Last night, not fifteen minutes after embarkation, I met our neighbors across the hall. (This is easy to do in China, where people routinely leave their doors wide open in hotels and trains and anywhere else where they are separate by walls: something about wanting to chat, or not miss a moment, I suppose.) “Hey,” the man called cheerfully from his bed, where he was chewing sunflower seeds and spitting shells on the floor. “Does your bathroom stink or not stink?!”
“It stinks to death!” I replied. He motioned for me to come into his bathroom, from which his wife was emerging. “Look,” she said, gesturing to their toilet. I held my nose and peered in to see a plastic bag filled with water forming an almost air-tight seal over the hole, and thus blocking the stench. “Wow! Smart! Hey, thanks.” “No problem,” they replied in unison, and went on with spitting shells.
This morning, after our smallest family member woke with the sun a full two hours before breakfast, I ventured downstairs with the camera to document the filth and decay of our dreary vessel, lest someone not believe our often-hyperbolic selves when we reported that this boat is dirty. I focused in on a swath of peeling wallpaper by a window, and as the shutter clicked I realized that the man standing looking out the window was taking a leak on the side of the boat (you’ll see below).
Finally, after chasing Owen around and around the relatively-okay deck (okay, it is horrid, too, but at least it gets fresh air and makes a good stage for blowing bubbles and running around), it was breakfast time. We ambled down to the dining area and received our allotted rice gruel and pickled vegetables, for which we paid one dollar each (really, it couldn’t be included in the exorbitant ticket price?) and tucked into a carb-coma that would last till lunch.
Another toddler sat nearby, throwing rice on the floor and watching Owen eat his oatmeal (brought from home) and throw our rice on the floor. I was happy to find him a potential playmate, and we went looking for her and her grandma after the meal. We found them in the common area outside the dining room: the girl had her shorts pulled down and her grandma was holding her in her lap while the girl peed on the carpet. They waved and offered to shake Owen’s hand as we passed. On the next bench, a 6-month-old pooped, with his grandma’s encouragement, next to a diaper they’d laid on the rug. They also smiled and proffered a baby hand to shake. I did my best to smile and dodge, and up to our cabin we went. We would have to make friends later, after bathroom time.
Besides the peeling wallpaper, cigarette butts on every surface, spit-out seed casings and orange peels everywhere, rusty nails sticking out of half-destroyed doors, filthy rugs, reeking toilets (even in first class), and the hardest beds in all of China, the boat offers one more frustration: anything you might possibly want to do outside your grotty room, they charge you for. Passengers must pay for all the lousy meals, of course, but also for entrance to the mah jhong room, which is just a room with tables and chairs, and for the privilege of using the “tea lounge,” which is no more than a dingy room with scattered card tables, ashtrays, broken/backless chairs and a TV blaring Taiwanese soap operas. The lounge opens onto the largest deck of the boat, and passengers seeking a reprieve from their sweaty, reeking berths come to cool off…but they are thwarted in their comfort-seeking by the xiaojie whose job it is to go around and collect money (3 dollars per hour) for the privilege of standing on the warped, rusty deck. The rationale? There is a table back in the “lounge” with hot water, paper cups and some old tea leaves, so the whole place is called a tea bar and requires the charging of admission, even just to pass over its lumpy, soggy carpet and onto the deck.
And so we made our trundling, sweating, filthy way to Chongqing, through some enchanting scenery (and no-longer-so-impressive gorges), by ghost towns washed out by the higher water levels, and already-decaying apartment blocks in the new towns relocated fifteen years ago to higher ground. Much of the scenery seemed to remain perpetually wrapped in a damp cloud. From our distance on the boat, the towns appeared dreary and motionless, silent witnesses to our wretched journey. And coming out of the gorges section and into the Sichuan basin, we seemed to enter an even darker world of thick fog and swirling brown waters.
This morning before arriving at the Chongqing Pier, we made ourselves some instant coffee, and even threw in some UHT milk we’d bought before embarking. We have to maintain some semblance of civilization while travelling, after all. But while reaching for something else, I knocked my cup over. Coffee lay on the bed and carpet, starting to soak in. We looked at each other, at the filth around us, and didn’t bother cleaning up.
Yes: the horror, the horror.