Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Fortune-Telling Monks & The Turtle

Vol. II, No. 8

One of the rooms in Guanxi's largest Buddhist temple
"Come closer," the man said to me. He was young, thirty or so, and he was wearing a headset while he stroked a giant turtle. Xiao Yu, my guide, and I were at the largest Buddhist temple in Guanxi province in China. Up a narrow stone corridor, inside the temple's great reception hall, sat monks who were waiting for you to show up. The monks were dressed in robes of varying shades of brown and some were balding; they could have been Franciscan. Seated in grand chairs around the perimeter of the hall's polished wooden floors, they waited for you—to tell your fortune. And they didn't bother with the ever-so-pedestrian fortunes of this lifetime; no, they told fortunes for your next lifetime, after you die and reincarnate.

Of course, I very much wanted to participate, but I speak way too little Mandarin to even get a glimpse into my future's future. And besides, I got the sense my guide Xiao Yu was very reluctant to approach the monks. Besides, we had that turtle to pet.
The turtle minder instructs me to stroke the turtle's head

"Even closer," the man with the turtle now said, and I obeyed. Out of the corner of the turtle's eye, he watched me approach, warily I might add. The man began to speak loudly into his miked headset,  rattling off a lot of words in an auctioneer's monotone that I couldn't begin to understand.

"For good fortune and long life," the man finally said, urging me to stroke the turtle's head and back, and again I obliged. For my little girl and my husband and myself, I bought from the man three bracelets made of fat green wooden beads and intricately carved with fat happy Buddhas.

Buying engraved beads from the turtle man
Xiao Yu and I left the temple and made for Moon Hill, the karst limestone peak I'd been looking forward to climbing. While Xiao Yu waited for me at the base, I began my ascent. For the first time in a very long time, I was alone. Alone in a foreign country, a thrilling feeling. It was noisy. Nature-noisy. Picking and scrambling through the scree, I made my way ever higher, and finally came to a landing. A bevy of tourists was there, sweating profusely and commenting on the climb. "Not long to go!" one of them shouted after me, as I made my way up. He was right; the distance wasn't far, but the height sure made it feel as if it were.

Climbing Moon Hill
And then, finally, the peak. It was sunny and hot and muggy, and rivulets of perspiration ran from every pore. I took a moment to empty the contents of both my water bottles into my mouth, and then proceeded to take photos. Not long after, I had two 朋友, two "friends," and we were taking turns snapping photos for each other. One thing led to another, as it always does on an adventure, and the three of us decided to hike up even higher, past a boarded sign warning you to go no farther, up a rocky outcrop, to the very tippity-top of Moon Hill. It wasn't exactly dangerous, but you sure didn't want to slip.

"Can you make it?" one of my two new friends said. He was Chinese, from a nearby province, and here with his wife, on a vacation. "You are too big for this trail I think," he said with honesty, but not unkindness.

"I can make it," I said.

Reaching the peak's peak

"But do you have insurance?" he asked, and this time I regarded him quizzically. It's not the kind of thing you want to hear as a foreign woman hiking in an isolated place. Turns out, the man was an insurance salesman, not a first-degree murderer. And up we climbed. Just when we all began to think we'd made a mistake in taking the path less traveled, we reached the peak of the peaks.

Warning at the base to not do what we'd done

Spread out below us was Yangshuo. In fact, spread out below us was China. At our feet, and standing at erect attention, stood thousands of bushy karst limestone skyscraper-mountains. At their bases, hundreds of Monopoly-sized houses and teeny-tiny villages and towns. But there was no time for lingering. Overhead, the sun blazed, it was getting late, and we'd have to make quick work of descending. At the bottom, the insurance salesman and his wife and I bid each other goodbye, and then I bid Xiao Yu a hello. She'd been waiting a long time for me, and now we'd head home.

Next up: the baby makes friends with a cow, my husband orders an interesting dish of chicken beak, and I'll give you the best travel tip for adventuring with a baby that you'll ever get. 

- Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia," the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street 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 celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.