"Twenty ‘planners’ are on the first tour now, but we can put your name on the student group of 16."
I explained that I was 63 years old, healthy and had pedaled 61 miles one day recently. She said, "I’ve just accepted a man from New Orleans who’s 84; it’s a learning trip, not a race."
I was happy to wipe out my savings of $3,000 for something this special. Relatives and friends helped my husband pass the time because he was not at all interested in a visit to mainland China. I was eager because of my admiration of Christian missionaries from childhood.
Fifteen students and our young female leader flew from San Francisco in May 1981. At a four-hour stop in the Tokyo airport we began to get acquainted with each other. We first heard Chinese spoken later that day. We checked our bikes but did not unpack them. Not one was damaged. Bikes would go with us on the boat, up the Pearl River, still in their shipping cartons. Our boat was an old beauty from China’s glory days: mahogany doors and trims with brass doorknobs and other fittings. I could imagine royal families and tourists of ancient China recreating on such a lovely vessel, but we used almost nothing else to match that boat’s elegance.
The trip was timed for us to be asleep at the time of entering austere China borders, but I purposely stayed awake beyond that entry point. On shore, across the river, factories were going full tilt all night. We docked before breakfast was served, and out came our chopsticks! We were becoming a happy, chummy family! Locals on shore all looked alike and all wore plain colors with no stripes, patterns or adornments.
One American said, "I could have done with black and white film in my camera."
Bikes were assembled and the evening meal served long before dark, so one cyclist announced, "Have your bikes ready for a shake-down cruise in single file, and all stop if anyone has a problem."
One of the bikes needed gear-chain repair, and we all stopped. Within minutes we were surrounded by a crowd of Chinese men and women staring, jabbering, smiling and pointing to our bikes. Of course we couldn’t answer their questions in their language. I took my handkerchief and rolled it into a play-like mouse.
People stared and more people came. I spoke in a loud voice, as if they were Americans: "We roll it here and tie a knot like this," I said. They were immediately good listeners to these strange words being spoken to a cloth mouse. I twisted and turned my handkerchief mouse. People came from across the street to see what was happening. There was excitement as I pulled Mouse’s tail out into sight and tied a knot for his head.
"Nice Mouse," I said a time or two as I stroked that rolled up handkerchief. Suddenly Mouse sprung forward into the crowd! People screamed. That brought others from across the street. Some brave person cautiously lifted Mouse with two fingers and handed him to me, urging me to do it again.
Mouse jumped again and again, causing laughter and chatter among all of those people who had had so little to laugh about for 20 years! A middle-aged man near me spoke a few words of English, and I slowly explained about our tour. He understood and said it in Chinese. The people all clapped. Our leader gave the signal, and we soon pedaled away waving, and I, with wet eyes, was delighted because all of those isolated people had laughed this day.
To be continued next Monday.