Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XI
“Dway! Wooshikwai!” The man’s face twisted in frustration and impatience.
“I’m sorry..Uh, dway…boo…chi,” I muttered, struggling to form the desperate few Mandarin words I had learned over the past few weeks, “I don’t know, yes—er…Dway. ‘Wuxi’ is where I’m trying to go. You know the city? Wuxi?”
“Bu, bu,” he shook his head and waved his hand in front of me, “kneeboodong. wooshi.” He emphasized.
“Ye—Dway. Wuxi.” I was standing on the curb of the busy Shanghai street bending over to talk to the angry driver through his passenger window. Swarms of business workers brushed by me, hurriedly getting to their next meeting while trying to minimize the amount of sweat and exhaust accumulating under their nice suits in the growing heat of the day. “Look, I don’t have time for this. It’s an emergency. I just need to get to a train station,” I urged, “Wo hen yao qu Wuxi! Hen yao a!”
“Bu. Wooshi.” He threw his arms up and rolled his eyes, “knee chew Wuxi…” he pointed ahead of him towards the street. Then, he jabbed his finger at me, “knee foo wooshi kwai!”
He was obviously waiting for me to do something. What that something was, exactly, I had no idea. I was as clueless as a child watching a party balloon float away into the sky. I was lost, alone, tired, and in desperate need to get to Wuxi and back here to Shanghai all before the night was done. I looked at a big, digital clock on the side of a building ahead of me. 11:30. I had half a day left.
I stared dumbly at him and just repeated the only phrase I knew, desperately clinging to the hope that if I kept pushing the same square peg plea hard enough towards the same round hole taxi driver, he would bend his shape to my will.
Please just figure out what I want?
“Aiyah!” He sighed in exasperation and slammed his steering wheel. “Mayguoren!” He started shooing me away from his window with one hand while rolling it back up with the other, then sped off down the street.
Some people, reader, when they want to feel their true place in the face of the universe, look up at the stars. They take in the vast and incomprehensible distances to those pretty lights in the sky. They contemplate the fact that one single speck out there is, in reality, likely larger than anything they could ever wrap their mind around. Inevitably, they take a sip of hot cocoa and think to themselves (or whisper to their friend while gazing up together), “Wow, the world is such a small, small, place.”
Others, when in need of humbling awe and majesty, take a more down to earth approach. They spend hours, days even, climbing mountains and hiking along treacherous ridge lines to a cold, narrow peak where they can peer down at the world below. They observe the endless horizon, the expansive vistas. Inevitably, they take a sip of water and think to themselves (or proclaim to their adventurous hiking companion), “Wow, the world is such a big, big, place.”
But here’s a third option, reader. Visit a place, any place, where you don’t know the language. It doesn’t have to be a large or distant country. It could be a town just across your nearest geopolitical border, or even the home of an immigrant neighbor just a few doors away. Go to that place. Render your language useless, and in the process you’ll neutralize most of your intellectual ability—the source of human pride. Then, you’ll realize it…
The world is a big, big place…and I am a small, small person.
But, it’s a beautiful realization, reader. Small is not a negative thing. Rather, it opens the possibility for growth. After all, step outside your comfort zone and you’ll soon find that with every new footfall, the world gets a little smaller as your mind grows wider.
Easy to say in hindsight, of course. My first few weeks in China sucked.
I sighed as the taxi driver vanished around a corner. Defeated, I walked a few blocks over to the end of the street and looked out over the Bund—a stretch of bustling downtown waterfront that follows the winding Huangpu River. I looked across the water at the many-storied monoliths, tapering to needle-like points as they pierced the sky. Glistening towers full of businesses and money. World-changing events and decisions probably happened over there.
I felt even smaller.
There had to be a train station nearby. And someone willing to take me there, either a taxi or metro. Something. I looked down the waterfront, my gaze following the river before it connected to the Yangtze and, immediately after, the East China Sea. I had to be out there, on the sea, before the sun came up in the morning. But I had to circle back to Wuxi first. That wasn’t part of plan. If we didn’t get out of the country before the Candlewind caught up with us, though, we’d be finished.
But I get ahead of myself.
By that point, it had been nearly three weeks since I first stumbled into the country—dazed, confused, and half starved from my utterly terrifying balloon ride. Three weeks of arriving in the country, having any semblance of a life plan flipped on its head (but let’s face it, reader, I didn’t have much of a plan to begin with), and being thrown into something much bigger than I wanted. All because of that balloon.
The flight from Seattle was a miserable, freezing, but blessedly storm free trip. After quickly succumbing to the fatal flaw in hot air balloon travel (that is, when you say to go South, but the wind—or whoever Sondra guessed was in charge of our stories—says you go West, you go West), I hunkered down for what I knew would be a cold flight and started thinking through my options.
Despite not being able to entirely reverse course, I managed to keep the Candlewind in sight of land thanks to playing around with the altitude. If I found myself drifting away from solid ground and too far out over the water, I could usually find a shore-bound breeze in the mornings at lower heights that would push me back to the safety of land. The prevailing winds, however, steadily pushed me west and north.
As long as I could find land, I could resupply. The balloon had a surprising number of compartments to store food, water, and fuel (I’d have to ask Alice about that next chance I got. Were all hot air balloons kitted out this well?), but I certainly couldn’t carry enough to get to my destination.
What was my destination, actually? Mexico—where I originally plotted my childhood goal to be—was out of the question at this point.
I told myself that I would stop and reassess as soon as I arrived in a city that was large enough for me to do more research and fact finding to figure out where my lost balloon may have drifted after passing Mexico. That was a reasonable plan, right?
Let’s play a game, reader. How many major coastal cities can you name in the North Pacific?
Answer: not many.
Why? Because most of the North Pacific is…well, ocean. And what little land there might be is…cold. And it’s even colder at altitude—not matter how hot your hot air balloon might be. I spent many sleepless nights wishing I could climb up into the fabric of the Candlewind and let the fiery tongue of the burner wash over and thaw me out.
Cold aside, my goal was a major city. I could resupply in smaller towns and villages along the way. I was too far west to get to Vancouver, Canada. Anchorage, Alaska then crossed my mind. I tried to keep an eye out for it as I floated along. I must have missed it, though, because after making a few stops in small outpost towns with hardly a road between them, I woke up one frosty morning to find the US coastline replaced with a smattering of rocky islands. I hopped from one to the other stopping to resupply and warm up as often as I could. Slowly, the language the locals spoke became less and less recognizable as English sentences turned into choppy English words that turned into hand gestures and head nods—thus began a shrinking view of myself in the face of the world.
I have to pause here and reflect, reader. Despite the bitter cold added to the mild terror of doing something unplanned and unknown, I couldn’t help but be in wonder.
I was flying.
Not only that, I was piloting a hot air balloon—even though the bulk of my steering was simply finding that landward breeze each morning. Only a few short months ago, before arriving in Omaha, I would never have dreamed I’d be doing anything like this. I was simply riding across the United States for a Summer looking for a childhood dream—hardly a one-of-a-kind experience in the grand scheme of the world. After all, I’m sure you know someone, reader, who took a summer abroad once.
This, however, was incredible. I waved at cargo ships below. Massive fishing ships and oil rigs dotted the waters around me on the occasional days where I pushed my limits of distance from land. The sky was a deeper blue than I ever thought imaginable. Stars at night were so bright that they’d bother your sleep if you didn’t cover your face—which I usually did simply to keep warm. The perpetual movement of the sea was mesmerizing as I watched one crest fall and be replaced by a trough before the next crest. And after that another and another and another without end. Then, I’d widen my perspective and see a hundred ocean crests all moving in concert.
One day, a particular patch of waves looked stronger than the others, though there was no other sign of bad weather. The waves seemed different, though. Out of sync. Darker, too. They looked alive. Then I saw the darkness shift beneath the surface. Blinking, I realized I was staring at the shadow of a massive living thing. It was so big, I couldn’t grasp the shape of it beneath the ephemeral waves and ever changing light. It had to be a whale, right? Whatever it was, it seemed to follow me for several days until I made landfall again. A silent companion for an otherwise lonely trip. Maybe she had never seen a balloon before and was as curious of me as I was of her. Or him. It.
The earth felt bigger, and I felt smaller.
And so that’s how the days passed, reader, one island to another as I hopped between worlds…until West met East. The pockets of land between them were so rugged and surreal that they just as well constitute a middle sphere of their own. A world sparsely populated with settlements you’d be hard pressed to find any on a map. Yet, they were surrounded with unequaled natural beauty that was evocative and, honestly, a little ominous. Volcanoes encased in ice. Cliffs that looked like the jagged wreckage of an explosive war—scars left from great tectonic collisions, seen by few if any. The landscape was stilled violence.
From Unalaska to Atka to Adak and other stray, forgotten sparks of human life on the frontier, I drifted, trading a few modern belongings to the locals in exchange for fuel. Sometimes performing a service or two such as helping a fishing vessel offload its catch and receiving some fish myself in return. I even landed on a small island named Shemya. The US military was a prickly bunch, but they gave me fuel for free…as long as I promised to leave and never come back. I’ve also never seen the barrel of a rifle from that close up before. They gave me that experience for free too, after I wandered a little too close to their fence line. But, hey, free fuel. I think I’d be prickly, too, if I were living on that lonely island.
I was nearly arrested when I reached the Russian mainland, escaping only because I was so cold by that point that I kept the balloon as close to the ground as I could to avoid the hypothermic temperatures up above. As it turned out, I was flying so low that I went undetected on the country’s military radars. Could you imagine if the Russians mistook me for a US military plane, reader? Picture that…starting World War Three because some balloon was floating hopelessly in the wrong direction. Oddly poetic.
Still, other than passing through remote fishing outposts to resupply, I hadn’t found a place that I could settle in for a spell and figure out what to do next.
So I kept flying.
I missed Japan somehow. I assume I was too far north when I hit the Russian coast and began a southward track. That’s when I realized my dilemma. South of Russia along the coast was…North Korea. If I kept riding on the wind, it might bring me into some real trouble.
And that’s how China entered the picture. Not as a destination, but as desperation. I landed the Candlewind in the wilderness just beyond a cluster of buildings. It felt like a dream. I hadn’t seen a real city in sooo long. And there were trees. Trees! I didn’t even realize that I missed them up until that point. I never realized that, among all the Aleutian Islands I visited, there were no trees whatsoever. I could’ve cried in joy.
I don’t know if I ever learned the town’s true name, but as I wandered in from my landing site along a small road, I passed a looming stone slab with several lines of words, each appearing to be a different language. The top looked to be Mandarin. Beneath it, something slightly different—more rounded characters as opposed to the many slashes, boxes, and sharp lines that made up the language above it. Korean? Beneath that was clearly Russian. The bottom, final row, read, in English: Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture.
I appeared to be at a crossroads town. Standing there, I was filled with a sense of finality. Edge. As if I were standing at the ends of the Earth, or even at the end of time—this place seemed…forlorn. Displaced. Following the wind any further south would take me into a country I had no right to be in. Behind me was the cold, bitter Siberian expanse. West was…China. After so much time spent in the air floating towards ever more remote villages, I was desperate to be among civilization again.
Standing near the stone monument at the entrance to the town, I spotted something else, someone else, on the road with me. They were behind the massive rock, but off to the side and facing me. Staring at me. A small boy. He looked at me as though I were an alien from another planet. I tried smiling and waving at him, but received no reaction. The boy just kept staring. Maybe he had never seen a foreigner before.
Soon, a second person appeared, an older woman, She ran up to the boy from behind, not noticing me it seemed. She caught up with the child and, in a scene that must be universal, urged him to come along with her, keep up with his family, stop getting lost and distracted, and so on. Or so I assumed, I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying until she realized what the boy was staring at—that is, me.
She immediately pulled her son behind her while simultaneously letting out a short scream of surprise and I understood perfectly well what that meant. Fear was all over her face as she and her son backed away. She began yelling things at me in a rapid-fire language. She was going to draw a crowd soon.
I didn’t hang around long enough to see what she did next. I turned and bolted back down the road. All the way back to the Candlewind.
You’re probably wondering, reader, how I got from that small border town to standing on a Shanghai sidewalk uttering toddler-like nonsense to a taxi driver, desperately trying to get to a city called Wuxi. Don’t worry, we’re getting there. All in due course. My lethally frustrating Shanghai afternoon, however, wouldn’t happen for another few weeks.
A lot of strange things occurred between my first day in that dangerous border region of Yanbian and my last risky attempts to flee the country hardly a month later. Some strange things that I’ll recount for you here, should you decide to keep reading. Strange because those few weeks in China are where I discovered the long, dark shadow that the Candlewind casts. Strange because I uncovered unusual messages from the balloon’s thief. Strange because I learned the meaning behind a seemingly prophetic poem I received not too long ago. Strange because, while the world is a big, big place, it often turns out to be smaller than you might think.
Strange because all I ever wanted was to find my lost childhood balloon.
Check back in two more weeks for more (assuming this big, big world hasn’t ended by then).