"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." — Carl Sagan
Imagine you've been sick for a week—your nose is running, you have a defiant nagging cough, your sinuses are all out of whack—and as you disembark the plane you're hit by a rush of warm rain that greases the Richard-Nixon-staircase at the plane's exit and almost makes a Charlie Chaplin scene out of the whole thing. The next morning you hike for three hours in drizzle, you wear sopping American clothes, you wipe your nose on the edge of your sleeve wrapped around your cold shaking hand like a three-year-old. Imagine this is you, and you will have the first leg of my trip to Xishuang Banna.
I make it sound more miserable than it was. It wasn't miserable at all, but what has been written cannot be unwritten, lest I start writing like an actual person and do a little something called revising. No, instead what happened was I went on this miserably wet hike, and despite my illness, I had a great time, and at some point, like the phoenix before me, I rose from sopping wet ashes and returned to form, a Bo Zhongzhi for all seasons. Our reward for finishing this thousand-year-old-tree-spotted walk was tea with the villagers, who cooked it in bamboo shafts and served it accordingly. We then ate lunch with them, possibly the most delicious Chinese meal I have ever had. They sang local songs, hand-clapping, grinning, and when it came our turn to show them a tune, someone piped up with the "Star-Spangled Banner," and so we extended our soft power instead of reaching out with a nice cultural hello (which came later, in the form of popular music). That a juxtaposition between traditional Yunnan drinking songs and American pop music caused such concern. That in the end both songs were really only about alcohol.
We rode a boat. Down the Mekong River. A dingy, really. We played volleyball on the beach, and we rode bikes to another village, a pack of foreigners pedaling through banana plantation fields to get to a village about which they knew nothing. We met Buddhist monks. We removed our shoes and met Buddhist monks. Outdoor temples where the wind blew through unabated. We ate. A beautiful girl in hiking shorts smiled at me and said my name. Each moment passed with such dreamlike diffidence that the shy reality of all was impossible to get at in the moments themselves, and pictures, snapped though they were, are only lazy representations of what once existed in my mind.
In the village we biked to a group of lackadaisical boys were ready and set to play us (the Alliance) in a game of basketball. We got shirtless and stretched; they kept their clothes on and smoked. Really, their gametime preparation was to smoke a pack of Kools [ed: brand actually unknown]. Our director, Bing, warned us that these villagers had never been beat, had never lost to the Alliance, that the altitude provided them with a stamina advantage and that their whole plan was to plainly outlast us. We put on Nikes and they played barefoot.
At halftime we were up by 11, probably, about, more or less, 差不多, and Bing came to us beaming, "You guys are making history."
The second half was a slow descent into mediocrity for the Alliance program, and as our two main shooters trailed off with miss after miss and our strange pattern of substitutions threw off our team chemistry, the villagers swept back in and took the lead. The fourth quarter came around and I sat in a chair and watched for the rest of the game, content to let others play, unaware that we were actually losing. A beautiful girl in hiking shorts sat with me and I didn't care about the game. I reached out a daring finger and touched the hair on her head, and I dared with my other hand to touch her waist, and she smiled and tousled my messy hair, and me, covered in the most disgusting sweat I can imagine to date, and her, not seeming to give a damn, there in that chair by the concrete court in a village in Xishuang Banna (note: I am still unsure of Xishuang Banna's state of existence. It is within a province, but it is referred to as some sort of region. It has a capital [though I'm unsure of it's officialdom] called Jinghong, and is peppered with villages, and it's not a city. I just don't know what it really is).
Anyway, we lost the game when, down by one point, a friend of ours who loves basketball, who adores basketball, who played basketball in high school and talked about basketball the whole day leading up to this game—we lost when he caught a long-ball near the hoop, running, and missed a lay-up at the buzzer. Lost by one. I don't think any of us really minded.
And this is what stands out from Xishuang Banna (or, as Boston Mike called it, Xishuang Banana). We did other stuff, too, but this is what stands out, more so than the bars or the club or the cheap DVD store or the hotel or the market or any of all that jazz. And what stands out even more than the things we did is who we did it with: friends, cute girls, a guy from Boston who swears by protein, a beautiful girl in hiking shorts who smiles like a lens flare, a roommate and a director and a guide who all do what they do well. Villagers who eat with us after a hike; villagers who play ball with us in bare feet and cigarettes in their mouths; boat drivers who don't speak English but smile all the while at our half-hearted songs. These people stand out, and if pictures could capture them, they'd be captured, but it's better that they can move on, free, ethereal to those of us who only visited and as real and concrete as the Mekong River to those who love them everyday.