If you missed my last post on the obstacles we faced yesterday on the way to scuba lessons, you can catch up here: Jellyfish Lake
Hoping to avoid being detained by police again, I printed out a copy of the paperwork we filled out yesterday. On the train to Zhuozhou, I silently rehearse my lines in Chinese. “We came here yesterday and registered. We’re back again today.”
“Maybe we’ll get the same guy as yesterday and he’ll let us through,” Daniel says as we get off the train.
Walking toward the exit, we are confronted with three security guards and four guys wearing neon Traffic Control vests. We’re outnumbered and get immediately pulled over to the side.
“Who are you meeting? What’s her name What’s her phone number? Where are you going?” Officer #232 asks. This takes about 45 minutes. So much for a faster exit today.
“Can we go now? What else do you need?
“Please wait, another officer will come soon.”
“How much longer?”
“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”
“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”
Officer #232 paces in circles and wipes his brow. He really wants to be done with us but doesn’t want the responsibility of letting us go. He looks so uncomfortable we almost feel sorry for him.
“Can we go? Our friends are waiting,” we try again.
Officer #232 hands me the papers and points to the locked exit door.
“Show it to him,” he says.
We knock to get the guard’s attention, pressing our faces to the glass like puppies at the pet store pleading for freedom.
“Mom don’t stop – keep going!” Daniel urges when the door opens.
“Aren’t we supposed to show him our papers?” I ask the boys.
“I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to come after us and tackle us. Just go,” Timothy says.
Our instructors Chris and Lexie meet us in the parking lot. The good news is Chris isn’t hungover today.
“Maybe next time you should try driving. There’s so much traffic they don’t stop everyone,” Lexie says. “It should be much faster.”
She tells us that the police grilled her on the phone while we were waiting in the station. Her relationship with three foreigners was causing suspicion from the authorities.
We agree to arrange a car for tomorrow, hoping to avoid another encounter with the police.
The boys master their scuba skills successfully, and Chris and Lexie drive us to the train station. We’re hungry, but the pork bun shop is closed. We pass a vendor selling chicken feet from a roadside cart and produce vendors displaying their goods on the ground. It’s grittier than Beijing.
“Do you eat lu rou huo shao?” Lexie asks. Donkey Meat? We love it.
“It’s amazing we’ve never gotten food poisoning here,” Timothy says, digging into a hot flaky roll stuffed with donkey meat. The car smells like peppers and cumin.
There’s a local idiom here that “in Heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.” Finally, something likable about Zhuozhou.
We pass security quickly after pointing to the clock and speaking urgently about our train departing soon.
At dinner time, Mike asks about our day.
“There was really nothing fun about swimming in a trash filled lake. I just want to get certified,” Timothy says in a voice that conveys truth, not complaint.
Being grilled by the police over the last two days takes an emotional toll. No one wants to go back, but we need to finish before school starts. We take a week off and then schedule the last two classes.
We’ve arranged for our driver Chen to take us, hoping driving across the provincial border will be easier than travelling by train. Success! We didn’t get stopped at all.
That was such a good decision, I thought, as we wrapped up the scuba lesson and hit the road by 2:30. So far, the trip was uneventful. No police checks, paparazzi or dead fish floating in the lake.
Then we hit the first police check point. We get pulled over, Chen hands over our passports and gets out of the car to talk with the guards. A few minutes later an officer gets into our car (without Chen) and starts driving. We’re on a road trip with no passports and a Chinese cop behind the wheel. Before my heart rate hits dangerously high, the officer pulls into a parking lot behind the police station.
After about 20 minutes of questioning, we’re on our way. We pass checkpoint number two, leaving Zhuozhou without incident. We cross the bridge to checkpoint three, which is the border into Beijing.
We roll up to the guard and as soon as he sees us in the car he motions for us to park and get out. We hand over the passports and the questions start again.
“Where are you from? When did you arrive in China? Where’s your virus test? Where’s your proof of quarantine? Who is your community leader?” The officer asks in Chinese, thumbing through our passports.
Chen patiently answers for us as we stand on the side of the road. The officer isn’t satisfied and disappears inside the building with our passports. We wait as a steady stream of traffic rolls by. From tattooed truckers to old ladies hauling peanuts to market, their eyes rest heavily on us. If we were still in Florida I’d wish for a sinkhole to swallow us up.
Chen brings us some water from the car. If I’m going to be an object of shame at a Chinese border crossing, I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side. With a fuzzy brush cut and a face like a teddy bear, Chen is kind and gentle, providing the comfort we need.
“How much longer?” Timothy asks.
“I think I heard someone say 20 minutes, or maybe he said he’s been working here 20 years, or that we’ll be waiting 20 years, I’m not sure,” I answer.
It’s been almost an hour when we see a police car pull up, lights flashing.
“Maybe they’re just starting their shift,” Daniel says. “Or they’re coming to take us away.”
I take a mental inventory of the snacks and toilet paper in my purse as three soldiers walk up behind the police car and toward us.
“Maybe they requested back up,” Daniel say. We laugh a little, but there’s tension, realizing the situation is completely out of our control. The police car and soldiers continue past and we relax a little bit.
“What can they possibly be doing inside?” I wonder out loud.
“Maybe he’s waiting for his boss to finish his plate of dumplings before he approves our paperwork,” Timothy says.
After about an hour and a half an officer comes out and unceremoniously hands back our passports.
What we had hoped would be an easier trip than going by train had turned into a 4-hour car journey that tested the depths of our patience and strength of my bladder.
I get up early and bake blueberry muffins. If we spend hours at the border or get thrown in jail at least we won’t be hungry.
We set off with Chen and arrive quickly in Zhuozhou. The only obstacle in our path this time was a herd of sheep.
We arrive a little early, hoping we can finish and head home before Friday traffic gets too bad.
“Maybe we can hide in the back of the van,” Daniel says. “Except they probably have infrared sensors and they’d find us.”
The boys grab their wet suits from the equipment room head down to the lake.
It rained last night, raising the water level and gathering more debris into the lake.
“Well. There’s a couch to sit on with your feet in the water, kind of like New Symrna,” Mike says, when I text him a picture.
The only thing missing is a fruity drink with a little umbrella.
I find a patch of shade and watch the boys disappear into the lake, leaving a trail of air bubbles. Local kids play in the water, eating watermelon and tossing the rinds. A toddler comes with his dad, looking to catch some fish in his small net.
The boys finish their skills and make their way to the beach, greeted by a golden retriever who’s gone for a dip to escape the summer heat.
“Congratulations to our open water divers,” Lexie says, snapping photos of the boys she will use to make their official PADI certificates.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I will beautify the pictures first – make your eyes bigger, make your skin whiter.”
I think of the rows of skin whitening products for sale in the grocery store. Maybe everything here would be easier if our skin were just a little bit whiter and we didn’t look so foreign. I look at my handsome blond boys with a hint of color on their skin from a day at the lake and think they look perfect.
We gather our stuff and pile into the van, making a stop at the bathroom preparing for a long drive. We pass the first police checkpoint and the officer waves us through.
“Wow, either he didn’t see us or he just wants to get an early start on the weekend,” I say to the boys.
“Or he doesn’t care about his job,” Daniel says. “But we just saved 20 minutes compared to yesterday.”
I keep the passports handy since checkpoint two is just a few minutes away. Chen rolls down the window, answers a few quick questions and that’s it.
I’m feeling lucky. Too bad we can’t go to Vegas.
We continue to checkpoint three where we spent an hour and a half yesterday. I’m scanning the faces of the officers as we approach, hoping someone will remember us and allow us to pass.
In the amount of time it takes for me to realize I’m holding my breath, we pass effortlessly through the checkpoint. No questions, no ID checks, no waiting on the side of the road.
Chen gives us a thumb’s up and smiles into the rear view mirror. I celebrate by finishing the Fritos and half a Clif Bar I’d stashed in my purse in case we got detained.
The rest of the drive goes smoothly, and I reflect on the past few weeks. I know the boys would rather be eating burgers at a Five Guys with friends at home than eating donkey burgers in the back of the car with mom and my heart aches for them.
But it swells with pride when I think of how they handled this situation. The goal was to get their scuba certification, and they did it with resolve and humor. They don’t believe me yet, but I tell them that one day the experience of living in China, with all of its challenges, will turn out to be one of their greatest accomplishments and fondest memories.