have a bite… or six of savory hot tofu baked on a wooden grill above smoldering embers, tart skin on the outside, juicy soft tofu on the inside, fire in your mouth and shivers down your back when dipped in hot sauce.

Then further down the road we passed a partial family of six squeezed on a motorscooter: sinewy grandmother on the back with two children of five or six squeezed between her and a young mother, then two toddlers in the front. In Xiahe, Gannan (the Tibetan area of southern Gansu) I once saw nine people in a taxi, but six squeezed onto a single motorscooter must beat that out in terms of raw nerve and skill. How do you even get four small children to mount and balance on a motorscooter, much less drive without any of them falling off? Talent.

After every meal or snack of fruit we throw our scraps to the chickens in Pierre’s back yard, gluttonous beasts. They cock their heads and eye us with shifty, golden eyes whenever we munch on watermelon, their favorite snack. As soon as we toss them the watermelon rinds they pounce on them like tigers, ripping off the white and green flesh until it’s stripped to its hard hide. Then they shoot us accusing looks and congregate around our feet, pecking at our darting toes, squawking for more. Sometimes they try to sneak off the back stoop into the dining room while we’re eating dinner, just so they can grab food scraps. Silly thing is, they’re being raised for us to eat.

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