Juana is waiting for me when I come out of the baggage claim area and I am SOOOOO relieved because even though I thought I was hot shit for spending the better part of a day without linguistic assistance, I would have been really wigged out if she wasn't there grinning at me upon arrival.
How was I ever to imagine that a trip to Singapore a year and a half ago to visit Dominique would have me meet and get to know one of her closest friends there, Juana. And what would the likelihood be that Juana used to live in Chongqing and was originally from Fuling? (Which is a stop on the way to Qianjiang.) Or that subsequently she would end up divorcing her husband and moving back to China? Or that she had no clue that children were being abandoned and that SWI were filled to capacity?
I quickly brought Juana up to speed and gave her the 411 on my adoption journey and shared my dreams to someday to travel back to China to check out Qianjiang, the city from which Makena was purportedly from. She was fascinated and quickly offered to be my guide should this dream materialize. And fast forward to November 11, here we are.
(First class, soft sleeper, cabin: 139 yuen, one way. Book all for seats in case you don't want to share with a stranger and make sure it is non-smoking.)
(Chongqing rail station at 7AM)FYI: Even though I had my friend with me, figuring out how to get to the right track in the correct departure hall and going through security was intense so I recommend extremely light packing for the train ride.
One of the rivers that feeds the Three Gorges Dam and the expressway that now links Qianjiang to the big times.
I always tell myself when I meet people for the first time and find a strong connection to them that there is always a reason. That is the case for Juana who essentially gave up two days of her weekend to embark on an adventure with me to a town she had never visited even though it is a couple of hours away by train. Thanks to her college connections and for wanting me to get as much out of the trip as possible, she called on friends to help us find a guide and a driver so that we could trip around town.
(My guides, courtesy of the school of tourism.)
(Footage of the drive through town on a Saturday morning.)
(A young woman rehydrating seaweed which is used in all soups.)
I really felt like I had stepped off the reservation when my entourage took me to lunch in a nondescript hole in the wall. To date, all my dining experiences in China in trips past and present were in cavernous glittery five star culinary extravaganzas. Here, I was being led into a windowless cinderblock room with a big round table at the center of which stood a bowl of steaming hot soup. I was being hosted at a farmer's restaurant where all veggies served were straight off his farm and everything was fresh.
As an aside, I had until that very moment been a vegetarian for the last three years. Juana, pretty much told me that those days were over and that I needed to try everything. You pretty much can't pass on the pork when the poor pig was slaughtered in honor of your arrival. Times like these are usually when I start praying silently to my digestive gods hoping that Montezuma is seeking vengeance on some other continent. So I took the tiniest bite of it, almost gagged over the tripe, tasted a sliver of something beefy looking and took a mouthful of something that looked like squid. When I inquired as to the provenance of said protein, no one would or could tell me. The best surprise though were the potatoes that made an appearance halfway through the meal. Qianjiang is a mountainous region and many varieties are grown here. They even fry them up and serve them mixed in with the rice. I do have to fess up that once I got over the visuals and the scent of spices I had never smelled before, that the food was really delicious. I even impressed my hosts by moving a chicken talon aside in the bowl and plucking some yam noodles out with my chopsticks. They were seriously stunned that I could eat with them.website for pictures of it but never found one and I was really concerned that, as time went by, the city would change due to the massive construction push all over the country. I wasn't wrong.
(We stopped in a store so that I could purchase some tape for a poster of Makena's life that I intended to leave at the finding site.)
(As expected, and after three different attempts made to locate the Bojiawan gas station, we finally found it. At least, what was left of it. A primary school now stood in its place.)
It took my breath away, I was really emotional and conscious that everyone was watching me. Strangers curious about this white woman who really needed to get a picture of a gas station. I had to try to make them understand that one day my daughter would ask me questions about her beginnings and that I wouldn't really have any answers for her other than what I was able to gather for her now. In the very least she would know that mom moved heaven and earth to go in search of some facts to weave into the fabric of her life before the trail grew cold.
(This wall was part of the original gas station complex. I leaned there for a long time. I felt like this was my great wall and that it stood between me and Makena's past. Prettier shot than a gas pump.)
I put together a poster letting whoever know that in November of 2005 a little girl was found here and that she was later adopted by an American family, that she was bright and beautiful and very much loved by all who knew her. My guide translated everything into Mandarin while my driver shot a lot of pictures. I'm fairly certain that although he never said two words to me, that he spoke fluent English and reported everything back to higher up. So much for keeping a low profile in Qianjiang.
(We left the poster at the entrance to the school along with an email address to contact us with any info about Makena.)
Just before we were to leave, a woman showed up at the school. She was the new director of the Qianjiang SWI that was being constructed. The director of the school of tourism had called her and told her where I was and basically ordered her to hightail over to me and give me a tour of the old orphanage. So our group left in a convoy of automobiles and drove up into the hills to a pink building overlooking the city. It had been closed since September and all the remaining children were now relocated to Chongqing. As hard as she tried, the director could not unlock the door so we went up the back stairwell and poked around with limited access.
(View from the rooftop.)
(The empty kitchen.)
(A peek through the bars and I caught a glimpse of the profiles of the last of the children who were there before moving to Chongqing.)
According to the director, the new SWI will house retirees as wells as children but she was not clear on when the new facility would open. We bid farewell with the promise of staying in touch and then headed back to the hotel where I soon found out that the bill had been taken care of by the school of tourism. I was officially their guest. And although I insisted and waived my credit card around, Juana just told me let things be. That this was the Chinese way and that protesting too much would be insulting. So I backed off, thanked all present for their hospitality and headed up to my room for a well-needed rest until dinner. I still had a lot of to-do's I needed to check off my list before leaving the next day; namely get a name for the woman who was pictured holding Makena in her arms in early photos of her and take photographs of a young burn victim who my friend Cherry from Beijing had lined up surgery for in Australia. And so far, so good, my stomach was still holding up.