Sunday, September 22, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Jack Zhou, the Time Traveler

Vol. II, No. 9

"Why don't you leave your baby with the villagers?" Jack Zhou asked, and I did a double-take.
Baby and I buying a crown of flowers in Yangshuo, China

"Leave her behind?" I repeated back to him, just to make sure I'd heard right. "On her own? At nine months?"

"Yes, why not?" Jack responded, doing a double-take of his own.

My husband and the baby and I had traveled from idyllic Yangshuo to Guilin, a "tiny Chinese city," in Jack's description, of "just" five million people.

To get from Yangshuo, we'd first caught a "tuk-tuk," which is a giant tricycle with a backseat and a noisy motor. It's named for the sound it makes as the engine potters slowly along the roads: "Tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk." On the way, the baby had met a brown cow she couldn't get enough of. She chattered and chattered away, as if she'd reunited with an old friend. To kill time, I bought a crown of fresh flowers from an old woman, and wore it all the way to Guilin.

The start of the climb: Longji Rice Terraces
But Guilin itself was only a stopping point. Our true destination was the past. And Jack Zhou would be the man to take us there. We'd discovered him on Trip Advisor; he's one of the highest-rated guides in the region. And it was only by luck that he'd been available at all. (As a matter of fact, while it was our good luck, it was someone else's bad luck; his other clients had had their passports stolen and thus couldn't travel.)

It's worth mentioning at this point that about half of Guilin's residents (of which Jack is one) are involved in the tourism trade. In other words, it's a crowded industry. Anyone with good business sense would know that it would be a waste of time to become 'just another tour guide,' especially if you already had a good job. 
Cliffside "bamboo rice"

Which was Jack Zhou's situation.

Back at university, Jack had studied Civil Engineering, but he hadn't been particularly interested in it. Quietly, on his own, before classes, Jack began to fervently study English. Every morning, seven days a week, from 6:00 to 8:00, Jack taught himself English. Then he spent the rest of his day at engineering classes. For three years he did this, explaining to me that, "Interest is the best teacher." Jack's interest, his passion, was communication: communication through culture, communication through travel. But, he added, "Passion surpassed even risk."

And the risk was that his parents would say no. Which they did, and for a time he ended up in that Civil Engineering career that he didn't want to be in. But one day, Jack took a leap, quit his job, and started his own tour guiding business. By this point, he'd married and had a child of his own, so the stakes were high now: he had a family to provide for.
Mrs Pan leaves me in the dust, with a much heavier pack!

And then Jack did something unusual, at least it seemed that way to me. Jack immersed himself in history. For him, doing so was just a matter of being interested. "Interest is, after all, the best teacher," he repeated once again. Knowing everything about a place, from soup to nuts, was his way of passionately communicating culture and travel.

Jack and I were in the car, driving up an endlessly winding road. My ears were popping and the atmosphere was raining mist. The higher we climbed, the cooler it got. Here and there, the road was washed out; occasionally we hit a traffic jam of chickens and roosters. At what seemed like the top, we parked the car in a lot and headed up again, this time on foot. To the Longji Rice Terraces. And as we climbed, Jack transported me from the present tense to the past.

Old Mr Chin and I talk about New York 
According to Jack, the Longji Rice Terraces were created out of necessity. Centuries ago, the Mongol Hordes were running the show in the region. As the Mongols moved in and took the choicest farmland, the local farmers were forced to move out. Farther and farther the locals moved until they had no place else to go but up, up into the hills. Of course, a hillside is not a very good place for a crop of rice to flourish, but the farmers didn't really have a choice. It was do or die, so they did, carving rice terraces into the steep hillsides. Centuries later, they're still doing what they did all those years ago, and Jack was busying himself introducing me to Longji's present-day past.

Halfway up the steady climb to the terraces, Jack stopped to buy a snack of bamboo rice. As we stood
At the top. One of Jack's passions is photography.
looking over the cliff, an old man made quick work of hollowing out a section of bamboo with a saw, and then stuffing it with rice and pork. He flopped it onto the grill and a few moments later Jack showed me how to eat it, by using a pair of chopsticks to scoop out the sticky, smoky insides. I didn't even need to ask if this was how it'd been done for many, many years.

Up and up we climbed, more and more slowly. A snake slithered across my path as a wizened old woman skipped past me. She was carrying a heavy sack of something, and she was at least a generation older than me. I stopped her; I had to know.

"How old is she?" I asked her.

Sneaking off the beaten path. Longji. 
"My name is Mrs Pan," she said. "And I am sixty-one." With that, she grinned, and heaved the pack a little higher onto her back, racing up the hillside, leaving me in the dust. I resolved to climb a little faster, but I didn't stick to my guns. The weather was cool, but the air steamed with exertion.

Finally, Jack and I reached the top. There, an old man wearing a USS naval cap called out to me, reaching for my hand. "My brother lives in New York!" he declared. "And he is a very rich man indeed," Jack translated. The old man's name was Mr Chin and he was shouting—Jack explained that he was deaf—and he had a warm smile and an infectious laugh. "Tell my brother I said hello!" Mr Chin yelled, just a few inches from my ear. I promised Mr Chin I would, if I ever met his brother.

"Would you," Jack then began, pausing as if unsure of my response, "like to go off the beaten path a little?"
Motorized tills, like this one, and cows plough the rice terraces

Did I? Did I ever!

Sneaking a glance left and right, Jack led me down a path used only by the farmers. The path took us directly to the rice paddies. Bright electric-orange and velvety violet dragonflies buzzed beside us as we picked our way carefully through the terraced farmland. We passed faucet-thin waterfalls and, eventually, a man selling bags of brittle honeycomb to the few passersby. Under the shade of the trees, it smelled of cedar. Jack and I stopped to rest, snacking on the leftover bamboo rice and sweet honeycomb, and there he told me all about rice varietals.

Jack, at rear, watches as a young villager shows off his new boots.
Admittedly, rice varietals don't much interest me. But with Jack, that was just it: he infused everything he said—from the history of a storied old place to types of rice grains—with such an omniscient passion that it wasn't difficult to find myself asking for more, even about those varietals.

But it was time to go. The sun was just beginning to set over the terraced hilltops, and we both had babies to return to. On the long drive back to Guilin, Jack fell fast asleep as I watched China roll past my window. Although I hadn't taken Jack's suggestion to leave the baby with Longji villagers, I had promised her we'd return one day when she's older. And hopefully it will be with Jack, guiding us.

(You can find Jack Zhou at Jack is the recipient of Trip Advisor's 2013 Certificate of Excellence.)

Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia," the true story of a Wall Street woman chucking in her career to become anchor of the Mongolian news—available now for pre-order on Amazon. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how artists and celebrities have overcome huge obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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