The rain falls on the rooftops, a curtain of sound dulling the sharp edge of life teeming in the noisy streets below: honking horn, revving engines, vendors hawking their wares, customers haggling over the prices. We are all made one beneath this baptism of strained silence, listening for who knows what. The still small voice? It is washed away before the anxieties we create as the gentle pitter patter of a drizzle becomes a roaring downpour.
There have been many adventures already. The day I arrived is a blur, but I did get a ride from the airport and got to catch up with an old friend for the evening. He set me up in all kinds of ways, including giving me a cell phone for the week of journeying ahead. Unfortunately, he was not able to get an early ticket for the next leg of my trip, so I had to leave Beijing earlier than expected and had the privilege of experiencing my first hard seat ride on a Chinese train.
For the uninitiated, Chinese trains have four categories of seating. There are hard and soft seats, and hard and soft sleepers. The hard sleepers are open compartments with six platform beds each, stacked three high. There are also fold out seats with small tables in the hallway running past the compartments. These are the best value for a long ride. Soft sleepers are four beds in a closed compartment, which sounds amazing except for two things. First, the beds are not that much softer (hearsay), and second, people are allowed to smoke in the closed compartments, whereas the hard sleepers are smoke free. Hard and soft seats are just what they sound like, though the hard seats on the newer trains area actually quite nice.
The plan was to get a hard sleeper from Beijing to Nanjing on an overnight fast train. My travel time would be about 9 hours and I'd arrive refreshed in Nanjing ready for a day of activities with my dear friend Kate, who I've known since third grade. However, the only option available to me for the next four days was a hard seat on a slow train to Nanjing, travel time 15 hours. Ah well, it could be worse, right?
Yes, it can. And that was proven when I got on the platform for the train to find that every car was filled to overflowing with people. When I say overflowing, I actually mean it. See, I learned that afternoon that if your ticket does not have a seat assignment on it, you are part of the "standing room only" overflow group. In addition, there is really only enough luggage rack space for the people in the seats, so imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried to force my way into the train car with a large suitcase (49 lbs.), large camping backpack, and another small backpack. I literally could not get into the car, so one of the attendants opened the door on the other side and forced me in. People were sitting on the floor everywhere, in front of bathrooms and in the space between cars. It was insane.
This was a true China experience. I stood with pack on, suitcase in front of me, fielding dirty looks from people jostling each other for floor space, for two hours before a fellow passenger started speaking English with me. His English name was Apex (there are a lot of interesting names like that here), and he was on his way from work in Beijing to visit his family in Shandong Province. He is an aeronautical engineer working with experimental planes, and his English was impeccable. He was a man of peace. He helped me eventually get my bags situated as people disembarked, rotated standing and sitting with me, shared some food, and talked to me for nearly five hours until his stop. This man was a true blessing.
The packed train car reminded me of the buses in Guatemala, except this time we weren't hurtling down a mountain, honking the horn as we went around curves. People were everywhere, on top of each other, holding babies and sitting on the tiniest edges of occupied seats. A lot of people got off at Apex's stop, and I was bequeathed his seat for good. At this point it was near midnight and and time to sleep. Ha...yeah. Sleep came in 10 minute fragments, interrupted by my head lolling into the empty space of the path between seats or by the food cart guys passing by yelling out what they were selling and running over my foot. I did not get REM of any kind.
But I made it! When I first got on the train and saw there was nowhere to put my bags or sit down, or even get further into the car, I considered leaving. I considered swallowing the 150 yuan (about $22) and getting a plane ticket for the following morning. I kept trying to tell myself it was an overrated adventure, an unnecessary hardship. There would be more worthwhile adventures. But, I felt something deeper at stake, so I stayed. I'm glad I did, but when those doors closed and I had all that stuff on me, the thought of 15 hours ahead was mind-numbing, soul-crushing.
Now I am here, and the 15 hours are behind me. I am, at long last, in China. There is so much familiarity here, yet so much strangeness. I really do not know the language, though it is resurfacing a few chunks at a time. It is exciting to be back, but definitely a little scary. One year. Wow. The scariness is really just the unknown, the inconceivability of it all. What will this year be like? How will I grow, a a student, as a follower of Jesus, as a friend, as a man? What will be the outcome of it all? It will be hard, but I must bring the lessons of Presence in Portland to bear.
Ramón, be HERE each and every day. The answers to those questions will grow out of well tended soil of the Present life. God is here. You be here too.