Recently, I've started working for a Chinese newspaper. Here's an article I wrote for them.
Travel and the Art of Zen:Finding Beauty in Everyday Life
By Derek Wentz
I've always believed that travel isthe art of finding beauty in the mundane acts of other people'slives.
In late 2009, I packed up my thingsand traveled to China to become an English teacher. In the firstplace, I've always enjoyed the English language, so English teacherfelt like a good fit for me. But more importantly, I came because Iwanted to experience other worldviews and other cultures. (There is asaying that goes something like travel is the great enemy ofignorance and cruelty.) I also wanted to travel because I buy intothe Buddhist concept that life is more about the experiences that aperson accrues over the course of their life than the achievementsthey accomplish. When I considered travel options, I couldn't thinkof a place more culturally, historically, and existentially differentfrom life in the United States.
China hasn't disappointed me. It'sbeen everything I'd hoped it would be and more. That's not to saythat China hasn't been without its hard times. But it is to say thatI wouldn't trade the times I've had here, the good or the bad, foranything.
A recent trip I took is a perfectexample.
Over the strange and meandering courseof my career here in China, I've done a lot of unexpected things.I've taught English, it's true, but I've also been wrangled intostage performances on television, an exciting (if short) actingcareer as an extra in a Chinese film, and most recently, a languageeditor and writing contributor for an all English Chinese newspaper.The one you hold in your hands in fact. (If you spot a typo, I'mpartly to blame.) As a part of working with the newspaper, I've beenoffered opportunities to see and do things I might not otherwise havedone here in China. When my co-workers asked me if I'd be interestedin taking a trip across the province in a high speed train, myresponse was to pack my bag.
I had to get up early to catch thetrain. My companions and I were asked to be at the Wuchang railwaystation at 6:50 A.M,. I live in Han yang. Getting up, getting clean,and getting a taxi pushed my wake up time back to 5:00 A.M.
I managed to get out of my apartmentby 5:15. I ran down to a nearby bank and withdrew some cash for thetaxi ride. Conveniently, as I emerged from the bank, I saw a taxicruising down the road. I flagged him down and hitched a ride toWuchang.
The railway station sat empty when Iarrived shortly after six. I'd brought a selection of e-books with mewhich I elected to sit down and read while I waited for mycompanions. By 6:55, they'd arrived: two Chinese women (whose Englishnames were Echo and Helen) and a man from Ghana (named Simon). I'dmet Echo before, but the other two were complete strangers to me.
After a ceremony (which I believecelebrated the opening of a new high-speed train) we boarded a trainwith a massive group of Chinese tourists and headed across Hubeitowards Yichang.
The train-ride alone was pleasurable.While I spent a good deal of it reading, from time to time I'd lookup and there, stretching golden-green in every direction, was theChinese countryside. One thing I lament about my life in China ishaving spent it all in a big city. At some point I need to move outto the countryside. Life out there seems so different from thefrenetic energy of the city. Farmers walked slow paths through theirfields, tending to their crops. Even at midday, people sit on theirporches or just inside their homes. Its not that they're lazy. Itsjust that they don't seem to be so busy.
The closer we drew to Yichang, themore the landscape grew simultaneously familiar and alien. If you'veseen much Chinese art, you've seen the depictions of ancientConfucian scholars sitting on green-gray mountain islands surroundedby oceans of mist. (Both they and their beards have been lost to thelong annals of time. Honestly, I've seen one Chinese guy with abeard. And it was on his neck rather than his face.) These paintingsat once give the impression of being otherworldly and yet familiar,part of our world, yet somehow unlike it: the essence if the idea ofenlightenment. Having only seen such mountains in paintings, Iassumed they came from the lands of imagination. I was wrong.
Riding past these mist shroudedmountains (and later walking among them) was like stepping into akung fu movie.
After arriving at our destination,throwing our things in our hotel, and eating some lunch, we set outon our first tour. I always mean to ask for the names of the places Ivisit, but as usual, I forgot. It was some sort of park thatenshrined one of China's most famous waterfalls. After a short waitto gather tickets and fellow tourists, we took a tour shuttle to themain scenic area.
The park had laid out a series ofpaths and bridges that led up into a ravine cut out over the eons bythe flow of a jade colored river. Echo, Helen, Simon, and I walkedthe bridges, took pictures, and got to know each other. Mostly, Italked with Simon. I'd never met someone from Ghana before. Later, aswe approached a long suspension bridge built high over the river, wediscovered that Echo was afraid of heights. Simon and I alternativelyteased and encouraged her to walk across the bridges. She did soreluctantly after our repeated assurance that it was perfectly safe,clutching the rails with white-knuckled hands. As we crossed, theother tourists began jumping up and down, and rocking side to side.The bridge swung, Echo squealed, and Simon and I laughed.
“I'll never trust either of youagain,” she told us after we'd reached the bridge's end.
Eventually, we came upon the featuredwaterfall. It looked like something you'd only ever see on a postcardor in a National Geographic. Thin streams of water cascaded over theside of a cliff three to five hundred feet above our heads. It wasn'ta roaring majestic thing like you often see in movies, but a quietgraceful one, which, somehow, seemed appropriate. The path ran alonga thin ledge just behind the waterfall. Little Chinese women stoodabout selling thin plastic ponchos to keep the water spray off.
I stopped in a cave that led out tothe path behind the waterfall, unable to decide whether to put on myponcho or not. On the one hand I wanted to get a little wet. On theother, it would be another four or five hours until we got back tothe hotel. I decided to put it on. The wind generated by the fallingwater whipped the thin thing about, making it difficult to don. Asmall Chinese boy saw I was having a hard time and stopped to give mea hand.
The water, relatively quiet as it was,drowned out all sound as I passed behind it.
I enjoyed the waterfall, but the realtreasure I found was just beyond it.
The path wound up several hundredstairs to bridges suspended high up in the ravine. Down below, theblue-green river ran quietly between opposing rock walls, still andpeaceful. Several small waterfalls emptied into it from above. WhileI could have taken the path, I chose to walk around it across a rockyembankment that led to the edge of the river. For the first time onthe trip, I was completely alone. I was far enough away from othersthat I stood in complete silence. The paths above were high enoughup that they were cut off from view.
And I got the sudden urge to go for aswim.
After deliberating for a few minutesand glancing around, I stripped down to my shorts and dove into thewater. It was cold, but pleasantly so in the heat of the day. I swamout, my head dipping under the water with each stroke, until I wasfloating underneath one of the waterfalls.
There was nothing special about thisravine or the water in which I swam. There are likely a hundred otherplaces like it in the world. But as I floated there, looking up atthe trees clinging to the cliff-side above the water and letting thewaterfall wash my long hair out of my eyes, I felt so very clean andso very much alive. Just a few thousand feet away, a Buddhist shrinesat atop a mountain. It occurred to me that it's one thing to listento Buddhists talk about taking joy in the simplicity and harmony oflife. It's another thing entirely to experience it.
I got myself back to shore andcontinued the tour. I got some strange looks and smirks from othermembers of the tour group as I walked around with them, sopping wet.
That night, Simon, Echo, Helen, and Iwalked around the city. When it got late, we gathered in one of ourhotel rooms to play cards. We taught each other card games from ournative countries and talked a whole lot of pleasant nonsense.
And I wouldn't trade any of thesethings for the world.