A dead body isn't what we expected to see when we planned this trip. But in southern China on a small fisherman's rig in 2005, that's exactly what we saw drifting past the boat. And not just one, but five dead, bloated corpses bobbing ahead, beside, and then behind us.
I'm not sure which was more rare on the river: dead people or my buddies and me. We were probably the only white folks for a few hundred miles. The other passengers on the boat, rural Chinese who had most likely never traveled more than a few days from the river, flicked their faces towards the sky, pretending like they didn't see death in the water. I guess when you grow up in a communist country, you're trained to ignore quiet horrors like this. Even if I knew their language, I'm not sure I would have inquired about the floating bodies anyway.
In the end this incident didn't bother us too much. It was a long day. The air was thick with humidity. After reaching our destination late in the afternoon, the temptation of the water was too great, and we decided that dead bodies or not, we wanted to swim. Besides, dead people weren't the most unusual thing we saw that summer.
We stayed in this town for the next day or so. The owner of the only hotel gifted us with a karaoke room and a huge feast of duck and Tsingtao. The local English teacher, who was kindly translating for us, said we were the first white people their village has ever seen. The newspaper published our photograph. Traffic literally stopped when we walked down the street. Mothers asked us to hold their babies. We were given a car tour of the town. On that ride, the English teacher leaned over to me and said, "You come back to China. I marry you."
As you can imagine, we felt important. But our feelings of grandeur quickly evaporated just a few days later. We went from river, to motorcycle, to bus and finally arrived at the end of our journey: Hong Kong. Here, the Chinese speak better English than us; and they definitely dress better, too. Unlike ourselves, they shower regularly. Our status flipped from celebrity to smelly foreigner as soon as we stepped foot into Hong Kong. No free karaoke parties here.
That summer in Asia was a whirlwind. It began two months eariler when we arrived in Beijing, caught a train to the capital of Mongolia, drove seven days to Olgiy, flew into Kazakhstan to visit old friends, bussed back to Urumqi in western China, smuggled ourselves into Tibet, flew to Chengdue, and boated down to Hong Kong. But these locations only provide the scaffolding for the actual content of the trip. Our tent was pitched in snow, sand, and forrest. We burned yak dung to boil water, bribed border police, discussed spirituality with a Tibetan nun, hiked a mountain which stood at the corner of four countries, ate curdled horse milk, conveyed via charades to a medical staff that we needed constipation relief, and stumbled across a Mongolian horse race.
It's been almost ten years since this oddyssy, and I think about often. It shapes and describes who I am. Not completely, of course, but significantly. I might not pay off police, bathe with snow, and recline on bamboo rafts every day, but the times those things did actually happen serve to remind me in the monotonous times of life that I have drank deeply from what this fantastic planet has to offer. In a world that is too often framed by screens and concrete, we need experiences like this to remind us to stay awake.
My guess is that you also have past events which stand as tent posts to the canvas of your life. They don't define you, per se, but they do point to what it is in life you stand for. They steer our attention away from ourselves and towards the beauty this world has to offer. We become inspired.
But maybe you haven't yet had such adventures. If not, it's time. Life's too short, transportation is too cheap, and humanity is too fascinating to not circumvent the globe at least once in your life.