Friday, September 16, 2011

China -- Day 8

Subtitled: I Found My Man, This Is What Plastic Is For, All In The Name Of Tai

It rained last night and when I say rain, I mean torrentially raining. I laid awake for a while last night listening to it and prayed that it would stop before we had to volunteer today. And my prayers were answered. It stopped raining but did not clear up for most of the day. In fact, heading higher into the mountains the fog and mist was heavier (every time I rode into those mountains and saw the peaks shrouded in fog, I thought “Gorillas in the Mist” for some reason). We had the same breakfast as the day before and hit the road at 7:15. On the way up the mountain we got stuck behind a trash truck that refused to move. After trying to squeeze by without mashing mirrors for quite some time, our guide got out and argued demonstratively for a bit with the driver of the truck and finally convinced him to move in a bit so that we would not plummet down the side of the mountain. This was one of those roads only wide enough for maybe 1 ½ normal sized cars, not a bus and a truck. And there was no guardrail to keep us up, only a sure-death plummet down on our side. So that was why we were all late for work. I swear.

Something happened overnight and the four of us did not get split up and we were assigned to a new keeper, who I think introduced himself as Mr. Chang. It was funny calling him that as he appeared to be all of 20 years old; all of us could have been his mother. Anyway, Mr. Chang seemed to want to practice his halting English on us and also didn’t mind waiting while we ran amok taking pictures when we probably shouldn’t have. It was nice having a rapport with him though because we could ask him about the pandas rather than feeling like we were an imposition simply by asking simple questions.

Each time we entered a panda house for the first time of the day, it was always interesting to see how the pandas would greet you. They hadn’t seen humans overnight and were also probably hungry and ready for some treats. Most of the time they came to sit on their butts, legs out, right near the enclosure’s bars. They’d hold on to the bars or stick a paw out. One we saw this morning was up on his hind legs, holding the bars with his front paws, and rocking side to side, one foot to the other, head back in the air. I’d seen the pandas on panda cam do this before and it was sort of neat to see it up close.

We cleaned four of the enclosures we did yesterday. You might remember that I managed to dodge the poop scooping simply by having exceptional broom skills. No such luck today. And the enclosure I got to clean was Lu Lu’s, who apparently is the Ace #1 Pooper at BiFengXia. I was surprised he was still standing when I finally saw him; it appeared as if he’d imploded. And just to properly indoctrinate me into poop scooping, I reached down to pick up a long stalk of bamboo and the other end got stuck under the edge of the bars and when it flicked back, it flicked you-know-what all in my direction. Joy. I let it get to me for all of 30 seconds, didn’t care what hardened in my hair for the rest of the day and went on to the next cage. I can assure you, nothing will faze me now that I’ve cleaned Lu Lu’s cage.

Mr. Chang also had me clear off the outside enclosure for Lu Lu, which meant removing the bamboo from yesterday, cleaning up the poop and then hauling in new bamboo for the day. It was actually really satisfying to visit him later in the day and see him out there on his patio enjoying the bamboo. It was still clean out there then, but I’m sure he’ll waste no time messing it up. Lu Lu got up to return to his inside enclosure while we were watching him, but somehow I used some panda whisperer skills to convince him to stay with us and pose for photos. I won’t say I guilted him into it, but….I did scoop his poop! He indulged us for about 5 minutes, then gave us a bleat and went inside. And that was it for me and Lu Lu until I went back to say good bye later in the day.

We each got to feed pandas again this morning, having cut up more panda cake for them this morning. The keeper knew how many grams each panda was supposed to get, so we had to eyeball the loaf, cut it down to what we thought was correct and weigh it. We got pretty close most of the time. The keeper uses the panda cake sometimes to lure the panda in and out of the different parts of the enclosure, always sliding closed and locking a door behind them to keep them separate from us.

When Mr. Chang cut us loose from our morning duties, David took us back up to the 2 year olds’ area for another “play with pandas”session. Even though I hadn’t taken the cash out of the ATM for a third paid session here, I whipped out my credit card and signed right up. Experiences like this, that only happen once in a lifetime, are exactly what the plastic is for. We gowned up and got in line. While we were waiting, we could see the four pandas that they had chosen for us, and they could see us. I think they are well aware that any time non-keepers show up in hospital gowns, they’re going to get snacks. They were climbing all over each other and up and down the bars between them and us, they were obviously so excited. I could hear the little bleat of the guy I sat with yesterday and hoped I could get my hands on him first again today. And I did. He wasn’t hard to spot because he was already talking away. I sat down sort of next to and behind him and just started to pat his neck and back. I talked to him and he was chatting away back at me. I made a point this time to really take it in, look at his eyes, look at his fur, remember how it feels. It is just such an incredible thing to be that close and have them be so gentle and cute. I believe in storing up memories to pull out and savor when I need it the most, and every encounter I’ve had with a panda here is one of them, but this little guy really won me over. I asked the keeper on the way out what his name is, and she said Xiang Riu, I believe. All I know is that I found my man. I’m smitten!

Once we were done hanging with the two year olds, David whisked us off to lunch again in the employee dining hall. Today we had something similar, starting with a tomato and egg drop soup, a pork stir fry, lima beans of some sort with chicken, a hot cabbage slaw and rice. Again it was interesting to see all of the employees come with their own bowls, get them filled at the window, sit with us to eat and then go outside to the sinks to clean them up.

After lunch we went back to the panda kindergarten where I got to see the nursery worker de-poop the infant panda. She held him belly up and started to stimulate his lower region by rubbing it with a wet cotton ball. Then she tapped that area and all of a sudden he started to clear his bowels. I won’t go into much more detail than that, but I did take video of it. The poor guy really looked more comfortable once that was done for him; he’d looked a bit agitated just before that.

The other team of volunteers from our group was assigned to the temporary enclosures that are housing the pandas rescued from the Wolong base during the earthquake of 2008. There they saw a mother panda with a one year old cub who had not been separated from her as most of the cubs already have been. Our team of volunteers really wanted to see them both, so Stanley made a point of taking us up there on the way back to our jobs. Unfortunately we found the mom but no baby. But at this point, our cup already runneth so far over, it was hard for me to be disappointed.

Our afternoon volunteering didn’t consist of much but hauling some fresh bamboo in and talking some more to Lu Lu. We asked the keeper about him, and he said he is 15 years old and has always lived at BFX. I think he said he’d fathered some cubs, but I can’t be sure with Mr Chang’s English.

There was a whole lot of confusion about how the day was to end. David came to get us at 2:30 for a “ceremony” up at the main entrance at 3:00. We were supposed to be back for the last feeding at 3:30. We took the buggy up to the main entrance and quickly surmised that the ceremony was to honor a contributor to the facility and it would be all done in Chinese (obviously) so it would be of almost no value to us to see. Others in the group were still really desperate to get a glimpse of Tai Shan, who’d been practically hidden when we went up to Leopard Mountain the day before. We managed to convince David and Stanley to take us up there one more time. Since all employees were at the ceremony, we had to walk from the main gate. At David’s pace, we did it in about 20 minutes: 10 minutes to the kindergarten and 10 more to the repatriated pandas.

On the way, I stopped our group to show them Lu Lu, since some of them didn’t work with him like I did. He was still eating bamboo, only this kind he was stripping the leaves off with his mouth (with the leaves all pointing in the same direction!) and once he had a dozen or so leaves all lined up in the corner of his mouth, he use his hand to twist them into a cigar shape, and he’d bite of chunks of the cigar and eat them. It is all really very scientific, and he has it down to a science, to be able to pick up stalks of bamboo and strip the leaves off, skillfully leaving the twig that attaches the leaf to the stalk intact! I bid Lu Lu a fond farewell and told him to be a little kinder with his poop production with his next volunteer, and we continued our walk up to Leopard Mountain.

When we first arrived, Tai Shan was right where we left him yesterday. And even when the keepers came to bring him and his neighbor Fu Long biscuits, he didn’t move. After a bit, he crept up two steps so we could see more of him, but he was still dozing away. Finally he got up, went into his enclosure (where we ran to the front window to peer in at him). He thought about his biscuit for a few minutes and then brought it outside. Tai sat upright on the step, one paw on his knee, the other holding the biscuit to his lips where he licked it absentmindedly for about 10 minutes, giving us ample time to snap about 50 photos. Then as soon as he’d had enough, he dropped the biscuit and went back to his spot. And that was the end of the Tai Shan show. Now that everyone was satisfied (David let us stay past 4:00 because I think he knew he’d have an uprising on his hands if he tried to make the group leave) we could leave. While we waited for a buggy to bring us back to the entrance, I went over to say goodbye to Fu Long. He was the first adult I saw when I arrived on Wednesday and it felt right to see him last too. We also caught a glimpse of Mei Sheng doing his tree climbing routine again, climbing nearly three stories up a tree, to then perch himself precariously in the fork of a branch for a nap. I honestly don’t know how these pandas balance and don’t accidentally fall out of the trees while they sleep!

We left Bifengxia for the last time. Last time on this trip, that is.

Dinner tonight was in the hotel restaurant again. Stanley helped us order. Since I was the only spicy chick there, we didn’t order spicy. We had kung pao chicken, two plates of Sichuan green beans with chicken, the fried sticy rice sticks that we also had last night and a big order of fried rice. With beer for some and Sprite for others, the whole thing came to 24 yuan or $4 a person. What a bargain!

I noticed that on the way back on the bus I started thinking about packing for home. I think mentally I’ve made the transition and am ready to head back. Tomorrow is mostly a travel day (2 ½ hours to Chengdu then a 3 hour flight to Shanghai) and we have Sunday to see Shanghai and that is it. I can’t believe I’m at this point already!

Not sure if there will be an update tomorrow…nothing but travel, I think.

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