Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Some Advice on Backpacking with a Baby

Vol. II, No. 9

Dialogue with Dad, Yangshuo China
"Are you sure you want bones with your chicken?" the waitress asked a second time. My husband and the baby and I were still in Yangshuo, China, delighting in our ability to fall in love with a place and stay a few nights longer than we'd originally planned. For the first time in years, we weren't on anybody's schedule but our own.

"Of course I'm sure we want bones," I responded once again to the waitress, curious why she was challenging our palates. After all, we'd been told the "Braised Farmer Chicken" dish was best experienced in the local Yangshuo style, which was with bones.

Floating down the Yulong; singing Evita

While we waited for our dinner to arrive, my husband and I went over the week's events. We'd timed our ascent up Moon Hill to race each other up the peak. Because the baby had had to stay at home in the hotel, we'd taken turns doing this on different days. Although I lost by a long shot (my hour-and-a-half to his forty-five minutes), I'd won in other ways, just for lingering.

"Original paintings for sale" Yangshuo China

After the climb and descent, my guide Xiao Yu and I slowly cycled past roadside grave sites, where she pointed out the fluttering squares of red paper, left over from April's tomb-sweeping festival. Past a fruit field and farmers in straw hats tending to their rice crops, she introduced me to the tiny village of "Pig Hat." Of course, I'd done a double-take when she translated the village's name. 'Really?' I'd asked. 'Pig Hat?' And, yes, really the name of the village was just that.

In Pig Hat, toes of garlic hung from the ceilings of houses made from bricks of reddish-brown clay. There were twenty houses in the town, and more chickens than people. Frogs ribbitted from every nook and cranny and an old woman sat on a yellowed piece of newspaper, manning two grazing cows. This scene of someone else's home life couldn't have been more different than New York, Ohio, or anywhere else we'd lived.

Roadside tombs, Yangshuo China
On our way back from our respective adventures, we rafted downstream on the Yulong River, separately and this time without the baby. My husband drifted silently, occasionally jumping into the river (even swimming alongside a water snake). I avoided the snakes and instead drifted in song—my river guide began to hum, then sing quietly, finally belting out Chinese opera melodiously and emotionally. After a time, he asked me to respond in kind. So I did, singing what I could remember of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Evita to my audience of one. Not far off, a woman stitched needlepoint—in the middle of river rapids on a bright blue barge made of giant gasoline tanks. On the riverbanks, a couple dressed entirely in white got married.

The Town of "Pig Hat," Yangshuo China
Karst Art Gallery, Yangshuo China

And then with the baby in tow, the three of us had gone cycling. It was her first time, and she loved it, initially at least. We biked through villages, past an adobe-brick art gallery and a painter recreating the scene of the Yulong before him. We passed milkshake shops, cows, and honeypots sold out of an old army tent. We rode into an old stone village, inhabited by, at least it seemed anyway, one very old smiling man and his equally old and gregarious wife. 

All this the baby loved, until she grew tired, and then she cried until we reached home, shouting so loudly that our Chinese neighbors raised their eyebrows and smiled in sympathy. 

My husband and I remarked on all this, trying to decide which path to take next. By this point, we'd been in Yangshuo for about a week, and it was getting to be that time, that time to figure out what was next. Should we head west, to hike? Or should we go down south, to the beaches?

We'd do neither; the truth was we couldn't. Although we'd planned to "backpack" with our nine-month-old, we'd made the incredibly un-sound decision to bring suitcases. As in, heavy luggage that is rather unwieldy when paired with a writhing infant. So, I'll cue in my travel advice, and herein you'll get two-for-one:

1) Do not, under any circumstances, travel heavy when you wanted to travel light. Buy a big backpack, not a big suitcase. Wear it. Put your baby on your front, in a Baby Bjorn, and your pack on your back. You and your spine can send me postcards from the ends of the earth, thanking me for saving you both.

2) Download the app "Baby Monitor" and spend just a moment telling yourself what a bad parent you are, then turn on the app, and go downstairs to dinner while your baby sleeps quietly in your hotel room upstairs (as long as the room is close; the app needs proximity). You'll need an iPhone and an iPad for this arrangement, which sorrrrrrrta takes the fun out of "backpacking" but things change when you have a baby with you, and you might as well roll with just that.

Painter, Yangshuo China

Anyway, back to the chicken dinner!

My husband checked the "Baby Monitor" app to see that our little girl was sleeping soundly. Just as he did so, our chicken dish arrived. Right away, we understood why our waitress had resisted giving us the local version of the dish.

"It looks like," my husband paused, gathering his thoughts, "like the cook put an entire chicken into a meat grinder." Indeed, it did. In the dish were a pair of claws, a few stray feathers, and as I poked through the food with my chopsticks, I found a beak. It took some work to separate the bones from the meat, but once we did we were positively delivered, and then some. The sauce was fresh, rich, and zesty, and the chicken was tender and local.

As we ate, we both agreed: we'd move on. To Guilin. And, like many little decisions, this little decision would have a big impact: In Guilin, we'd get a chance to meet a local man who left behind his sure-thing career in order to pursue a dream that would regularly take him many centuries into the past.

Stay tuned for next week's edition!

- 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 on Amazon.com. She's also 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

Old man, old woman. Yangshuo, China

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