We walk around the whole factory and I am surprised I can take photographs so freely. After all they anticipated a business man from the U.S. to come and talk and look at bamboo. Now there is a bearded skier talking about ski poles and his funny friend taking pictures of their workers and the factory. My guess is that in the States people would be skeptical about our intentions or at least wondering. Surely ‘documenting’ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to them either but it doesn’t matter. I am continuing to photograph old women in corners behind gigantic bundles of bamboo who seem to be hiding or hidden with a bright fluorescent lamp and layers upon layers of clothes, their breath steaming, sanding down poles to make them look more uniform. I sneak in right next to them and take a portrait. They look at me confused but mind their own business, maybe afraid of punishment if they get too interested or maybe just way more relaxed than we are in our ‘developed’ world, scared and scarred by getting our picture taken like this. Maybe they didn’t even know what I was doing, who knows. No words exchanged, just a moment captured on celluloid, that’s it.
Another small glass of hot water and green tea leaves floating loosely and then in my mouth and between my teeth. Bryon is cold and hasn’t been moving like I have. His bag with shoes and a jacket have not made it and efforts of receiving it over the past day have been fruitless. I’ve been running around so I am warm. Sitting in the office with all doors open and the cold I would also be unhappy quickly. They talk about Moso bamboo for coozies. No Coke or beer can to know exact inside diameter but there is internet access so they look it up.
I decide to go hike up that path behind the building. Muddy right off the start and a fork. I go left and it’s steep and slippery but my hiking boots give me okay traction. Clay like yellow brown mud and then a large pile of shit of the same color. I try to avoid slipping and landing in it. It gets really steep and I have a hard time getting up the hill because it is so slippery. I slide a few times and almost loose it once but make it up the hill and look over the valley below me. Heavy cloud cover, moisture everywhere and a fog. The mountains across the valley are hard to make out and there is very little motion happening below me. Just smoke coming out of a couple chimneys and an occasional car driving somewhere. Looking down I have a bamboo forest to my left which I penetrate. Easier to walk here but very deceiving. Some patches of leaves are laying loosely on very wet mud and in a steep little section I almost loose it bad. A couple of broken bamboo sticks shooting from the ground and I have visions of landing on one of them and it jabbing through my torso and that’s it. Harpooned myself in a bamboo forest in China. What a disaster. But I catch myself and slip down a few feet, like on ice. I grab a hold of a bamboo tree and the shaking detaches a whole bunch of water from its leaves up high and I get a shower, camera wet and all. I decide to not hold on to it but hit a bamboo on my way down the hill and dart away only to get showered even worse for the crown much bigger and it hits other crown and all this water comes to school me not to fuck with nature. Mild warning. I take a photograph of a shrine of some sort but there is something not incredibly inspiring about it.
Make it back to the factory and they are still talking shop. I sit and eat some chocolate. Tastes damn good.
Noon is approaching and we have to be back at the hotel in an hour for Raymond to pick us up and drive us back to Shanghai which is three hours away. Tony wants to go to lunch so we are pressing on time a bit. Get into two cars and end up in some back lot. The car pulls close to a covered shack and there is a goose or something all de-feathered and dried out hanging head down from the ceiling. It looks pale gray-blue like it’s been there too long. We walk into a room and pick some food. There are a bunch of vegetables and some chicken, all in buckets. Then another bucket under the table that is pretty much full of blood and parts of something. Tony is trying to make us choose but eventually understands that he will not succeed in that quest so he just orders. Another empty room, except for a round table, where we get tea and beer. Heater is turned up but the door opens frequently, letting warm air escape like it doesn’t want to be with us or it’s trying to become cold air. There is a chicken foot boiling in the pot. Vegetables, bamboo shoots, fish. Many options, good food, just don’t think about its origin. Little white fish balls taste so fishy that I want to spit it out but I just swallow and wash it down with some beer. Not a fan of those. Especially with the rivers full of trash in my head.
Time’s up. Twenty minutes to one and we gotta go. A fast break and the driver is taking us back. Seems like he has no idea where to go and he under-revs the engine horribly again to the degree where I want to tell him. He’s stalling and then pulls over to ask someone for direction. Nothing worse than being at the mercy of someone without a backbone. We call Raymond and let him know that we’ll be a bit late. We get there and Driver sees us coming out of the car. I walk into the hotel to take a piss and Raymond is in the bathroom. Walking out he asks what we did and I have no idea if it’s cool to tell him that we checked out another factory. I tell him I took pictures which is the truth I guess but it doesn’t feel right. I get in the car while Bryon is taking a piss and hear Driver telling Raymond that we got dropped off so he asks who that was and I tell him that we looked at some Moso. Little awkward but who cares. He can’t expect that we fly to China and only look at his place.
Landscape zooming by, houses, construction, factories and industrial sites pushing steam and smoke into the atmosphere. The road to Shanghai is smooth and way smoother than we expected Chinese roads to be. They don’t have a GPS and Shanghai is a city of twenty million people. I guess they know where to go. I gave them the address to Dale’s. Traffic is really bad and we are stuck, surrounded by rows of houses stacking up towards the sky in every direction. Density is the word that comes to mind, both visually and emotionally. Creeping between glass, steel and concrete along the asphalted path so far from mother nature, it feels foreign.
We are close but lost so Driver pulls over to ask. Dale’s English directions differ from the Chinese ones and eventually I call to figure it out. Irene answers and guides us in. We shake hands and Driver and Raymond drive away home for about another three hours, depending on how bad the traffic will be towards the countryside. Quite the investment they did and it won’t pay off for them. Business, it’s a motherfucker, I guess.
We leave all of our bags with Irene and the nanny and walk to Starbucks across the field of Westerner girls playing soccer, kicking the ball in the rain and running with no sign of China, misplaced and unaware. Like an island in a big pond with no relation to the waters. It oddly feels like being in a U.S. city. This culture seems to be taking over the world with little satellite countries like colonies, spreading the message of capitalism and democracy in the face, bam! The locals are not able to leave and get swallowed by the mass. Then again, the islands are like little prisons. Who is truly at freedom and peace of mind? Does Starbucks make us feel good? What’s the real price of a three dollar cup of coffee? Grandmas in the countryside walking miles and miles each day, carrying food, engaging with their environment whereas in the U.S. they sit on a couch in front of a TV, drive their electric scooter to a supermarket with processed shit food and can’t walk or fit on a toilet. Freedom can ultimately be prison when one knows no discipline!
“Boom boom!” Dale’s face is filled with excitement and joy, arms wide open, welcoming. We hug. The girls are obviously excited: big commotion, everyone is on fire, we settle in. We sit at the table for dinner. Beer and Tacos in China! Feels nice to be at home with a family taking care of us and each other. The girls have to practice their instruments and finish their homework. Piano sessions with fingers trembling in excitement from the two familiar foreigners sitting at the table telling stories. Having heard stories about them with lightning coming out of fingers on sand dunes in Death Valley and driving into the middle of nowhere, they can hardly sit still but rules are rules and they are enforced. Guitar surfaces and Bryon plays and sings for a bit. Everybody is glowing: Carla is having a Bloody Mary and we drink beer with a glass never left empty. A map of the world over our heads on a board with colored pins all over it. Each color indicating one or a combination of the family members having visited the location. Good idea! Clusters in the U.S., Middle East, Europe and Asia. No Africa, little South America. We ponder for a while but girls have to go to bed and it’s a struggle.
“Boom boom!” We are on. A bean bag and a couch in the living room, sweetness in the air of explosive emotion, memories, new connections, stories, love and togetherness in a foreign place. So foreign and so domestic right here on this couch. And, uh, how much I learn from these two individuals that decided to live a global life. Nomads traveling and living in foreign cultures for extended amounts of time, raising children of the world. The dreamer and the ruler creating a beautiful symbiosis, lost without each other in this complex world but together moving along on a strong path as a unit. Balance! I found you embodied right in front of my face!
The night is long. Dale can’t stop hugging but stops walking. The family sleeps together to let the visitors sleep in comfort. I crawl into a kids bed, lay on my back, look up and suddenly I am eight years old looking at the stars glowing down on me with my legs bent to fit in the frame, toys and a paper eagle flying static and frozen by the far wall and those stars up there!
A relaxed morning with coffee, laying down on the bean bag. We get to Shanghai just before noon and our cab drops us off in an area with Artisan shops and little alleys to walk through. We don’t sync with the vibe and stroll through the walkways feeling surrounded by tourist traps. Not inspired, wandering, lost in commotion, down dark little paths with trinkets and merchandise glooming over us from every direction. Up above some meat is hanging off a balcony to dry but looks like it was placed there and forgotten about. We get out.
Now stark contrast - fashion labels and capitalism in full force in our faces. We take another cab to find a dumpling house and eventually end up on the second floor of a mall and order some food. Took three times to commit since the place looks like a mall restaurant but it’s the real deal. Dumplings are incredible and we sit on table with a local middle-aged couple. His eyes are moving around the room disconnected from each other and lost, seemingly unable to make sense but his grunts tell me otherwise while he slurps with hostile energy. She is laughing at the foreigners making a mess with dumplings exploding on first bite and spraying juices over the table and onto buckets of chop sticks and spices and the surface near him with his eyes freaking me out, left and right in opposite directions, full of grunts. She is making gestures on how to eat and he grunts in disapproval. We get more dumplings.
Overwhelmed by commerce and a hectic environment we take the elevator of a skyscraper to the highest level to see if we can get a view and maybe take a walk on the skywalk that we saw from the street down below. This level is shut down but a different elevator goes higher, for another six floors so we try. Bryon looks like a mountain man with a beard, piercing eyes, beanie and a big jacket. I am wearing a backpack and also a beanie so we look like we are scouting a spot to base-jump off the building but nobody cares and everybody is nice. We just pretend we know what we are doing and end up on the very top floor at the Carlyle Group’s offices. There is a nice Chinese girl at the reception who tells us there is no skywalk access or viewpoint but I see a meeting room with large windows and ask if we can just take a photo from there. Surprisingly she agrees and seconds later we get our view, take photographs, standing in one of the meeting rooms of the Carlyle Group on top of a tall financial building in Shanghai with our facial hair and backpacks and dirty clothes and nobody cares.
We get out of the cab again and immediately I see a guy pick us out and start following us. We are now in a locals area with cheap knockoffs. Hustlers everywhere, scents of food, dirt and exhaust fumes, honking and revving of engines, chatter from thousands of people. The guy follows us for a while but looses interest when we get approached by another. Bombarded from all directions, they pick up on our style of clothes and throw brand names at us. Bryon is trying to make conversation while I just give a forceful “No!” We make it into a gigantic multi-story mall and two girls pick us up upon entering trying to guide us to shops. One of them is incredible annoying and won’t leave our side: rides the escalator like she was a part of our little group, trying to make conversation but it’s all targeted to get a sale, not genuine, forced and she won’t leave us alone and keeps repeating same words over and over again and doesn’t accept a “no”. We are trying to find access to the roof to get a view and eventually I see an open stairway door. She is all perplexed and tells us to stay out but I peek and see a door couple flights up with light coming through and I know that this is what we are looking for. She is standing in the doorway and we are a little afraid she might call security on us but after some back and forth, in and out of stairway we loose her and go all the way up and find that the door is locked.
It’s raining outside a little as we walk through hectic streets. We pause by the river and it feels a little like Paris with bridges, water and the city. Soon after, someone walks up and throws a large black trash bag over the wall into the river. Nice. It floats away slowly. In the brew of bacteria, plastic, poison and junk, all molded together, brown and thick as if you could cut it with a knife. Away you go water of death, float on to another place, then to the ocean and everybody gets rid of their shit because it’s convenient. Only you don’t understand the impact, the death you are bringing to the world.
The Ritz-Carlton on our left - a symbol for a better neighborhood I guess. We pass the entrance and come to a stop light at a large intersection. I can see the skyline and people streaming towards what seems to be a look-out point. Tourists and guides, mostly Westeners who look so out of place but part of this reality. Everybody is going up the stairs so we follow along. There is lots of water and then Shanghai behind it with its large buildings and one looking like something I have seen in construction sites before. Three pipes continuously connected, leading up to a big ball and then moving on. People are taking pictures, walking, chatting and pointing at things. We are a little turned off as it feels like this is what the guides show you. We just saw the trash being dumped into the river!
As we walk alongside the river we get to a bridge and then walk by the Russian embassy. A little further and we are done with walking and done with the big city. We get a cab and ride home to Dale’s. We decide to get a bottle of wine as a thank you, though, at the supermarket.
We stumble into an insane shopping centre: merchandise of all sorts is punching us into the face. Unbelievable. So much stuff. Just rows and rows of goods and people running around shopping and we can’t find the wine but eventually do. Now which one to get - such a distraction and an awful quest. If only it wasn’t for making someone happy by showing our gratitude. It’s raining and cold outside so we are happy when we get back to the apartment and get some dinner. Then we get shoved into a cab before we even know what’s going on. Big hugs and goodbyes to Dale, Carla, Irene and Abi and we are off to the airport.
Firstly we have to find Bryon’s bag which was lost on the plane over and which we have been tracking for the past few days. After some back and forth we are presented with the ski pole bag and feel happy because we don’t have a whole lot of time to get on the plane to Guangzhou.
We get to Guangzhou and try to get a cab but instead we find these crazy guys trying to get us to get into their car. Seems weird but one has us caught and we have all the bags in his car when we see another person in the car and we don’t want that. Big argument. “No, no, only us!” We take our bags out of the car and the guy won’t leave us alone, harassing us for another ten minutes, trying to get us back into the car but seems sketchy and we are done with him and all the guys trying to lure us into their personal cars. I remember a story from Saudi Arabia where people would get dropped off in labor camps in the desert after getting into a random cab at the airport. We finally find a cab shooting down the road towards the crowd of people all trying to get a ride. It’s a mad house. We get in and feel all good, ready to leave this chaos. What a relief. The driver starts going, we show him the name of the hotel on our phones and he nods. Less then fifteen seconds later we get stopped by the cops right where it seems all the cabs have to get in line to pick up passengers. They make us get out and the cabbie goes on and we realize that there is a queue and everybody is waiting for a cab. We are at the end of the line and there is a cab maybe every two to three minutes with probably sixty plus people ahead of us. It’s one a clock in the morning we are tired and stuck. More youngsters are trying to lure people into private rides and some climb over the railing onto the street with parked cars. We stand in line for a good hour and a half until we finally get our ride. The guy seems to understand where we need to go and very slowly he creeps down the freeway towards the town. Painfully slow, Bryon get’s real annoyed.
We get to the hotel but it’s the wrong one as he misunderstood where we needed to go. Fuck!!! Now he drives aimlessly around town until he pulls into another hotels’ driveway to ask the concierge for directions. Another ten minutes down the road and we are at our destination. Looks like he is dropping us off at a back entrance. We get our room and as we approach the elevator it spits out one college kid after another. There must have been thirteen kids in that elevator: one girl barely able to walk, all hammered drunk, still drinking having a good time and if we weren’t so tired and so foreign it would probably be fun to join them and party a little in Guangzhou, China.
The room is fine and I fall asleep immediately. The next morning brings breakfast in a funky little restaurant type of deal - more heavy food and bad coffee. We check out and wait a while for our pick-up. When he finally arrives I am surprised how young of a guy it is. Funny guy too. We get in the car and speed off towards their laser engraving factory where Bryon wants to check out some machines and see if he can buy one. We zoom past endless buildings, concrete, stories of balconies with an empty tank and the light flaring orange on the dashboard but we keep going in traffic and out of it until we reach the factory in some odd back alley with water and dirt and trash on the streets.
The entrance looks somewhat like a garage and across the street some people are lowering a large metal frame for a table or something of that caliber down from the fourth story. It’s dangling on three ropes: two from the top and one from the bottom with a guy at its end pulling the frame away from the building. We sit and drink green tea. Strong green tea. A little can is full of leaves with hot water poured over them and the tea poured almost immediately. These guys are pretty goofy and they get very excited when I pull out my Hasselblad to take some frames. I get shown things they have engraved in the past and I can feel the conversation shifting to me and away from Bryon. I am not particularly thrilled since that means that neither one of us gets to do what we came here to do but I can sense that Bryon is not into the overall situation at this facility so I go along for a couple of minutes. Eventually they want to do a test run to show what their machine can do so I wander off a little bit after taking some photographs and try to see what’s outside and around. I start taking portraits of all the employees and our two new friends. Bryon’s face is telling me that he is not liking what he sees.
The manager guy pulls me aside and wants to chat. When I tell him about Shanghai he guides me to his computer and starts a slideshow of photos he took in Shanghai. I sit there in this laboratory type office on a computer looking at snapshots of some guy who I don’t even know. This has got to be the worst case of photo slideshow torture. Bryon joins and I get out of there without being impolite. He tells me that the lasers aren’t up to the standard of what they have been using and that he realized that the moment he took a look at the machines, hence the stern face since we got here. We walk across the street and go into the building that the people lowered the metal frame from earlier to check out the facility of a shoe manufacturer. A bunch of kids supposedly make sneakers in there. When we walk into their production floor it looks like an abandoned, war trashed factory floor. If there are any sneakers coming out of this place I would be incredibly surprised.
We get a cab and skip lunch since time has run out and we need to get back to the airport to meet Charles, another bamboo farmer, to look at the last farm on our journey. The funny laser guys who, now that I think of it, remind me of Manga comics somehow, give us a great goodbye and one of them goes to the airport with us to help find Charles. When we get to the airport he is clueless. “Been at an airport once”, he says, never on an actual airplane. This is a wonderful example of cultural differences. This guy can’t NOT help us, even though he has no idea how. We are probably better off without him but it would be rude for him not to at least try or make an effort. I was in Japan with my dad a couple of years ago and we got to a hotel at the foot of Mt. Fuji late at night, hungry. Asking for food brought on a tour of the place which lasted about twenty minutes. Repeated inquiries for food only led to an extension of the tour. Finally we got it - he couldn’t tell us that there was no food! That would mean loosing face! Completely overwhelmed with the airport and how to navigate it, we eventually take over and find the McDonald’s where Charles will meet us. Not having had lunch we get some burgers and fries. Death on a plate.
Charles is a young, shy and very polite guy. He waits for us to finish our food and then we get into the car outside. His brother is driving and his dad is on board as well, squeezed on an extra seat in the trunk area. Our stuff barely makes it into the full car. Guangzhou zooming by. I’m tired and Charles dad is incredibly smelly. When we get to a rest stop we all take a leak and there are these little pictures with sayings pinned above the urinals. On top the Chinese version and below a completely butchered English version which, in most cases, makes no sense, in some I can remotely understand why this would be funny. I take Iphone photos of all of them and call the series “(Almost) Lost in translation”.