A 90-minute 20-minute Bus Ride

5:11 PM

“Wait ‘til it fills halfway. We’ll be out of here.”

“Yeah. Half is ambitious. She’ll leave before then.”

We sat on an empty bus in the county level city of Binchuan. The bus was small—15 padded seats, crowded tight. Silence. Buses rolled in, worn out people rolled out—weary from the cramp, the incessant honking, the cigarette haze, the tired life of people who ride these buses. This is China—the one you don’t know about. The sun had ducked behind the buildings—scores of incomplete apartment blocs. Scaffolding and cranes are fixtures of any Chinese skyline. There’s new money here and a lot of people. The cities are cramped—by design. Chinese municipalities tend to religiously follow the original intention of urban life—the intention that was lost somewhere in the American fascination with cars and sprawl plus an inflated fear and stigma against public transportation. They are accessible living spaces, with friendly corner stores and loudly convivial neighborhood restaurants, steaming street food and people who appear not to harbor inexplicable resentment as they pass each other on the street. There is no need for a car. Your feet can take you most anywhere you want to go. Should you find yourself in need of traveling some distance within the city, you can take a tuk-tuk or a cab or an unmarked car without license plates. None of this will cost you more than 5 RMB. Here, even lethargy is affordable. Should you need to leave the city, say to travel to a friend’s home in the surrounding towns, you can take a bus. The bus certainly won’t cost you more than 5 RMB, and unlike in the United States, the likelihood of stepping in Bubblicious or contracting disease is negligible.

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5:40 PM

“No way she fits another person on here. I can’t move my arm. Whole body is asleep.”

“Not sure. But I think I see some space in front. I feel like she could shove a medium-sized infant on top of the dashboard.”

“Yeah. Medium-sized.”

The Chinese bus system is a volume-based industry. There exists no complex algorithm relating customer satisfaction, constriction of space, or flagrant disregard for any presumed regulations with revenue. There simply does not need to be. The unambiguous profit model for a bus driver on the high mountain roads of Yunnan looks something like this. Customers • Fare = Money. C • F = $$$$. Since F is relatively stable—any increases beget a revolutionary environment—it stands to reasons that there is only one method to increasing $$$$—C. The better the driver is at increasing C—the less regard he or she has for the implications of increasing C—the more $$$$ he or she will reap. C is the variable. But, even by turducken-ing her patrons, she still can’t figure to hit the Forbes list. Think. The bus is small. Cram 35 people into it. If you get 3 RMB from each, you’re looking at 105 RMB. If you can utilize your rout to do some deliveries, you can bump that figure to 120. That’s $20 for a 40-minute ride. Give the bus company their cut and the driver is probably looking at a $7 or $8 at most. That is the maximum haul. It takes time to fill up the bus. Eight dollars for at least an hour of incredibly taxing work. It’s one of the most profitable jobs around.

Today, the driver—a terrifyingly adept businesswoman—was exerting herself to maximize C. She was a woman—rare—in her late 30s. She wore a pink sweater under a black leather vest and tight corduroys with a profusion of unnecessary zippers. Her hair was matted and curled on her forehead. A little greasy. Her expressions were vivacious, but her face betrayed a demanding forty years of life. With a busload that made the prospect of steep hills viscerally terrifying, we set off half an hour after climbing onto an empty bus. We were heading for a town halfway along the route, 20 minutes from the station.

6:01 PM

“What the hell is she doing?”

“I don’t know. Were this the US, I know we’d have Fletcher Christian’ed this shit 10 minutes ago.”

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The driver was shrieking madly into the giant white cell phone at her ear. She had eased the bus into the middle of an intersection and brought it to a standstill. The conversation was essentially unintelligible. I worked out that she was coordinating some sort of meet up.

“The intersection. No! In the intersection! A bus! Oh! The corner! You’re at the corner! Why didn’t you say so! I’m in the intersection! OK!”

She cackled into the phone and once again shifted us into motion. Moments later, she rolled the bus to a stop in the middle of a heavily trafficked thoroughfare and seized her phone.

“In the street! Yes! The street! We’ll wait for you!”

A collective tension and helplessness vibed through the bus. No one said a word, though—besides the driver. She was leaning out of the driver’s side, scanning the street for her friend/acquaintance/3 RMB opportunity. I cocked my head out of the window. Our eyes met.

“What’s the deal here, lady?”

We’re waiting. Two other people are coming. We wait here.”

I dejectedly slunk back into the bus, resolving to vociferously ‘boo’ the two people upon arrival. At this moment, an open-air truck with a four cages full of two tigers and two lions inexplicably rolled past and stopped at a stoplight. The giant, sad beasts stared at us. We shared a brief moment of commiseration. We were both miles away from home, at the mercy of lunatics. The light turned green and the cats disappeared. I saw three people walking briskly toward the bus. The driver hopped out to receive them. Two well-dressed women entered. They attempted to squeeze through the morass, eventually resigning themselves to a precarious spot on the stairs. A man with a giant white bag exchanged money with the driver. She shoved it into the trunk, which was also brimming. A few cars honked angrily and pushed past. No one raised any protest. The driver got back in and we left.

6:30 PM

“She’s out of her mind.”

She screamed wildly into the phone, no longer talking business. She appeared to be locked in intense conversation regarding her newly purchased pair of boots. She beat the horn indiscriminately. She didn’t smoke, but if she did, she would have had a cigarette in hand. Behind her sat and stood nearly 40 people, entirely unaffected, wholly unsurprised. Should the person on the other line make a particularly hysterical boot-related remark, the driver would surely lose control of the large vehicle she piloted and we would all die a very intimate death in the company of mildly irked strangers. I was happy my entire body was asleep. She stopped, and more people boarded.

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6:45 PM

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Easier said.”

We arrived. I climbed over the woman sitting at my left, who, at great pains, shifted her legs to let me squeeze through. We hopped off.

I’ve had the pleasure of taking public transportation in many places. I’ve taken tiny little Combis in Lima that weave in and out of traffic like deranged froggers. I’ve been on the New Orleans streetcar, a cautionary tale of why cultural relics ought not to be expected to provide beneficial public service. I’ve ridden the subway in Tokyo, which always arrives on schedule—to the second. I took a chronically broken down overnight bus in Laos with a college friend, an 89-year-old Argentine man, and 45 teenage Christian missionaries from Seoul, relentlessly chanting bible verses in Korean. I’ve taken trains in India.

Nothing is like the Chinese transportation system. The breadth. The scope. The diversity of method. The seamlessness in which a flawlessly paved highway can become a nearly impassible avenue full of animals and boulders. The controlled chaos. China is a nation full of rules and regulations, just like any other. It’s a big country. Rules and regulations crafted in Beijing have little hope of ever being followed in the Yunnan backcountry. How could they be? No one would drive a bus limited to 15 people. They’d starve.

The real wonder of the Chinese version of people moving—as portrayed above—has little to do with rules, buses, roads, and everything to do with the movers. They are loud. They are endlessly friendly before a customer transfers money, endlessly irritable after. They are multitasking daredevils in a position that could not be more at odds with such characteristics. They are perplexingly efficient. They are virtuosos of business. They are inescapable constituents to rural Chinese life. They are maniacs.

6:46 PM

“See you next time.” The driver said, winking ominously.

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Technically Challenged: A Hard Drive Disappears in the Mountains

Every once in a while something happens that doesn’t quite fit—it’s the stuff that can make life excruciatingly amusing. Conditions arise. They diverge from what you’ve come to expect as the existing state of affairs. It may be favorable—you win the lottery. It may be weird—a coke bottle falls from the sky in the middle of the African safari. Or, it may be bad—an Apple computer breaks down in the heart of Southwestern China.

It was an awfully cold Monday morning in the mountains. It wasn’t frosting quite yet, but it was threatening. A precarious film of dew plastered the blue ping-pong tables in the courtyard. Hands rubbed, people exhaled smoke. But I didn’t know any of that. I was in the only warm place I knew and deeply struggling with the prospect of withdrawing from it. The necessity of micturition ultimately made the decision for me—as it usually does. I peeled off the covers and sat on the edge of the bed for a long, reflective moment. When I finally touched my bare foot to the tile floor, I may or may not have yelped and peed a bit in my pants.

I gathered myself and slunk to the toilet, which is the word I use for the bucket in the corner of my room. I eyed my bed lustfully, but like an ex with too much history, I thought better of it. It was 6:40, I had to be in class in a half hour. I feebly flicked the switch on my teapot and tossed a few leaves in. I crept toward my desk, wincing in agony each time either my left or right foot made contact with the floor—which was, unfortunately, rather often. I sat down and slipped into the pair of sandals at the foot of the chair. I rubbed my eyes in preparation for the morning ritual of every twenty-first century worshipper of that which occupies the space between a couple of periods and the letters www and c-o-m. I pressed the power button and eyed the “f” key in anticipation.

I recoiled in horror, for I was not staring at faces of my 1,212 friends, but at a dark gray folder, with a light gray question mark blinking against a gray screen. I shut down the laptop in disbelief. I blinked blankly at the wall. I ogled my blankets. Surely, there was still some warmth left. I returned to the computer, and, covering my eyes with my left hand, eased it open with my right. I parted my middle and index fingers and peeked. It began to start. Then it stopped and the folder and question mark came into view, rhythmically blinking, mocking my very existence.

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“You motherfucker,” I dictated to the machine, which had just taken so much from whence it had given. “I hate you.” I sighed. “I really hate you.” The computer said nothing in response and continued to blink the folder and question mark. I shut it, spitefully put on my coat, aggressively drank some tea and continued to stare at the wall. As my computer was now broken, staring at the wall was the only alternative activity I could come up with.

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Something that has always escaped my abilities at reason: Why must a fatal computer crash always be signaled by an obnoxiously cryptic symbol like a frowny face or a blinking folder with a question mark stamped on the front? Why does the flashing question mark have the words www.apple.com/support under it? Couldn’t the developer save me the trouble of locating another device with an Internet connection and typing “Mac flashing question mark folder” into my search bar? Couldn’t they just tell me what’s wrong on the screen without sending me on a wild Google chase with the inevitable goal of discovering exactly how fucked I am?

That would be impersonal. After returning to my room a few hours later and being met once again with the uncompromising folder and question mark, I threw in the towel. I called via Skype that evening at 9 pm—7 am Central time—the hour when Applecare opens for business. I declined the suggestion to “Oprima numero dos,”—although I do plan to do it one day, purely out of curiosity—and connected to Markieff. He first asked me if there was a number to reach me at in the unfortunate event we should be disconnected. I eyed my tiny Chinese Samsung pay-as-you-go brick, which I imagine would spontaneously thrust itself out the window should it receive a foreign call and dejectedly told him no, no there wasn’t. The answer evidently surprised him.

“Well, do you even have an email?”

“Yeah. Kind of.” I couldn’t access Gmail without working through a proxy server. I didn’t have a proxy on the iPhone I was usingto call him. “I live in China, like thousands of miles from an Apple store.” I thought I was beginning to sound suspicious.

“Ok then.”

He deduced that my hard drive had disappeared. Poof. Presumably off on a journey of self-discovery.

“It’s alright,” He said.

“Oh. That’s good news.”

“You’ll just have to send it back to the US for repair. I hope you’ve backed your files up. They’re all gone.”

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‘It’s alright,’ I thought. I tried to envision a software-related scenario that would have crossed into Markieff’s threshold of ‘not alright.’

“Is that so?” I pondered.

“Yeah. That’s so.”

“Interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Maybe it is.”

“It’s not interesting.”

“No, not very.”

He gave me the information and we exchanged pleasantries.

The following afternoon, I went into town armed with my computer and Markieff’s instructions. I arrived at the tiny post office.

“I need to send this computer to the USA.”

The short, skinny, bespectacled guy at the desk looked at me as though I had entered without a word, dropped my pants and began urinating in the mailbox.

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“What?”

I repeated the request.

“Er. Let me see.” He frantically grabbed the phone on the desk and dialed a number. He began screaming in local dialect. He hung up the phone, looked at me curiously, and then pounded in another number and began screaming in local dialect. He hung up again.

“Can’t do it.”

“Why?”

“Can’t send electronics to the US.”

“What do you mean?”

“Against the law. Sorry.”

Dubious. I walked out and flipped over the computer. “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Dubious, indeed, I thought. There are hundreds of thousands of electronics currently en route to the US from China. Either the guy was looking for an excuse to avoid doing something difficult or there was some head-scratchingly paradoxical bureaucracy at work. I had to mail something to a place to which it was forbidden to be mailed. It stood to reason that I was the first foreigner who’d ever had a computer failure in China. Probably because of me, they will enact a new law. Pending legislation/increasedwillingness, sending the laptop back to the States was out.

I got lucky, though. There happened to be an extra 2007 Macbook in a TFC employee’s apartment in the state capitol, Xiaguan, which was three and a half hours away. I couldn’t go during the week. She would return on Saturday evening. I persevered without connectivity for five days. I read Crime and Punishment. I stared at the wall. Sunday morning came. I woke up early in the morning, touched my feet to the icy tiles and tried to figure out what to do in lieu of checking my email. I smoked a cigarette.

I got on the bus around 7:45 after devouring a plate of fried noodles. Three and a half hours later, I was in the 12th story apartment of the owner of the extra Macbook. I was excited. I could once again rejoin society by not participating in it.

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“Here you go,” she said.

“Where’s the charger?”

“I guess there isn’t one.”

“Oh. How about that.”

I left the apartment with a sneer and headed toward Wal-Mart (Wo-Er-Ma). I bought an imported box of Ferrero Rocher that came to about my weekly salary and drank a vitamin water. As I left Wal-Mart, I came across a giant gleaming white apple in profile, with a bite taken out of its side. The apple was inverted, at least in relation to the one on the back of the laptop I currently held in my arms. I walked in. There were two young men smoking cigarettes and a woman behind a cash register. They wore blue shirts of a familiar color. Not light blue, but not quite navy. There were tiny spherical chairs and long tables of sanded light brown wood imitation. Along one wall were a handful of miscellaneous things: Headphones, cases, speakers, chargers. It was almost right.

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“Do you have chargers for this?” I held out the computer and asked one of the guys.

“Of course.” He offered me a cigarette. I looked around and accepted it. He lit my cigarette and went to find a charger.

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A middle-aged woman was sitting on the fluffy sphere next to me, inspecting a phone that was too large and bulky to be the type of phone that should be in this store, but was nonetheless stamped with a small apple, with a bite taken out of its side. The young guy returned with two chargers, flicked his cigarette onto the ground, stomped it out, and rummaged behind his ear for another one. I gave him my new computer and the charge lit up bright orange. It came to life.

“Wow! How much?”

He flipped the box around and tapped it with the unlit cigarette. 598 Yuan ($100).

“What? That can’t be.”

“Well…”

“Too expensive.”

“500?”

“Way too expensive, still.”

“450.”

“No way.”

“Well, sorry.”

I resigned to buy it online for much less (around 120). I asked him if they could charge my computer for a while. He said they could, but they couldn’t watch it and there was no way to be certain that it wouldn’t be stolen. I said thanks and left.

I got back on the bus and prepared for another week of having a valid excuse not to respond to emails. I bought the charger and picked it up at the same post office. I’m now typing.

We supposedly live in a—redundantly speaking—global world. We feel this globalization when we look at our European friends’ Facebook statuses, when Brazilian students read about hamburgers in their English textbooks, when you pass a “Chinese” restaurant on the street. But, true globalization is elusive and will always be so until the point where there is no such thing as a European friend, or a Brazilian student, or a “Chinese” restaurant. I guess globalization means a more accessible world—where we can do business with, experience pieces of cultures of, and meet people from here and there. It’s a good thing in theory, but it’s also incredibly self-defeating. I’ve found it very hard to recreate things so deeply rooted in their singularity and isolation. I like that. It reminds me that the world is still big and different and exciting. Is it annoying to not have a computer for three weeks in the year 2014 when others expect you to have one? Obviously you can tell from my initial tone, that it is. However, it was cool to  havea cigarette in an “Apple” store, be offered a smoke by a “genius.” It was even kind of funny to have someone tell me that electronics can’t be shipped from China to the USA. The thought of a world where everything fits, where everything is easy, where everyone understands each other and is prepared to send a computer to the other end of the earth with no hassle, where we can’t be wowed, where we aren’t at least a little bit different, isn’t as sexy as it sounds. The thought of living in a seamlessly global world depresses the shit out of me.