Travelogue: Hainan, end of 2003 - part 1

* Journey to the promised island

Early chilly morning in north east italy, slept very little, not a good way to start a tiring trip. By train and bus I reach the airport in Milan, where I already can meet interesting people: here's a Japanese that lives in Paris to study the Laotian language and is now flying back home for some vacations.

I learn a new and very useful Japanese sentence:
'ikiru ka shinu ka, sore ga mondai da'
which is what Hamlet utters in Japanese theatres while holding the skull. I teach back the equivalent 'essere o non essere, questo il problema' and we part ways.

The hop-hop-hop around the world begins, plane goes up, plane goes down. Milan, Dubai, Bangkok, Hongkong, Sanya.. a couple of days of tiring backbreaking flights. Are they really two days? I don't really know anymore, time loses meaning when gliding over the timezones and waiting several hours in airports with the fear of getting asleep and losing the passage to the promised land.

But eventually it's there, below, lights approaching among the night-clad ocean over which we fly. That's Hainan, the southernmost place of China, exactly what I want.

The arrival at Sanya airport is beautiful and manages to make me forgive the tiredness. Warm and humid tropical nights, small airport, palm trees... and a beautiful moon so tilted it's horizontal; the huge smile of the cheshire cat, shining between a veil of clouds.

This time I don't panick while exiting the airport, like I almost did last time in Shanghai : I can now speak and understand chinese just enough to face the chinese speaking world without fear. I exit with a smile, I even accept the inflated taxi prices with a smile, although I politely refuse the taxi driver's invitation of finding me a woman for the night. The night ride coasts the sea on one side and an endless gloomy row of skeleton buildings: new hotels that are being built, maybe also old hotels which never got completed..

The hotel I've booked turns out to be immense, the same evening and in the following days I lose myself in it two or three times, in the challenging journey from my room to the reception. It's not towering, but it spreads in width, with many many small buildings and swirling paths.. a kind of village.

Somehow, rather than collapsing on the bed, I decide to go out of the hotel, which is a bit in the middle of nowhere, a part from other hotels or those skeleton buildings. It might be the timezone change, but probably it's just my stomach, the hunger, pushing me on; or maybe the curiosity. I don't have to walk much, I soon find some people, sitting by the road, drinking, chatting, cooking. I eat some roasted fishballs on a stick and a roasted corncob. They both taste delicious and they help me face the upcoming dialogues and endless questions from the locals. These are authentic hainanese people, it would be difficult to understand them even if I could speak a good chinese, and I certainly cannot.
Anyway I pass the test, I exchange cigarettes, I refuse to get drunk with them, I thank and reassure a clerk from the hotel who came to inform me it was dangerous and I should better leave, I learn my first words in the hainanese language and then go back to the apparent safety of the city-like hotel.

Still not ready to go to sleep, I wander by the nearby beach, which includes a guarding soldier. I start chatting with a hotel clerk; since the hotel seemed quite deserted to me, I asked him how many guests were there at the moment. He nonchalantly said "around seven hundred"... I always forget that in China everything is an order of magnitude higher! He also informed me of the presence of other 155 hotels in or just next to the little city of Sanya...

* Getting busy

The next day I had the prioritary task of finding a new hotel where to move to. Something closer to the city centre, something of a size and price more suitable to travelling-Jos.
Today I have good help, in the form of a friend of a friend of the sister of my friend. I love these connection-chains!
She can speak english and she leads me around for a while, introducing me to a very nice dumpling restaurant (jiaoziwang, "the king of dumplings"!) and helps me bargaining prices at hotel counters. It's amazing how 10 minutes can be sufficient to drop from a first price of 600 to 170 yuan per night in these fourstar hotels, if you know how to communicate with them. She knows, and I am learning.
I am not eager to accept these offers, since I want to test how I can fare at this task. She goes back to work and I go back to hotels: I would like to be closer to the beach although I've been warned how expensive it might be.

I try the old trick (which is still valid and sincere) of asking reduced price because I am just a poor student, and manage to replicate the scenes of price collapse I recently experienced. Still not ready to accept though. So I reach the beach, get my feet into the water. The sea is greyish/brownish.. not the charming blue I was looking forward to. But it's just the weather, a bit of rain fell during these days and it's quite windy; I am positive it will turn blue when the sun will come back, in the next days.

On the beach I chat up with three young people from Chengdu which happen to know a cheap hotel run by a person who is also from Chengdu. They are very gentle, friendly and hospitable: the characteristics I learned to expect from Chinese people last time I visited this country (and first found in the Chinese living in England).
In fact, I am not disappointed in this expectation, almost everybody I meet is happy to offer me a hand or a word of advice.

The place they bring me to is exactly what I wanted. A cheap but very clean hotel, just next to very expensive hotels and still close to the beach.
And the girls running it are so nice and friendly that it would be silly to continue searching. I book for the next day and move to the city centre for priority number two: becoming reachable.

I check almost ten shops, always asking "what's the price of your cheapest mobile phone?" (I learned the word "mobile phone" in a house-appliances shop, after mimicking the object and the action of phoning). I eventually found what is probably the cheapest possible option - an old and used mobile phone. Which is perfect for me since anyway I hate these things and I will need it just for this month.

I hope that being easily reachable will make my parents a little happier.. they are quite unhappy as they know I am here to decide about a possible life in this far away place.

With the chinese number I can now contact and be contacted by the universities I want to visit. It should also help me dating girls: now I know what to say if they'll ask me "zen me zhao ni" ('how can I find you?').

Since I am busy with all these prices, hotels, bargaining, checking (I also go and ask timetables for the buses to the other parts of the island).. I had little time to enjoy the city. But the first impression was really good. There are two parallel rivers crossing the city which is then bathed on three sides by the water (on the west by the sea, on the east by one of the rivers and in the center by the other river). Chinese people like places where "you shan you shui" (there is both mountain and water). Sanya definitely meets this aesthetic, it has rivers, sea and beautiful green hills. And it is small enough for me, a city I can visit on foot in a couple of days.

Dinner is with the friend of the friend.... in an open air eating place; we eat a rice-soup with a bird they killed on the spot before I could say "no no no I don't want" when I understood what was happening. I am told that because of the local climate, meat cannot be kept for long and that's the reason why in many places there are these cages with the animals which you can choose and then directly eat. It makes sense and it certainly has the advantage of eating fresh food... but it creates this kind of hypocrital splitting emotion in me: I see the animals, I feel empathy, I pity them but when it's served on the table I feast from it.
Like when I was in Singapore, one day crying over the poor crabs locked in the cage and the next evening with tears of extasy at how delicious they tasted. It makes you feel very weak and false.

* Still something to solve but almost there
Third day I change hotels, leaving the city of hotels (or even "the city of the city-like hotels") and moving to the normal city. I get one more taste of my beloved "wujibifan" ('something extreme becomes its opposite'): the huge hotel is looking for a foreigner to teach english to the staff and I got a proposal. But I made the mistake of giving them my resume, and the general manager decided I am overqualified...

I am now nicely settled in the new place. And I also manage to fix a meeting at a nearby university, although with great difficulty: phoning in chinese is probably the hardest task for me. I can hence now go to the sea and start relaxing... but when I reach it, it still looks very gray and unwelcoming.. A winter sea in a place where I want to come to escape all winters.

But I walk on the beach, from one side to the other of this beautiful bay, nicely enclosed in palm covered hills. The sand is smooth and without any stone, splendid sensation walking by the sea, with the waves flowing to caress my feet. And very very clean beach, without any rubbish and only a few cigarette butts once in a while.
At some point I spot something coming out of the sand, and I recognize it: it's a piece of white coral. I walk more and see more of the same, and the more I walk the more I encounter until I reach a place which is completely covered by these coral shards.

So long to grow and so quick to be broken, by a sudden anger of the big sea. The sea, the great life giver and also the great destroyer. Beautiful and terrible, always. And in line with these thoughts here's what comes to my eyes: the angle of the bay in which all these little coral broken branches are gathered and unceasingly rolled back and forth by the gentle shore waves. They appear to me like an endless expanse of shattered bones and that's the sound I hear, this clinking tak-tik-tik-tik-tak of the white remains.

Reaching the end of the bay I sit for long time and gaze at the sea, and at the cloudy sky. There is a lonely fisherman walking in the middle of the bay (which hence turns out to be very shallow indeed), gathering some fishtrap-nets. A single breach opens in the cloud blanket and a powerful column of sun filters through, stark shining contrast amidst the melanchonic landscape.

In the evening I climb one of the scenic spots of Sanya. It's a park over a hill overlooking both the sea on one side and the city on the other. I climb it to watch the "yejin" (night landscape) together with a beautiful girl from the hotel who agreed to lead me there. It's really nice talking with her although she refers a bit too many times to her wedding. In fact, this is (I learned it too late, when already there) a place for lovers, where couples go to celebrate their wedding or to promise each other eternal love. Ach! I am constantly reminded of this, since the place is literally full of metal locks attached by couples to chains to symbolise the conjugal union, bells with red ribbons, poems and carved ideograms hymning to the eternal bond and harmony between sea (woman) and mountain (man).... And on the top, the big statue of "luhuitou" ("deer turning head") related to the local legend of the hunter who was about to kill a deer but when the deer turned to look at him it was spared, and soon turned into a beautiful woman and they fell in love and lived happily afterwards. Too romantic a place to visit with a married girl. But a beautiful place, very peaceful by night without the many visitors that surely crowd it during daytime.

I then go wandering around the city centre, trying to look for some night life and almost getting myself into a fight with the boyfriend of a nice girl who came chatting with me. After all the friendly people I am meeting, I am about to start a list of enemies, I better pay a lot of attention.

* Peace upon me

The new day began with my eyes opening wide at 8:00 after very few hours of sleep. What's happening to me? Was this the result of timezone change or the desire for activity? The good thing is I was not bitter about it. I looked out of the window and there was the sun, and the nearby sea waiting for me.

I also managed to make some coffee with my trusted coffee machine (which is travelling the world and getting experiences, just like me), asking to use the kitchen of the hotel in which I stay. Ah... first satisfaction of the day, good italian coffee, a little taste of home.

The second satisfaction came shortly after as I plunged into a sea which eventually turned blue. Beautiful waves, splendid sun, tiny coloured fishes curious about me and swimming next to me, fearless, following me. I felt reborn, completely freshly remade. The tension of the hard studying period before... the tiredness of the long trip... the dizzyness of dealing with a foreign country... all was dissipated by the embrace of the water, by the feeling of the wind, by the smiles of the children playing with the sand.

I could eventually feel what I came here to feel. Lose myself, stop the clock, set the world in pause mode, relieve all troubles, start afresh.

So I didn't take any cab, with whom I always need to bargain the price (since I am a foreigner), I ate good jiaozi, I relaxed and enjoyed the city, wandering around, looking into shops. In this way I stumbled into a place where I noticed a room with a big weiqi board on a blackboard and an array of chairs which spoke about weiqi classes. I enquired and found that yes, I can get weiqi lessons there. That's really good news, and a serendipitous discovery.

Joseph A.L. Insana

Last modified: Tue Dec 16 14:09:09 CET 2003 First appearance: Tue Dec 16 14:01:45 CET 2003