Those who know me know that I am an avid swimmer. Years of swim team from age 6 to university, and then continuing onward with my own daily rigid work-outs, make me somewhat of a water fanatic.
I still remember my childhood in my hometown where I had to be the first one in the pool for opening day. For a couple of years, my brother was the manager so I always had a head start on everyone else. He’d let me in a few days before the season began so I could jump in to tell my friends that I’d already christened the water.
Of course, it was freezing cold. My brother would throw in a quarter or two as an incentive to dive in. I could only last for a few minutes, my teeth chattering while I shrieked, “Darn, this is COLD!!!” But despite the discomfort, I could still proudly announce to all that I had been the first swimmer of the season.
Some People Just Don’t Get It
Those not into sports or exercise probably don’t get it.
For many of us, our exercise routines are as necessary to life as breathing. Hitting our “zones” (that pleasant cruising altitude where body and soul blend together as one during our work-outs) is the highlight of our day. For myself, swimming is my time to meditate, compose stories, organize my day, lesson plan, relieve worries and release stress. It gives me the quiet I need away from the buzz and whirlwind of the outside world. For over an hour, I will continuously stroke my way into a realm of peace. And in order to find that peace, I will search everywhere, and go anywhere, no matter how far away, to get it.
That’s one reason why the Nanning trips (3 hours away) have been so important to me. Without a pool here, I’ve needed those swimming weekends to balance my spiritual and physical well-being.
A Pool in Longzhou?! No Kidding!
My pool obsession is the reason why I was excitedly bouncing off the walls when I heard, last September, that our area had a swimming pool! Newly built and only 20 minutes away by bus.
My students talked about it. My colleagues mentioned it. My teenage buddy, Joe, and his friends announced they’d gone there during the summer.
Reports were it was very big and the water was clean and cool, changed every 3 days to make sure the unbearable heat of southern China didn’t boil people up upon their H2O entry.
I quickly asked around. Instructions were given on how I should go. It was the Road 2 bus loop that I needed to take, which started from the center of town and wove it’s way outward into the countryside. Margaret, my Chinese colleague who had taken care of LF for me sometimes, said to get off at the last stop. She really wanted to accompany me during the weekend when she had time but I just couldn’t wait. I was itching to find this place by myself. After all, I reasoned, my Chinese isn’t that bad. I’d just get off at the last stop for the Road 2 bus and ask the locals. I figured if it’s a pool, it must be located in a town of some sort, right? I mean, why would you put a pool in the middle of nowhere? Who would go there?
Ah. How little did I know.
The Search is On
Thus my 3rd week in September, on a Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m., I took off to find this place. I wasn’t sure about pool changing rooms or the facilities so I donned my suit ahead of time, brought my towel, goggles and cap, packed up 2 water bottles and headed out my apartment door.
It was a roasting day. By the time I arrived at the town center just 10 minutes later, I was pouring in sweat. I searched out Road 2 bus from the line of buses at the stops. It was sitting idly by, waiting for countryside locals to clamor aboard. I hopped on, found a seat, sat next to the open window for a breeze and waited for us to be on our way.
I had no clue exactly where we’d be going. At 2:15, the driver started up the engine and off we went, circling the square to head out of town.
It was definitely a wild ride. We exited the town by a narrow country road which had us banging, bouncing, swaying, winding and rattling through the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen. I had no idea the area around Longzhou was so breathtaking. I spent all my time gazing out the window at vast fields of corn and sugarcane, surrounded by distant mountain ranges, wishing I’d brought my camera.
Along the way, a few locals got off at nearby dirt roads, probably leading to their farm houses. We wove past one of Longzhou’s famous tourist sites, Little Great Wall. This is a giant rocky mini-mountain with steep steps that lead upward to a temple at the top. It’s a popular place for tourists who are passing through or for outings by company employees or students. I have as yet to go but I heard for the price of 15 yuan ($2.50) per person, it’s a nice way to while away 3 to 5 hours.
After about 15 minutes, we came to an odd little crossroads with a small store, a kindergarten, a performance stage in front of a basketball court and a row of concrete buildings. Nothing else was there and I would have gotten off except it wasn’t the last stop. We picked up a passenger and another got off, then it was back to banging down another dusty stretch of road leading us further away into nowhere.
Finally, the bus landed in a open-air market square of a tiny village. Everyone got off so I did, too, not really knowing where I was or why in the world a pool would be around here. Naturally, everyone was staring and gawking at me. I’m sure I was the first foreigner ever to land in their midst. Even a year later, I bet some are still talking about the strange American girl who alighted on their village doorstep, looking for . . . a swimming pool? Crazy woman!
I asked several people around me, none of whom spoke Chinese but their local dialect so I was just given vacant looks. I finally went to a mom-and-pop family store to buy water and asked there. There was huge discussion that took place before someone finally said no pool was anywhere around them. Then one piped up that the pool I wanted was at the other stop. I’d missed it.
The Road 2 bus was still sitting there with the driver behind the wheel. He was was waiting for the appointed 15 minutes to be up so he could begin the return run back to Longzhou. I had to pay another fare (40 cents) to get back on and return the same way I’d come. To make absolutely sure this time, I asked the driver and he confirmed the pool was at the other stop, at the crossroads.
Thus back I went with another load of locals, but this time I got off at the right place.
A Bust: Closed for the Season
At the crossroads, I talked to a Beijing duck seller whose cart was positioned alongside the road. Who would buy her roasted ducks, hanging from hooks and dripping in juices, was beyond me. The place was deserted.
After asking her where to go, she pointed me down a long, cement pathway lined with huge palm trees and high brick walls on either side. It snaked its way far into the distance.
“The pool is that way,” she said.
“Is it open?” I asked.
“Yes!” she smiled, giving me the impression she knew what she was talking about. (I soon found out she didn’t.)
I began the long, tree-lined trek which had me doubting it would lead anywhere of importance, least of all where I wanted to go. The concrete pathway ended at the entrance to a tea farm company. Once there, I asked the gate man where the pool was. He pointed me around the corner to yet another paved walkway that led me by a banana plantation, then around an old water tower with a faded red arrow, next to which was written “Swimming Pool” in Chinese. I suddenly emerged into a wide field of tea bushes and star fruit trees with jagged mountain formations popping up in front of me. To my left, another wide expanse of land with something that gave my heart a few jumps of hope. In between rows of pineapple plants and banana trees was a brick-walled enclosure – the pool! I’d found it!
I quickly made my way onward up a gravel road. While huffing and puffing under the wicked Guangxi sun, I approached the entranceway. My expectations were high and spirits bright on having a cool swim after all this hassle and trouble.
But, alas, it wasn’t to be. The pool was closed for the season. The entire area was deserted. Not a soul was in sight for miles around. Just me, the lone, disheartened foreigner, looking longingly at an empty pool through the gratings of the locked gate.
A Swimmer’s Vow
On the long, steaming hike back to the main road, I vowed that I’d be the first one in that pool when it opened the next year in 2012. This time, I’d bring my camera to document the journey.
For 8 months, I anxiously awaited my moment to return. The result? Stay tuned. You’re about to find out in the next entry!
Wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day from China