It can happen to anyone, any time, any place. Even on China’s Hainan Island. Or perhaps, especially on Hainan Island.
Article first published as The Furthest Point of Sky and Sea on Blogcritics.
When she stepped onto the bus, there was a sudden shortage of oxygen. Every male passenger sat tall and sucked in his gut. She dug into her pockets and pulled forth a handful of Chinese money. The bus driver daintily extracted the proper amount and dropped it into the glass box.
As she glanced around for a place to sit, every suddenly-taller-gut-sucking man had the same thought. But I had the advantage. I looked Russian.
The bus lurched forward, launching her on a trajectory leading to the empty seat next to me. She sat down and exclaimed something that wasn’t English. I began to pray fervently for the gift of tongues, but no luck. I shrugged. “I don’t speak Russian.”
She looked at me and repeated the phrase. “Da Dong Hai?” The clouds parted and I heard angels singing. Not only did I know what she was saying, but I knew where it was, and best of all, I was going there too.
Da Dong Hai is the middle class beach of Sanya City, on Hainan Island, in the People’s Republic of China. Da Dong Hai is perhaps my favorite place in the whole world. At least it was today.
Her name was Maria, she lives in St. Petersburg, she’s here on vacation, she’s traveling alone, she’s working on her PhD in religion. I gleaned all of this in a few short minutes. She speaks English.
Oh, and there’s more. She’s pregnant. And planning to sleep on the beach because hotel prices have tripled due to Chinese New Year. Do I know any place that sells sleeping bags? I swear what I’m telling you is true.
Suddenly, I had a plan. We would be married and live happily ever after. I know from past experience it probably wasn’t a good plan, but it seemed better than letting her sleep on the beach. I’ve been to Sanya many times and even if I weren‘t pregnant, I don’t think I’d attempt to sleep on the beach. Stay out all night, yes. Sleep on the beach, no.
We arrived at our stop, got off the bus and walked a few short blocks to the Big East Sea. That’s what Da Dong Hai means. On the way, we were approached by the usual number of sunglasses sellers and fruit ladies. Feeling protective, I waved them off.
I’d been skeptical of her claim about the PhD, but as we talked and walked I realized she wasn’t kidding. We spent the afternoon talking and walking. We bought some fruit and ate it as I became her tour guide.
At the far end of the beach, around the bend, is a Chinese naval base. Imagine the look on the officer’s face (as he emerged from his quarters, following his afternoon nap) to find an American man and a Russian woman asking directions. After we were politely escorted off the base, I thought I heard the sound of a firing squad. Just glad it wasn’t us.
Not far down the coastline is the world’s fourth tallest statue. It’s a glistening white, 354 foot tall depiction of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin. It’s the crowning glory of one of the largest Buddhist theme parks in the world. It’s true. I swear. Anyway, she wanted to go there the next day. Would I like to go with her? Perhaps not the world’s silliest question, but certainly among the top 100.
Come to find out, she had one more night at her hotel before the holiday rate kicked in. We made plans to meet for coffee in the morning. Which gives me time to fill you in on the back story.
I teach English in China. I’ve done so since August, 2004. I happened to be in Sanya this time to teach at a winter English camp during January and February. I was sharing an apartment, provided by the school, with four Chinese teachers. All female. I wouldn’t make this up.
Sanya is about as far south as you can go without leaving China. It has three major beach areas: Yalong Bay (for the Jet Set), Da Dong Hai (Bus Set), and Sanya Wan (Local Set). Sanya Phoenix International Airport (SYX/ZJSY) serves travelers with daily flights to Hong Kong and Europe. There are a lot of Russian tourists in Sanya. Many of the store signs and restaurant menus are in Russian, Chinese and English.
The next morning I met Maria in the lobby of her hotel. She’d gotten directions from her Russian travel agent on which buses to take. So, after a leisurely European breakfast, we set out on our adventure of the day.
Ever hear the expression “it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there!?” On the way to our destination we actually passed the end of the world. Literally. The Chinese name is Tianya Haijiao. Tian is sky and Hai is sea. (Remember our Chinese lesson above?) It could be translated as “the furthest point of sky and sea.”
What’s funny is that Tianya Haijiao sort of got it’s name from when the Chinese Emperor would opt for exile over execution. In the olden days, when a noble fell into disfavor he might be banished from the kingdom to this place. Oh, please Br’er Emperor, puh-leeze don’t throw me into that there briar patch!
I wasn’t expecting quite such a hefty entrance fee when we arrived. It was 150 Yuan each, which is roughly $22.5819 USD at this exact moment. Fortunately, she paid for herself.
After we went in, I feigned interest in the exhibits for about a half hour. She obviously was taking this PhD thing seriously. I told her I wanted to meditate at the base of the Guanyin and she should meet me there when she was ready to leave.
The Guanyin is perched on a man-made island on the edge of the South China Sea. I stripped off as much clothing as I thought I could get away with (Buddhist rhymes with Nudist, after all) and began my swimming ritual. Ah… I think time apart is good for a relationship, don’t you?
As I lay on the beach, gazing up at the Guanyin I had time to reconsider my marriage plans. After all, she really only needed a place to stay until hotel rates came down again. And two of my roommates had already headed home for the Chinese holiday. She could stay in one of their rooms.
And as for her, uh, condition – she would probably make up with her boyfriend sooner or later. And, even though I love children, I’m getting a little stuck in my ways. I made up my mind to let her down gently.
I jumped up, brushed off the sand, pulled on the rest of my clothes and went looking. When I spotted her, I almost reconsidered. Did I mention she takes your breath away? But then I gathered my courage and ran up to her. “Two more hours,” she said. “Okay, take your time,” said I. I returned to my meditation spot.
To wrap this up, we didn’t get married. She took me up on my offer to use my apartment for a couple of days. There was no hanky-panky. Darn. Several months after she flew back to the cold, cold North, I got an e-mail with a picture of her and the baby. Beautiful kid. I think of her from time to time and wonder how she’s doing. Cue music.
Of all the buses, at all the stops, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to get on and sit next to me. Play it again, Sam. I’m not quite finished. Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah. Of all the bus stops, in all the towns, yadda, yadda, yadda. We’ll always have Sanya.
I’m telling you the truth. I swear.