One in a Billion: Cursed
Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, March 3, 2010
At the end of January, right as the semester was coming to a close, two of my colleagues and I -- Ron and Ellen -- decided to make a break for it for a long weekend and conquer the tropical island of Hainan by bicycle. The island made headlines nearly a decade ago when a U.S. Navy spy plane crash-landed there after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. Located in the South China Sea right off the coast of Vietnam, it has become a huge tourist destination for locals as it is one of the only beach destinations to which Chinese can travel without a visa.
Our journey was ill-fated from the very start. We had taken our bikes to the local bike shop in Nanjing where the boys there graciously inspected our equipment, replaced a few worn parts and helped us pack the bikes in travel bags. Just as evening rush hour was starting, we boarded a private mini-bus we hired to take us to the airport. With horn blaring and our loose equipment flying around the bus, we made it to the airport in about 45 minutes as the driver was on a mission never to stay in one lane for more than three seconds, and was equally offended by any use of his, or anyone else's brake pedal.
"OK, everyone got their passports?" I asked Ellen and Ron. "Yup, right here! Let's go," they replied in unison waving their books in the air.
I looked over at Ron's passport and noticed that there was Chinese writing etched in gold on the cover. "That seems odd," I thought to myself. Ron and Ellen are both from Canada so I looked over at her passport cover for comparison. Sure enough it was the same color and size as Ron's but there certainly was no Chinese writing on it. "Hey Ron, that's not your passport, it is your foreign expert book," I said to him, referring to the small passport-sized book that most foreign teachers are given.
"Ha, that is a funny joke! I know you have your passport in your bag," Ellen said to him with a chuckle. But from the blood rushing out of Ron's face I knew that it wasn't a joke. "Oh no! I must have grabbed the wrong book when I left my apartment this afternoon." After much discussion, Ellen and I decided to check in and Ron would try to get back home, grab his passport, and rush back to the airport before we left. Unfortunately it was not to be, as the office buildings were emptying and everyone was getting on the road to get home. There was no way he would make it back to the airport in time. As we got on the plane and switched off our cell phones, Ron texted me to say he was going to see if he could get a later flight but it was not likely. He probably would not be able to make the trip.
Two hours later we landed in Haikou on the north shore of Hainan Island. I switched on my phone. There was a message from Ron. "With much help and a little luck, I am now waiting to board plane. Probably be nearly midnight before I get in so don't wait up." Ellen and I "high-fived" each other and decided as it was only 9 p.m. we would wait in the arrivals hall for him. Luckily there was a little café and a massage place right outside of the baggage claim so Ellen and I settled down for a pint and a $5, hour-long foot massage. All in all, it was a pretty good way to kill a couple of hours.
Ron arrived without incident and the next day we assembled our bikes in our rooms at the little hotel in which we were staying. The front desk was kind enough to let us leave our winter clothes and bike boxes in the lobby behind a giant vase. Our plan was to bike the 200 miles or so over the mountains south to Sanya, stay half a day on the beach and then take the bus back to Haikou for our flight home on Sunday night.
Now Ron and I are much different from Ellen. Between the two of us we stand nearly 13 feet tall, weigh more than 500 pounds and are 84 years old. Ellen on the other hand is the picture of youth and health -- having conquered four Rocky Mountain passes on her solo Calgary-to-Vancouver ride this past summer. I swim and play squash regularly, but I have not even touched my bike since late October. Being out of cycling shape and carrying the extra weight of bicycle bags filled with tools and repair equipment, not to mention food and water, I was in for quite a challenge.
Day One was a great ride -- gentle rolling hills through rice paddies and small farming towns, and lightly overcast skies so we were saved the scorching rays of the sun. We split up the duties of being in the lead and taking the brunt of the wind and rolled into our first town, Tun Chang, at the end of the day. It was here that Ron, who had done this same ride two years ago, was sure that he remembered a really good restaurant and hotel right off the main road.
Ellen and I watched Ron bike to the end of the road looking for the place he had stayed two years ago. I could see him talking to someone at the end of the road and he waved us to come join him. Sure enough, there was a kindergarten at the end of the street, but that was all -- no restaurant, no hotel. In front of the kindergarten was a middle-aged woman who looked like she was picking up her child. Beyond her there were 30 or so students behind the gate of the school enjoying recess. As soon as they saw us the kids all rushed excitedly to the fence shouting, "Lao wai! Lao Wai [foreigner], HAH-LO!" We waved back but the woman at the fence glared at us with an evil look. She started kicking dirt at all three of us, cursing and then spit right at our feet. It was a little bit odd -- I have been in China for nearly nine years and have never experienced anything like that. The kindergarten teacher came to the fence with a big smile and nodded at us that we should pay no attention to this woman. Regardless -- we didn't want to cause anyone any grief -- so we saddled up and biked down the street.
I think she cursed us though.
On the second day we started getting into the mountains. I conquered my first long hill with relative ease but just as I reached the top I felt a pop and sharp pain in my left Achilles tendon. I reached down and tried to rub it out, but it really hurt.
I have never been accused of being that intelligent. I should have stopped right there. But I don't like to give up -- I was sure it was just a little muscle pull and would work itself out shortly. It didn't. I pushed myself another 80 miles almost all uphill that day until at the end of the day my ankle just gave out. We had another 10 miles to go, but it was getting dark and I was physically spent. I flagged a pickup truck down. "Hey can you give my friends and me a lift to the next town?" I asked in Chinese. "Sure! Just toss your bikes in the back!" he replied as the cigarette smoke from the cab wafted into the mountain air. "We will pay you!" I said. "Ah -- I don't need any money -- happy to give you a lift." Sure enough, we had almost reached the summit of the mountain -- we only drove five minutes more up hill and then it was straight down the mountain for the next 20 minutes (albeit it was already dark by this time). As we pulled into the next town, I insisted that he take some money for his trouble.
The next morning I realized that I was not going anywhere on my bike. I could barely walk. From the various Internet sites I checked out that night, I discovered that Achilles injuries most often occur in middle-aged athletes who are attempting to push themselves without a lot of training -- the weekend-warrior injury. I would say a 200-mile trip up and over a mountain would qualify me for weekend warrior status. Ron also succumbed to the strain, with his lower back hurting.
The next day Ron and I took the bus the last 50 miles to the beach -- again most of the riding was all downhill. Ellen powered on alone and met us at our destination. I guess the curse of the kindergarten woman only applied to middle-aged white men.
Fairfield native Keith Gallinelli can be reached at email@example.com.