Before my wife became pregnant and we propagated, I had purely pro-abortion views. Like condoms and IUD, abortion was a contraception method and there was absolutely nothing wrong about it. Anti-abortionists were religious nuts (mostly males and occasionally older females) who wanted to impose their Middle Age religious nut views and male patriarchy on otherwise secular modern society. It was a fight of good versus evil.
After two Yvonne’s pregnancies, development of embryos, childbirths, etc… I underwent a slow transformation from naturally pro-abortion to an uncomfortably pro-choice stance.
Unlike in the past, I definitely feel uncomfortable about abortion. Instead of treating it as a contraception method, I feel that abortion a smaller evil to be avoided if possible. If a pregnant woman decides to have an abortion, it’s her absolute right. But then euthanasia or killing in self-defense is also a person’s right. These are painful rights that I would rather not exercise unless the other options are even worse.
While I personally have a determined pro-abortion stance, I no longer consider all anti-abortionists to necessarily be evil religious nuts. I strongly disagree with their views, but then I strongly disagree with many other people’s views, from Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters to the anti-euthanasia lobby. However, I respect a lot of these people and I won’t dismiss them as loons or criminals. I am also aware that women make almost half of anti-abortionists.
An essay on Wild Cherry Pepsi.
I live blissfully unaware of the world around me. Hence, it was only a few days ago when I learned about Wild Cherry Pepsi. Without looking, I grabbed a Pepsi can from a store shelf and started drinking it. Surprisingly, a well familiar taste of sweetened sodium hydrophosphate intermingled with benzaldehyde’s acrid chemical flavor. Confused, I inspected the bottle. It looked like a regular Pepsi can but it carried a image of luminescent bright red berries and it had words “wild cherry flavor with other natural flavors”. My feeble brain struggled to reconcile multiple contradictions provided by visual, verbal and tasting clues.
Obviously no cherries, domesticated or wild, taste like benzaldehyde. Why not call it Pepsi with benzaldehyde flavor? It would more way sense. Also, cherries can be brown, white or dark red, but absolutely no cherries ever have radioactive color depicted on the can. Oh, wait, there is an exception – Maraschino cherries. If you soak cherries in potassium thiosulfate and bleach for a few weeks and add FD&C red 40, then they will indeed acquire such color. But then, Pepsi should’ve called the drink Maraschino Cherry. And to keep true to the taste, Pepsi should use the delicate mixture of thiosulfate, chlorine bleach and FD&C rather than benzaldehyde.
Also, why wild cherries in particular? Firstly, there are no wild cherries in North America. So-called wild cherries are actually domesticated variety trees brought from Europe that eventually escaped captivity and ran into the Great American Wilderness. Secondly, wild cherries somehow, however, irrational it may feel, associate with benzaldehyde taste and radioactive red color even less their domesticated brothers do. Are there other connotations to wild cherry term? Could it be that they meant “wild” cherries as opposed to “tame” ones? Did the branding department suggest a slogan Get Wild With Our Wild Cherry Pepsi? Or could it have a sexual connotation aimed at certain male users? Pop our Wild Cherry Pepsi can like you deflower a beautiful wild virgin? Pop 72 cans of Wild Cherry Pepsi and you will feel like you reached Muslim Paradise?
Whatever turns you on, enjoy your Wild Cherry Pepsi drink!
Let us rejoice, my friends – bakeries and cafes, desserts and breads have arrived at the Middle Kingdom!
In 2006, by the end of a two week trip in China, I was experiencing a severe bread and dessert deprivation. The restaurants in the mighty cities of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai and in the magical land of Guilin countryside generously fed me with the best fish of my life, freshly grilled lamb, spicy and crunchy fried green beans and delicate glass noodles. On the other hand, they stubbornly refused to yield to me as little as a soggy croissant or a slice of a stale coffeecake. The only sweets available were sticky rice buns with sweet red beans inside; they tasted like boiled mud with sugar. The buns probably inspired Brian Maxwell to create Power bars.
Restaurants, food stalls and markets were everywhere; cafes and bakeries were more difficult to find than a bloody slab of meat in a vegan restaurant. There was no place to sit down, leisurely sip a cup of coffee, eat a slice of tiramisu, write some notes, watch people and enjoy life.
Eight years later, the tree of life was blooming with coffees and desserts. For two months we’ve been traipsing around from the ancient towns of Yunnan and canal villages of Jiangsu to the metropolises of Nanjing and Xiamen. Almost everywhere, we saw bakeries selling sweet and savory joy made out of wheat, butter and eggs. We sampled their fare, we chatted to their bakers and to their customers. We learned how baked goods spread through China at a supersonic velocity and conquered the most populated country on the planet.
Nobody carries more responsibility for the changed fate of one billion and three hundred million people then a forty four year old Szechuan man. Twenty years ago, Luo Hong couldn’t find a proper birthday cake for his mother. Frustrated, he bought a whole bakery and made sure that their desserts satisfied his mom. Today, Holiland bakery chain controls 85% of Chinese market.
We have seen dozens of them all over China. The bakeries sell sweets and sandwiches based on soft buns and white sliced bread. Cold thin crust pizzas are not up to New York standards but they are better than Domino’s. Tiramisu, chocolate and fruit mousses, flans, sponge rolls, strawberry shortcakes and wafer cookies taste much better than their cousins from American supermarkets. The flaky pastry from their croissants and egg tarts is getting close to the French standards.
We also saw many local bakeries and smaller chains happily ripping off Holiland repertoire. Some started specializing in particular items, like egg tarts and cream puffs. They serve locals and they charge between fifty cents and two dollars per piece. It took us four dollars per person to gorge ourselves on food that most American cities still sadly lack.
Yvonne remembered that two or three years ago the pastry quality was considerably worse. A Holiland chef in Suzhou confirmed her observation; right around that time the boss pushed the chain more towards the Western pastry standards.
Recently, Holiland bakeries started serving coffee and tea, also at the prices aimed at locals, from seventy cents to two dollars a drink. They don’t make much money on the drinks; most of their income comes from their specialty cakes. Multi layered sponge cakes with whipped cream and decorated with carved fruits can cost as much as thirty dollars. They taste fresh, simple and fruity. Holiland cream comes out of a cow rather than out of a bottle with nitrogen oxide and their fruits don’t taste like cardboard.
Western-style cafes serving deserts, coffee and tea are not as ubiquitous as Holiland bakeries, neither are they as affordable. Most items cost between three and five dollars. They sell classic European desserts, sometimes with a light Chinese twist, like a green tea mango mousse next to a dark chocolate flourless cake. Their gelatos are on par with Italian ones; you can see a stinky durian sorbet next to a black currant one. The coffee, from espresso to cappuccino, tastes the same as it would in a random café in Rome but, unsettlingly, it costs twice more. Some cafes obtain frozen desserts from local bakeries; others run their own kitchens.
The cosmopolitan metropolis of Shanghai seems to be the origin of the café epidemics, starting ten or twelve years ago. The cafes have spread far and wide, however, just over the last five years or less. They do not specifically cater to Westerners though; there just too few white people in China. The cafes serve to the young roaring beast raising its many million heads – the first generation of Chinese yuppies. They also take advantage of the single child family policy. Chinese parents won’t spare any luxury to their beloved only son or daughter. The crowds of college students and recent graduates swarm to the touristy destinations. Smartly dressed, cosmopolitan looking and with their own and parents’ money to burn, they must be the most coveted demographics of all the new businesses in China.
Ironically, Starbucks introduced the idea of a hangout coffee house in China and, then, failed to attract college and yuppie girls. They find Starbucks cafes too corporate and impersonal; they didn’t like the company of businessmen. Upstart local cafes rose to fill the void; one of them provided Yvonne with entertainment and myself with a lesson.
Out of a personal incident and a demographic need, a new café chain rose, small but growing furiously. The owner opened the first café as a gift for his wife. The Shanghai and Suzhou girls approved; they found their paradise in the chain of Momi Cafés.
When Yvonne walked into one of them in Suzhou, she squealed in delight. Then, laughing at the confounded expression on my face, she condescendingly laid it out to me like a professional designer talking to a dumb and a blind male scientist. Apparently, the most important thing was space; there were at least six distinctly different sections to house at most twenty five tables. Stairs, curtains, sofas, different tables, different chairs and different lighting supposedly helped every girl to feel herself unique. Hundreds of postcards, books and coffee- related paraphernalia were carefully arranged in an apparently chaotic fashion throughout the café. Bob Dylan and his Chinese colleagues sang in the background. Every table had a glass with colored pencils and pens; every wall had writing on it. Everything was aimed to attract hipster college girls and younger women while not freaking out their accidental male companions.
The café achieved their purpose. Since five years ago, when I worked on an art conservation project in Italy, I’ve not seen such a crowd of bright, animated, tastefully dressed and confident girls. Half dorky, half hipster, these girls would fit in anywhere from New York to Paris to Shanghai.
Yvonne and I spent five hours and ten dollars there; she was drawing and I was writing this story. Half a dozen girls were admiring Yvonne’s drawing and I was chatting with them about Shanghai, Suzhou, cafes, Western food and life. If I was a student in Shanghai, I would definitely come to a Momi café in search of a girlfriend. A cup of Italian grade Cappuccino with an Brooklyn style cheesecake would celebrate my success or sweeten up the taste of failure.
There were taxi drivers. They picked us up, turned on their meter, charged us money, dropped us off and drove away. They were everywhere.
There were obnoxious pushy hustlers that swarmed around us like dung flies, screeched like fishmongers and smelled like skunks. They crowded around large cities’ transport hubs. I wanted to spray DEET on them.
Then, there were a few taxi drivers that we will remember warmly every time we think about this trip. We met all of them in small provincial towns.
A Huangshan taxi driver knew history and loved talking. I wrote three pages of notes based on his stories. By the second day with him, we disregarded the advice from our three guidebooks and we asked the driver to pick our itinerary. He brought us to Huizhou villages much more interesting than what we would’ve found ourselves. When we ran out of money, he loaned us six hundred remnibi for entrance tickets. We paid him back of course, once we got back to an ATM. But we still feel that we owe him both for his kindness and for his knowledge.
A taxi driver at Jishou train station drove us for an hour to Fenghuang. He helped us to find our hotel, hidden by construction and located inside a pedestrian zone not passable for cars. We didn’t like the place; he suggested a better one, drove us there for free and bargained them for a better price. In a day, he arrived an hour early because, “he didn’t like to be late.” He took care of us like mother hen protects her chicks. In return, he asked us for small foreign banknotes and coins for his collection. Now, in the town of Jishou there is a Chinese taxi driver who has Russian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, American, Thai, Cambodian and Taiwanese money.
A Longyan taxi driver drove us around Tulou fortress houses for a day. There was a bit of haggling involved, true enough. But once we agreed on the price, the driver delivered. He sneaked us by an entrance point and he cheated the Chinese government out of our one hundred fifty remnibi. Later, he drove us to his town and gave us a tour of an abandoned Tulou fortress where he grew up. In the end, he brought us to his home for tea and more stories. We learned more about the life in Tulou houses from our taxi driver that we would’ve ever learned from a guide.
These taxi drivers were excited about strangers from a strange land. They liked us and they took care of us. They went above and beyond their duty. And I can’t even recommend them to my readers because they only speak Chinese.
As our bus is rolling across Wuyuan, I find myself staring intently around me, consumed by confusion, discomfort and curiosity. There is something deeply unsettling about the town but I can’t figure out what it is.
Wuyuan is shiny and new, like a freshly minted coin . Wide open streets have two or three lanes in each direction. Bicycle, scooter and pedestrian lanes are paved with tiles. Five foot trees have been planted carefully everywhere, all of them are the same age, height and appearance. White and spotlessly clean four and five story buildings line the streets. There are banks and businesses, stores and restaurants. I see doors and windows, balconies and AC units. I see a few people walking the streets.
That’s it! There are not enough people. It’s a Saturday noon in a Chinese town; the streets should be packed with people hustling and bustling. Bicycles, scooters, mopeds, carts and other semi-motorized contraptions should be moving in all directions and honking noisily, friendly and warningly alike. Shops and stalls, cards and restaurants should be offering food. Chinese towns have become cleaner, but there should be some trash leisurely rolling around in the breeze. Where is a city’s olfactory duet, the smells of refuse and sewage?
The gleaming wide boulevards are as eerily perfect as they are eerily empty. Where are the thousands of small features and minor differences that make a town feel real? Wuyuan feels like a Hollywood movie set, not a city. I am expecting the street to turn into a California desert or a parking lot and a cameraman’s voice barking “Action!” If I pull a door knob, will the whole façade fall down to the street baring an empty space behind it?
We get out of the bus. The station is the most lifelike place in town we’ve seen so far. Here is food, refuse, sewage, dust, mud and people, all right. My pregnant darling performs her customarily stint in a public restroom – she pees and vomits at the same time. Still, the bus station feels emptier than it should be for a town this size. Half a dozen buses stand on a parking lot where at least fifty of them could fit. Half a dozen taxi drivers assault us enthusiastically but politely. We pick the least pushy guy and load into his car. As we get out of the station and start riding Wuyuan’s sterile streets, the feeling of unreality assaults me again.
We pass a blindingly white concrete bridge with an authentic Huizhou style colonnade; it is built out of aged wood with a corbel joinery roof and two entrance arches. Even the aged wood looks new and shining; it can’t be more than two or three years old.
As we approach the edges of the city, we see more construction. The perfect buildings of the city center give way to almost finished houses, then to empty concrete half assembled husks, and finally to leveled ground plots.
Yvonne asks our driver about the town and the guy starts laughing. The central government, he says, has encouraged the local authorities to build more and more. The governor had the whole city laid out and built from scratch over the last three years. Now they are having troubles finding people and businesses to move in. The town should have two hundred thousand residents, but it barely has a third of that number.
The driver’s words explain it, but I still feel bewildered. Most human settlements have been born inadvertently, slowly, noisily, dirty, bloody, and chaotically; they’ve been born human. Now, I witness a whole town being born coldly, precisely and lifeless, like in a science fiction novel or a Corbusier architecture textbook.
Finally, the city ends and we are back in the bucolic Chinese countryside. Still, we can’t get the image of a sterile shining city out of our minds. We have been traveling in China for a month and we’ve see a frenetic frenzy of construction everywhere. How many buildings are left waiting forlornly for their residents never to move in?
I am desperately waiting for the bus ride to end. I am not driven by the desire to see the famed Yuanyang rice terraces; I just want to get out of the bus and finally vomit. I am still halfway unconscious from the flu. Every time the bus tightens up yet another mountainous U-turn, my stomach climbs out of my mouth to say hi; a dry heave ends in a biley burp. I’ve never thought that nausea could be so difficult to handle. Is this how pregnant women used to feel before the age of anti-nausea medication?
Yvonne’s bottle with fifty magic anti-nausea pills is so close, and yet they could be on the other end of the world for all that matters. The pills lie a meter below, in the baggage compartment and the bus ain’t gonna stop. In fact, it rushes around yet another blind turn, overcoming a black passenger Lexus, and honking warningly.
An eternity and three hours later, the torture by nausea ends. We pull into Xinjiezhen bus terminal. It is a dusty square in front of a gray one story building that has became decrepit while still being new. Yvonne jumps out of the bus, finds a van with dark windows, talks to the driver and throws me into the car as I stare vacantly into my stomach’s swirly depths.
Somewhere during the transfer, I swallow a magic pill. Over the next forty minutes, the van carries us up and down an even narrower and more winding road. The driver chats and flirts with every girl in the car, including Yvonne, and pulls over at every scenic spot. He wants us to enjoy the ride and the view. Unfortunately, the fog has the consistency of milk and I can barely see our car when I step out of it. I don’t care; I am just happy to stand outside and inhale the clammy cold air that’s clinging to us like a wet down blanket. Just as the pill finally puts my stomach to sleep, our trip comes to an end. The driver pulls up in front of a staircase and smiles pointing down it. He isn’t going to drive the minivan down a few dozen stairs and a one lane wheelbarrow street. Welcome to Duoyishu, supposedly an even less developed and more authentic mountain village than Xinjiezhen, a true bumblefuck.
I spend all night drinking tea, sweating and shaking under three blankets. The next morning, the evil virus finally loses the fight. Wet and still weak, I crawl from out of the blankets and feel reborn.
The weather cooperates – the sun burns a hole or two through the ever present fog. The balcony view is worth shivering for a few minutes.
The guesthouse owner, Jackie, serves us a breakfast; his mom runs the kitchen. He is the first local Chinese person we’ve met so far who speaks good English. In fact, his English is not any worse than mine. Jackie is a local boy made good. Like the other Hani, a local minority Chinese group, he is barely five foot tall, unlikely to weigh more than one hundred pounds, with a head that looks slightly too big on his shoulders. Unlike the other locals, he went to France for three months to work as a photographer’s assistant. A short trip to France turned into a four year jaunt through Europe, Middle East and South America.
Jackie opened the guesthouse just a couple years ago and both wikitravel and tripadvisor have already discovered him as the only English speaking local point; that’s why we’ve picked Jackie’s Inn to begin with.
Jackie quickly draws a map of places to go and things to see. We glance at it and start laughing – it looks like a climbing topo.
“Yes, I climbed in France, but there is no good rock climbing here,” Jackie sighs.
“Make sure you skip the official sightseeing points, unless you want to pay a one hundred RMB entrance fee,” he adds, “you didn’t pay it when you drove in, right?”
“Thank you for your advice again,” Yvonne grins, “we picked the right minivan. It had tinted windows and the driver pretended that the car was empty as he drove through the checkpoint.”
The locals don’t seem to care much about the government and its money.
We walk out with Jackie’s employee; Shin has decided to join us. She joined Jackie as a volunteer for her winter break; he is paying for her room and board. Shin wanted to see the rice terraces. She is also a village kid; she grew up picking rice and feeding pigs. Then, she went to a college a thousand miles away to study special education. She is shorter than Yvonne and skinny like a rail; she is used to eating two meals a day and the city life hasn’t softened her up yet.
Unsurprisingly, construction is proceeding here at a typical Chinese feverish pace. On our way up, towards the road, we pass a couple dozen buildings. Nine of them are in the different stages of construction. Men and women alike are laying bricks, pouring concrete, hammering, cutting and drilling. The workers can be anywhere from twenty to sixty year old; it’s hard to read their dark leathery faces.
A lot of locals have figured out already that attending tourists beats growing rice. Hotels, stores, and new houses are growing everywhere like mushrooms after a rain. Unlike other ancient Chinese towns and villages we have visited, there is not much of art and architecture tradition here. Over generations, the local denizens have directed all their creative energy into constructing tens of thousands of terraced rice paddies covering a few hundred square miles of mountain slopes. The original houses look exactly like poor mountain village hemlocks should look. The new constructs haphazardly incorporate every element from Western and Chinese architecture the owners have discovered when surfing images on the internet. A random sprinkling of traditional mushroom shaped thatched roofs adorns the buildings.
A winding road takes us past another village. When Yvonne sees pigs, she squeals in delight. The pigs don’t bother squealing back; they have better things to do.
There are no restaurants in this area yet, but a local gentleman sells roasted ducklings at three dollars a bird. A mix of chilies and salt comes for free.
The trail takes us away from the village and along the mountain slopes. The girls chat happily; the muzzle keeps my mouth shut as I keep my distance from Yvonne. Occasionally, she translates Shin’s stories for me. Belonging to a rural minority in China offers advantages and drawbacks alike. Unlike Han Chinese, the minority families are allowed two children and there is an affirmative action policy of some sorts. Still, the rural life is poor and hard; the kids and their families push hard towards getting a higher education. All Shin’s high school classmates, i.e. ten people, are in college. They are not coming back to the rice fields. I will be the last person to judge them.
Every time we walk by yet another domesticated life form, Yvonne goes all over it, squealing, crooning and taking pictures. Shin looks a bit confused. To her, it’s just work and food. The best comes when we see a mother pig with suckling piglets.
The pig looks like a mini size boar ready to defend her progeny against real and imaginary enemies. I wearily walk around her. Shin walks by and casually kicks the pig in the snout. The pig grunts unhappily and submissively moves aside. Shin looks at me,
“See, they are nice, no need to worry.”
We walk to the top of a cliff looming over the mountain valley, one of Jackie’s recommended observation points. Yuanyang rice terraces sprawl below and to the sides of us like thousands of calm gray ponds. A few photographers armed with full set of professional gear are already there, waiting for the sun to fight its way through the clouds. Yvonne joins them; her Canon SLR looks pathetic next to their professional two foot long lenses mounted on heavy tripods.
Meanwhile I eat my duckling lunch. Only yesterday, it was squawking and running around and now it’s killed and roasted for my pleasure; I don’t mind. The salt and chili peppers cut through the grease and spice up the fresh meat, as I carefully pick every shred off the baby bones.
The sun refuses to fully cooperate and disappointed Yvonne has to satisfy herself with inferior quality shots.
I look down, at the thousands of rice paddy layers descending the Ailao mountains. For more than a thousand years, fifty generations of the Hani peasants manually hoed, leveled and tilled the mountain sides, with an occasional help from their scrawny undersized water buffalos. They built elaborate canals to deliver water from the tops of the mountains and distribute it fairly and efficiently for up to three thousand levels of rice fields going all the way down the valley. They grew red rice for themselves and red algae for their pigs. They raised chicken and ducks. They worked the fields all their lives till they died on mud floors of their earthenware huts. In the process, they pulled off an impossible feat. Inadvertently, they used a bunch of mud puddles to shape a mountain landscape improving what nature had intended.
Sure, a rice paddy can excite a duck looking for a worm or a peasant thinking about his harvest. But why would it attract the best nature photographers in the world? In fact, when the tourists started coming in, the locals were sincerely confused. It’s a paddy, thought the peasants; why would one stare in a slack jawed ecstasy at water, rice and mud? And, I would add, use cameras that cost more than the area’s GDP to take pictures of dirt?
Why does a few dozen meters distance turn a grass reinforced mud pile into a green and brown border separating quiet ponds of different colors and shapes?
“How have mud and dirty water become a symbol of transcendental beauty,” I ask Yvonne.
Yvonne’s head with a camera attached to it turns like a tank’s gun turret searching for a target.
“The scale adds visual power,” Yvonne replies absent mindedly.
“This landscape will look dramatically under different light conditions. Dense fog with uniform light gives the landscape the brown color,” Yvonne mumbles as she stares unhappily at the camera’s digital screen.
The shooting should be the best at sunrise or sunset. The world is multi-colored then, with vibrant oranges, pinks and purples. If it’s slightly windy and the clouds are moving, the color’s transition happens quickly; the water acts like a mirror, constantly changing colors. Water pools have different depth and it influences color diffusion and reflection. That’s what makes it so beautiful and magical. There are cloud reflections in each pond. Red algae in some ponds add extra texture.
“Look at the curving lines of rice paddies. They follow the slope curvature but they also constantly vary in size and shape. The variation adds richness and depth to the landscape,” Yvonne concludes her little lecture.
I look down at the mud pools; I just think they are magical.
The sun finally comes out to please Yvonne and the water glows in reflected light.
My little darling is getting more and more excited with every minute, whipping herself into a photographic frenzy. She is adjusting shutter speed, F-stop, exposure and other, undoubtedly, very important photographical things. She is moving, trying to find better shooting angles and positions. The camera is furiously clicking in Yvonne’s strong stubby fingers.
I am just sitting on a rock, enjoying the view and chewing on a dry grass blade.
The sun goes behind a cloud again and Yvonne exhales, drops her shoulders and swings the camera around her back. The trail leads us further along the mountain slopes, into the rice paddies. A water buffalo looks sad and tired.
Up close, the rice paddies look like many lives of hard of work. In another generation or two, half the locals will be probably off to the easier city life. Another half will be running tourist establishments. How much time will it take before the famed rice terraces of Yuanyang slowly crumble to landslides and erosion? The mountains will take back its due and the slopes will come back to their original state.
The trail leads us uphill, towards the paved road and designated observation points. The picnic set of table and chairs pulls me out of melancholia.
We walk along the road discussing with Shin how she could make her dream come true; she wants to visit Canada or Italy for a year.
Children in bright traditional dresses pose for tourists along the road. They don’t exactly hassle the tourists, but they don’t mind getting paid either.
The clouds finally gave way and Yvonne spends the evening on the hotel roof, sketching the mud puddles in the light of the setting sun. I come back from a short evening run down the fields and sneak behind her. Iphone panorama option allows me to take a strangely appropriate fairytale picture of the rooftop view.
The sun rolls behind the mountain taking all warmth away. Yvonne’s fingers are frozen solid and, with a practiced ease, she runs them under my down jacket, fleece and shirt, towards my armpits. I grind my teeth.
“It’s your purpose,” Yvonne purrs as she waits for the watercolor to dry.