A portapotty sized box shuddered side to side and bounced over cable towers bringing us to the jumping off point on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall in northern China. We were a 10 minute cable car ride and a five minute walk away from my forgotten epi-pen which was on the tour bus in the village below. A full eleven minutes more than it would take for me to die from anaphylactic shock if one of the Great Wall wasps the size of a cigarette lighter got bugged and stung me.
At this remote location of the Wall in Hebei Province, we were the only tourists that day in August. T-shirt hawkers wearing flip-flops, some of them older women with faces lined like tea eggs, took a skinny foot path up the mountain, lugging satchels of stuff to sell. As we clunked up the steep mountain in the cable car, we watched them far below, steadily climbing. They arrived about three minutes after we did, breathing evenly and keeping up with us as we explored the Wall.
Summer heat and humidity clobbered us at the top. My three daughters and I walked slowly, shielding our eyes which traced the Wall zig-zagging the spines of mountains. All around us peaks like massive dragons teeth grimaced under the relentless pressure of the heat-smacked sky.
We sat on crumbling masonry to enjoy the view. The two older girls took off with some of the other kids in our group. Sitting on a piece of antiquity, my running shoes covered in historic dust, I saw the first wasp, reconnoitering. It buzzed my head and left.
My youngest daughter, then seven, looked at me and said “Mom? Mom?! Did you see that? Mom, did you see….” She stopped when the wasp returned and brought a friend. She grabbed my hand and started pulling me away.
We were on a narrow section that dissolved into a path just barely wide enough for two people. As we turned, we met three eager, smiling souvenir vendors who began their expert sales pitch while balancing post-cards, t-shirts, and baseball caps emblazoned with the Beijing 2008 Olympic logo. They pulled from their pockets endless varieties of pens and key-chains, Chairman Mao watches and knock-off Rolexes, beer steins and tea pots.
While we stood there, blocked by the determined new capitalists, the wasps found us again. The hawkers, focused on closing the sale, swatted the air and casually shooed away the predators but the badminton-birdie-sized wasps kept coming.
My daughter began to cry. “Mom, you’re going to die!”
No. I was not going to die. I simply refused to die that day because my last meal was not worth it.
Down at the bottom of the mountain was the nearly empty restaurant where we had had lunch. The last thing I ate was served steaming in a flan pan. Every dish at lunch on this flame of a day was hot. Every dish was unfamiliar.
This was our fifth day in China and each day we’d tasted and enjoyed a boggling selection of indescribable food, most of it delicious, most of it unfamiliar. We encountered one of these food mysteries just that morning at the breakfast buffet. A clear vat filled with a bilious green liquid sat between similar containers of orange and apple juice.
At lunch, a dozen steaming platters were splendidly arranged on a round table seating 10 Canadian tourists. Our cold beer sweat perfect O’s on the table cloth. And in the middle of it all sat the flan, looking familiar, comforting, like home and my mother’s cool custard chilling in the fridge in individual Corning Ware cups. Soothing, bland, vanilla treats.
I scooped some into my bowl and took a bite. It was salty. Lumps of something like clams with the resilience of table-dried chewing gum hit my tongue. It tasted like whale spleen. I chased it with beer – the whole bottle and then some of my husband’s.
No. This could not be my last meal.
I pushed past the hawkers, dragging my seven year old, escaping the wasps, the hawkers voices drowning out the dreadful hum of the killer insects.
Pebbles skittered off the wall and down the mountain as we bolted back to the cable car and crammed in, oblivious to the unstated capacity limits. At the bottom, the plucky sales team met us again and offered us one last chance to buy a memento. I bought a hat.