We started our adventure in Beijing, China. I had been there 12 years previously and had some serious trepidation about going back. But, within minutes of arriving I was once again reminded that the Chinese people are not the Chinese government. We were warmly welcomed. I am not sure what I expected but the city was a bit dazzling. Everywhere you looked something was under construction. It was an eclectic mix of ancient and sparkling new.
Our first morning, fueled by nothing more then bottled water, jet lag worked in our favor and we made it into the Forbidden City before the crowds. Our hotel was a few blocks away. The dawn walk was a perfect introduction to Beijing. New cars lined the road along with bicycle rickshaws. A Subway restaurant was next door to family resturant (more on that later) and a mom and pop shop. The sidewalks were freshly paved, but shirtless men slept there using steps as their pillows. And even at 6am, sparks rained down on us from construction going on above our heads. Old men were fishing in the canal surrounding the Forbidden City while pollution tried to choke out the sunshine.
After a wonderful morning exploring the ancient Palace we were ready for some food. It was still early so we weren't sure what we could find to eat, and what we wanted to eat. As we wandered back though the neighborhood alleys (hutongs) on our way back to the hotel I began to see piles of gray, clay crocks lining window sills and tables outside small shops.
In a flash I remembered that these were full of lucsious, sweet yogurt. I had enjoyed these before. With a bit of gesturing, the shop keeper brought us 2 crocks and some straws. The straws are popped through the paper covering and you drink up the yogurt. The man also sweetly insisted we sit in his cardboard lined chair on the sidewalk, next to his cigarettes and ubiquitous tea mug. It was a perfect start to our foodie travels.
We visited him each morning we were there, and would return at the end of the day for water and a beer. It was nice to have a familiar face each day.
After a day or two, I was beginning to miss coffee. I am addicted. Luckily, or sadly, depending on how you view things, Starbucks are all over Beijing. In Portland, I don't bother with Starbucks because of all of our other coffee roasters. But, in China...
You gotta do, what you gotta do. It was totally bizarre being in the shop. It looked EXACTLY the same as one down the street here. The muzac playing overhead, the over-stuffed chairs, even the chalk sign above the baristas heads. Of course, I naively assumed that they would speak English. It was a silly assumption. But, with friendly gesturing and waving, I was soon settled in with a cup 'o joe and the headache disappeared.
I was so taken with the Chinese people. Here are a couple of silly tourists, with a vocabulary limitied to "Hello" and "Thank-you" (okay, and "Beer") and instead of rolling their eyes at us they made real attempts at communicating with us. Nearly everyone we met, offered a smile or assistance if needed. Waitresses kindly followed us around from table to table while we pointed at other people's food. Bus drivers ushered off at the right stop. Food carts let us photograph them, and insisted we taste all sorts of delicious things.
I think about how I would feel if two (or 100s) of tourists came wandering through my neighborhood wielding cameras and were unable to communicate, or even read a sign. I would most likely throw up my arms in frustration and slam my door shut. Instead the people we met, smiled back, waved back, and let us pet their dogs. The real joy was when we got a baby to smile at us. Then the entire family's face would open up and we could all smile and gesture together in a dance of universal communication. And that, to me, is the best part of traveling.