Beyond words- a tale from China (2014)
Travelling a country without an organised tour guide when you do not know the local language, can be challenging. But it can also lead to some rather interesting experiences.
We had breakfast for three mornings in a tiny roadside shop, surrounded by the kaarst formations of Moon Hill Village in the Guilin-Yangshuo area of southern China. The mist swirled around conical limestone hills, just as the steam spiralled up from our bowls of hot, soupy rice noodles. We ate at rickety plastic tables with red tops, perched on wobbly, round seated red plastic stools. We handled our chopsticks clumsily, delighted when a strand of noodle or a clump of mince pork reached its right place. Locals eyed us with a mixture of curiosity and amusement.
We were staying at a fairly posh hotel nearby but with the pride of intrepid travellers insisted on authentic local breakfast. ‘We have rice noodles as well….’ Protested the manageress when she realized where we were heading out in the morning. ‘Well’, we thought cleverly ‘Not the real thing! We eat where the locals eat and for a lot less than the hotel charges!’
And so we found our place- cheap, wobbly legged tables, local customers and a menu written in Chinese. On the walls, life sized drawings demonstrated the size of the large, medium and small bowls. The noodles came topped with pork mince and chopped peanuts. A variety of toppings- finely grated greens, chillies, infused oils and peppers were laid out for self-service buffet.
The owner was a slim woman in her fifties maybe, dressed in a t-shirt and flowered printed skirt, straight black hair drawn back in a tight bun. She spoke in rapid local Chinese to the younger girls who assisted her in keeping the pots full. She spoke to us with her questioning black eyes.
We used our smiles and our hands. We pointed at the size of bowls we wanted, emphatically putting up our fingers to specify numbers. She nodded and disappeared. The bowls appeared with their contents piping hot and she pointed at the extra toppings, waving in the air to indicate we could help ourselves to whatever we liked.
She watched us fumble with chopsticks and disappeared again for a few minutes to emerge with metal forks and spoons. We smiled and nodded our thanks; she spoke with her twinkling eyes again.
The second day, she gave us metal cutlery with the bowls straightaway. More nodding and smiling, more twinkling eyes……
The third morning, it was beginning to feel like home. We had got our portions and toppings just right. Sadly it would be our last day in Moon Hill Village before heading to Beijing.
She came up to us and nodded. We put our thumbs and index fingers together to show our appreciation.
Suddenly she pointed at our teenage daughter ……’How old she?’
‘Thirteen’, I stammered……
‘My daughter twenty-five’, she grinned. We nodded sagely, lost for words.
‘Her birthday today, we having party’, continued the conversation in confident flow. Suddenly we were not feeling so clever.
Our hostess smiled and pointed at the tables, our hands holding well worn metal cutlery, poised frozen over our bowls.
‘Noodles getting cold…eat’ she said clearly. Her eyes never stopped twinkling.