…When I came home from shopping. I know this isn’t the way that scary stories usually start, but keep reading, it gets better.
My friend Kasia and I decided to meet up on Friday night for dinner and shopping. I still have a long list of souvenirs I’m trying to buy for friends and family, so I was grateful to have a shopping partner that enjoys shopping much more than Justin, who generally sulks near the door waiting for me to finish browsing or annoyingly interrogates me about every potential purchase in my basket.
It had been a bit of a gloomy day with some light, sprinkling rain here and there, but nothing worth getting the umbrella out. When I left the apartment around 4:15, Justin was sitting in front of the computer and he mentioned meeting up with us later for dinner after we were finished with our shopping. I told him to keep our (shared) cell phone in that case, so that he could call Kasia’s phone if he wanted to meet with us. That was my first mistake.
Shopping was a lot of fun, and I ended up picking up some good souvenirs. Kasia knew all the best places to go, and even introduced me to the 2 Yuan store (where everything costs 30 cents) and the 10 Yuan store (where everything costs $1.50). It’s China’s equivalent to a Dollar Store. Kasia also told me that in England they have the Pound Shop–it doesn’t matter where in the world you’re from, people always love a bargain! By the time we sat down to eat, the sun had gone down and there was a light, drizzling rain. However, when we were finished eating and ready to do some more shopping (Justin never called), we stepped out of the restaurant to find a complete deluge! In fact, the outdoor shopping center we headed for had rain pouring down from the gutters so fast that the sidewalk was flooding. I had on some black Ugg boots (I always wish I had a pair of rubber rain boots!) and Kasia had on some nice high-heeled boots, but we thought we would try wading through the water anyways, thinking that it only looked to be a couple of inches. We stepped in and realized that it was actually four or five inches, and we both had water soaking through our shoes to our ankles! I was thinking that might be a sign that we needed to call it a night, but Kasia trudged on to the next store with an “it’s only a little water!” mentality that I had to admire, so I followed.
We shopped on a little more, and I glanced at my watch and realized that it was 8:40 already. The #2 bus line that I use stops working at 9 PM, so I had a choice to make–bus or taxi. I realized that by the time I reached the bus stop it would be ten minutes before nine, which is the worst possible time to ride on the bus. It’s almost like the witching hour….people who would otherwise be calm and very friendly transform into crazed, cut-throat wild animals, willing to do whatever it takes to claim that final spot on the bus. The difference between a two Yuan bus ride and a twelve Yuan taxi ride is apparently a big one, and with the standing-in-the-pouring-rain-to-hail-a-taxi factor included, I knew that people would only be that much more intent on shoving, kicking, pulling, or biting their way onto the bus. I decided to continue shopping and just hail a taxi later, hoping that the rain would slow down a little by then.
But it didn’t slow down. In fact, I think I even saw a few rare (for Huzhou) bolts of lightning flash through the sky. This was obviously going to be an all-night kind of pouring rain, and the flooding in our shopping center was only getting worse. And there is nothing worse than wet squishy socks inside of wet squishy boots, is there? So at about 9:15, we decided to head to the side of the street to hail a taxi. Kasia generously tried to share her umbrella with me (what a day for me to leave my umbrella at home!), but we really just ended up both getting wet. I always hate trying to hail a taxi at night in the rain, not just because of the reduced visibility for drivers (and increased likelihood of getting hit!), or because of the big puddles that tend to build up on the side of the road that drivers love to splash right through at fifty miles an hour, soaking any nearby pedestrians, but because Huzhou has a terrible lack of city sidewalks. In order to get to the street to hail a taxi, we had to wade through the bushes which had their own muddy puddles (it’s no longer a mystery why all of the shoes I’ve brought to China are completely ruined), jump over a fence, and stand in the traffic lane waving at taxis.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for a couple of taxis to cruise our way and pull off on the side of the road. I quickly said goodbye to Kasia and jumped in the first one, and he immediately started driving to get out of the way of oncoming traffic.
I don’t know much Chinese, but I can pronounce my school’s name perfectly: “Hu Zi Yuan.” (This is actually the short name for the school, just like FSU is the short name for Florida State University. The long name for our school is so long that even native Chinese speakers have trouble getting it right.) Unfortunately, my taxi driver seemed to be a little hard of hearing, as he repeated back to me, “Cao Yang Yuan?” He also had some ridiculous Chinese pop music blaring through his radio, so that might have added to his confusion. Eventually, though, he turned it down and we had a completely circuitous conversation:
Me: “HU ZI yuan.”
Taxi Driver: “Cao Yang Yuan?”
Me: HUUUUUU ZZZZZZIIIII YUAN.”
Taxi Driver: “Cao Zi Yuan?”
Me (like an owl): HUUUU! HUUUUU ZZZZIIIIII YUAN.”
Taxi Driver: “Hu Zi Yuan? Shen ma?”
I was thrilled that he finally had the pronunciation down, but he obviously had no idea where I was headed. I was in a strange situation, because usually a taxi driver rolls down the window as he pulls to the side of the road, and I tell him my destination, and if he doesn’t know where it is, he just shakes his head and drives away. However, because of the rain, I was already in the car, and he had already spent five hard-earned minutes trying to figure out where I was going. He suddenly pointed left and looked at me questioningly, as if asking me whether or not he should turn. I shook my head and indicated that he should make a U-turn, so he did. Oh man, I realized. I’m going to have to direct him home turn by turn….and I’m not sure I know the way! I really should know the way by now, but I never pay close attention when I’m on the bus. I get to look out the window and watch the people on the sidewalks…I’m never paying attention to the turns or trying to learn my route. Plus, the bus takes a really circuitous route, whereas taxis always take the most direct route, so there are multiple routes for me to get back home. But what other option did I have? Getting out of the taxi back into the pouring rain, to wait for another driver who may or may not know where I live? No thank you. So I did my best.
At every intersection, the taxi driver would look at me and I would point which direction he should go. Did I mention that I don’t even know the Mandarin words for “right” and “left”? Such basic directions, but Justin knows them, so I never bothered to learn. And I had my tiny, travel-sized shopping purse on, which did not have my Chinese-English dictionary in it (or my umbrella, obviously). I was so unprepared for this!
At one point, I must have had the driver take a wrong turn. Suddenly we were on a long stretch of dark road, and there were very little street lights and no people or cars to be found. I didn’t recognize any of the buildings, and we started driving over a bridge. After continuing down the road for a ways, the driver kept pointing forward and looking at me questioningly again. He must have known that I was lost. “Uh….I don’t know!” I said, even though he couldn’t understand. My biggest fear was that he would get fed up with me and drop me off on the side of the road, out in the middle of nowhere where there seemed to be no other people (and no other taxis) around. I was also without a cell phone, since I left the phone at home with Justin. I also realized, with alarm, that I wouldn’t even be able to borrow a phone to call Justin because I never bothered to memorize our cell phone number. I was really starting to panic.
Suddenly, my taxi driver interrupted my worrisome daydream by tapping me on the shoulder and pointing to our left. It was the gate of a school–not my college, but the college next door. He looked at me questioningly, and I pointed frantically, “Yes, left! Left!” I have no idea how we found our way there out of nowhere, and it took me awhile to really orient myself enough to direct him the rest of the way to my school, but we finally made it to my college. “Ohhhh,” he said, like he finally realized what I had been saying. “Hu Zi Yuan!” “Yeah! Hu Zi Yuan!” I said back to him. I thanked him profusely and tried to give him a tip on top of the cab fare, but he refused to take it. He chuckled and said, “Bay Bay,” (Bye Bye) when I got out of the car.
I still had another half-mile or so to walk home from the school gate to my apartment. Taxis (unfortunately) are not allowed on campus. By the time I finally stepped over the threshold into our apartment, I was so soaked I was dripping water onto the floor. Justin took one look at me and said, “What happened?” “It’s a long story….” I replied.
I know that my mother is probably banging her head against a wall right now, saying, “Have I taught her NOTHING? Can she at least TRY not to get herself killed in the next two months before she comes back home?” All I can say is, sorry Mom. I’ll try…