Okay, so this is a sad day. Our last buffet nooder filled breakfast.   We’ve finally gotten into the swing of things and I actually hit the snooze button this morning. Excellent.  I’m now fully turned around.   We head to breakfast and enjoy HEEPS of nooders.  I’ve also finally perfected chopsticks.  Now I get it, and I’m actually going to miss using them.

Everyone takes their medication…and we head to the bus.  yes. Medication. I’ve become the queen of the Robaxacet/advil mixology.  I’m finding the longer we are here the more I realize exactly what this trip is for….I’m turning 40.  And my knees and hips have figured that out already.   So Nicole and I take our mix of anti-inflammatory goodness, and Gary and Chris take their midol.  Yes. Midol.  I did promise this story didn’t I…..

Picture it (say this in your head “Sophia-Golden Girls” style):  Greece, 2015.  We are on the tail end of a 3 week journey together.  Gary is low on sleep, Chris hasn’t cleaned anything in a few weeks. So they are both pretty awful to be around first thing in the morning.  Nicole and I have learned to tiptoe around them until 10am or so.  The morning in question we are leaving early for a driving tour.   Nicole and I have left our bottle of Midol (PMS medication) on the counter in the villa.  We are flying out tomorrow and don’t want to forget to take it before we leave.  Women know this trick-when you travel -you retain water.  Especially if you drink beer (which we OCCASIONALLY do. I’m typing and rolling my eyes at the same time).  So on vacations we tend to take a Midol here and there to help with the water retention-its a diuretic.   This morning in particular, as we are leaving and about to get in the car, Nicole realizes that she laid out a Midol each for her and I and forgot to put them in her pocket.  So, she sees “Cranky Muppet #1” (Gary) coming out of the villa and yells, “Take the MIDOL on the counter please!”.  Of course, there are many “what??”s and she has to repeat herself 3/4 times…..this is the Gary way….but eventually he says, “the Midol? on the counter?? take it???” and she says, “YES-TAKE THE MIDOL.”.  Then we watch in horror as Gary opens his mouth, pops the 2 Midol in, and swallows.   ………………………………………….. long pause. ……………………………..mouths gaping open………………………… “umm…..with you? take the Midol….WITH YOU.”   He looks confused.  “what?”.   Nicole and I still blinking in disbelief.  Then it hits us at the same time.  PMS medication.  Is this REALLY such a bad thing? That Cranky Muppet #1 has taken a mood stabilizer? and we just go with it.  In fact, we try to come up with a way to get Chris to take them also.  Heck, we even give serious thought to a plan to crush them and have the boys do lines when we get home.  As he is reading this he is realizing for the first time that those pills that Nicole and I now religiously  make him take on vacation are NOT in fact B-12…….  And it worked.  Much nicer husbands.  Even if their breasts are more tender then usual.

Moving on.  We leave the hotel for one last adventure.  Today we are told we will first be visiting a herbal institute for a foot detoxification and massage – and an assessment from an eastern medicine Doctor if we so choose.   We exit the bus and are brought into an academic looking building.  We haven’t been told much about this stop, and I don’t really remember reading about it in our itinerary-so I’m somewhat concerned….but its a promised foot rub! I’m in. No questions asked.   However, I travel with some “don’t touch me”‘s.  Nicole is vowing that if anyone touches her feet she will go “cray cray”, Chris is do ticklish that he is already giggling with anticipation, and Gary has no hair on his legs from the mid calf down-something we make fun of him for EVERY chance we get-so he’s not too keen on the foot rub situation either.  I convince them to just “go with it”.  It will be fun!

We all file into a room that looks somewhat like a classroom, and we are seated behind vats of dark liquid and told to de-sock, roll our pants up and stick our feet in.  Its a nice warm liquid and my feet are already happy.  We soak for about 10 minutes and then are presented with a short speech dictated and translated from the director of the college to his assistant.  Then the students come in.  We are told via translator that we are lucky to have these students as they are actually under the tutelage of the Doctor that has handled the local Government officials for decades.  The student’s file into the rows and instruct us to take our feet out of the liquid and place them in their hands.  Already Chris is in hysterics and Nicole looks like she’s about to get violent.  I scream “Oh my god what did that liquid do to the hair on your legs????!!!!!” when Gary takes his feet out.  Just as he was anticipating.   The students dry our feet off and get to work.  What starts out as a very gentle loving massage quickly turns passive aggressive.   With kind smiles on their faces the students begin beating us about the legs.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  Beating.  And Nicole and I start to giggle.   They slap their way up our mid calves…HARD.   Then back down to our feet for more gentle massaging.  Then back up the leg for more slapping. Nicole and I are full belly laughing at this point. It feels good.  Don’t get me wrong.  But its starting to get a little “50 Shades of China”.  Given that Nicole hates to be touched…I’m thinking the beating isn’t helping her attitude towards foot massages.   She is giving me the “I TOLD YOU I WOULDN’T LIKE IT” look while I am heaving laughing.

Then the Doctors come in.  They ask for a raise of hands for anyone that would like an assessment done.  I convince Chris to volunteer-and a Doctor quickly comes to our end of the room with a translator in tow.  He checks Chris out (all while he is being slapped about the legs by his masseuse) and after many minutes and much talking with his translator she quietly says, “You drink lots beer?”.   Chris says, “yes…..well not usually…but this week yes…and last week..and sometimes at home…but not a lot…I mean its not like I drink all the….”.  I put my hand on his leg.  “Rerax.  You aren’t being interrogated.”.   The translator says, “Doctor says you have liver issue which cause high blood pressure because you drink too much beer.  Stop drink beer.  You can buy tea from us that will detox you.  You want?”.  At this point, between the beating our legs are taking and Chris coming all the way to China to find out that he needs to stop drinking…..I am laughing so hard I’m crying.  We leave the college, and don’t buy the “stop being an alcoholic” tea.   I enjoyed every moment of this….Nicole has PTSD, Gary still has no hair on his legs and Chris won’t drink the breakfast beer I bought him.  Humph. All and all a great morning start!!

From the Herbal Institute we bus to the Summer Palace.  We HONESTLY listened for the first 20 or so minutes…honestly.  But if I’m being truthful, I’m kinda done with Palaces.  What I really want is to shop.  And rest.  I’m pooped.  And I feel like I’ve seen pretty near every palace in China, give or take a few.   I think Chris, Gary and Nicole feel the same. So, after the first 20 minutes of this palace, we quietly ask if we can just walk ahead and do our own thing.  Billy, our guide,  is more then happy to oblige, something we have come to love about him. He is so easy going.  So we are given a time to meet back and we make our way to the nearest stand and buy a beer.  Well, the elderly and the women sit outside while Nicole and Chris go buy the beer.  Then we do our usual sit and drink and giggle for about 15 minutes-then quickly deciding we will make it our mission to find the gift shops.   We take the next 30 minutes or so shopping and finding this and that- a talent since we very little cash left.  So our approach is to walk into the shop, ask if they take visa, and if we get a yes-we spend the next 10 minutes pretending we’re on that Super Market Sweep game show.  I literally buy 18 mechanical pencils with Panda erasers at the top.  I know NO ONE who wants a panda PENCIL of all things, including myself,  and I’m relatively confident my husband doesn’t even know how to write with one.  I look over to see if my sister wants me to get 10 more for her before the non-existent buzzer goes off- and she has at least twice as many in her basket.   I love it when we work as a team.

From here we move on to one of the adventures I’ve been looking most forward to the entire trip.  The local experience.  We start by taking a rickshaw drive to a local home for lunch.  We hop off the buss and take about a 5 minute walk to a group of Rickshaw drivers and are told to hop into one of the cute little buggies, take note of the number on the outside of the rickshaw, and get comfy.  Our driver is a sweet man who greets us and vigorously helps me into the buggy-pretty sure hes just trying to assess my weight and assessing if he had enough wheaties this morning.   We get comfy and relax as he sits down and starts pedaling.   We are quite a group of people, so I believe we take up about 20 rickshaws in total-a very long line of bikes and passengers, and this beast of a man takes us in and out of alley ways like its no big deal, narrowly missing parked cars, moving cars, cats and people.  From our vantage point we are able to look into local homes and restaurants-the real stuff…not the tourist revamped hot spots, but the true Chinese way of life.  We see happy children playing, dog walkers and local shoppers, many man and women, clearly construction or kitchen workers, sleeping on the ground during breaks from their labor and other evidence of a thriving and happy society of people living their day to day lives.    After a 10 minute ride we stop at a building that is exactly like all of the other buildings on the route (Not totally convinced they didn’t just PICK a building out of the blue and drop us off-NO IDEA how they could tell it apart from the others) and tell us we have arrived at our lunch spot-a family home where the excited Chinese owners have made us a local meal!  We all climb out and are led through a few alleyways to a beautiful 6 room home.  We actually walk through their kitchen while they are preparing us lunch-which smells AMAZING- and are led into an outbuilding with 3 rooms set up for eating-plastic table clothes and utensils-like they are entertaining friends!  We find a spot and sit, ready to be fed as usual. We meet our local guide, and man no more then 40, who says that the family that is preparing us lunch is very excited to serve us their traditional food that they have hand prepared for us-and they feel honored that we have come to visit them.  The food starts to come out, and it is incredible.  Chicken wings and vegetables,  noodles and sprouts. Then come the dumplings.  Oh wow the dumplings.  We are given fresh-just out of the steamer-packages of happy in both veggie and meat options.  The pork are tender and amazing-a taste I can’t describe exactly other then to say they are addictive.  They are served with vinegar – these people get me- and the single most tender and flavorful “pot-stickers” that I have ever had.   After a few minutes we notice that there is a distinct “chirping” noise coming from somewhere inside our room.   We all scramble in horror worried that there is a bug of some sort beneath our feet, before realizing that there IS a bug….a cricket to be exact.  A cricket the size of a MOUSE.  In a cage.  In the corner.  Of the room we are in. Currently.   One of the women in the group explains that this is considered an animal that brings good luck, and they are often caged and brought into the house (by construction crane I’m assuming. This thing is GIGANTIC) to help bring good fortune to all those who enter.  (I hope it works. Gary could really use some hair on his calves).   The local guide steps in to check on us and ask if we would like more dumplings.  YES.  Just yes.  And he is happy to bring us 20 extras!.. enough for each of us at the table to have a few more.  We leave happy and full.  And a little luckier.

After making our way back though the home we get back on our rickshaws and back out to our next stop-a local home for a tour, another 10-15 minute ride- interrupted only when a large BMW SUV decides he would like to drive down the same alleyway we are occupying-which means we all have to squeeze into the corner- and not squeezed quite far enough-the SUV leaves with a long and deep scratch down its side from Nicole and Gary’s Rickshaw wheel bolt-which fazes neither the BMW owner nor the rickshaw driver.  Its like we own the road.  They pass finally and we are on our way again-confused and a little proud.  We are like a rickshaw GANG.  No one puts this rickshaw baby in a corner-and if they do, one of us is comin out hurt.  (picture us snapping our fingers in our rickshaws “West Side Story” style as we drive away.-that’s how it happened in my mind anyway.).

The local home we tour is small by our standards, but apparently quite large by local standards, and has been in this family for over 100 years.   They are one of the few families in the area that own the home they are in, after being relocated early in the 90’s and coming back in early 2000 to re-purchase and move back in.   We all gather around in the small courtyard of the home in between the bedrooms and kitchen, to meet the 60-ish Chinese man who owns the home-we refer to him as Asian Gene Simmons for obvious reasons-(see pic above).  Gene tells us, with help from our local guide, about life in the inner city.  He is very proud of his home, it is easy to see.  And for good reason.   It is filled with lucky trinkets, pictures of his beautiful family, his grandchildren are here, and his many many pets are here also.  We are greeted by Chinese speaking birds and very cuddly cats, surrounded by empty cricket cages and as weary dog sits in the corner.  This man is clearly content and happy in his western cut off jeans and sunglasses.  He tells us he is retired and spends his time cooking and playing checkers-and taking care of his grandkids.  After proudly showing us his home, we are off again.  This time for a return to the buss and a quick drive to the next stop-The Temple of Heaven.

This Temple is clearly a refurbished Birdhouse.  I kid of course, but honestly, it looks exactly like a birdhouse from my mom’s garden. And at this point, it very well could be-I have no idea.  I can’t physically take in another ounce of information.  Our poor guide is talking, and all I’m hearing is the whine of a trumpet a-la  peanuts cartoons.   We take the obligatory pics, have a look in the gift shop, spend our last 10RMB on stuff we don’t need and make for the cool shade of the bus and its beer.   From here we are promised that we are headed to a small shopping area for a quick 1 hour stop.  We make a plan that Gary and Chris will head to the grocery store while Nicole and I….shop.  Shocker.

The “small shopping area” turns out to be a Canadian flea market style shopping plaza…..WHERE HAVE THEY BEEN HIDING THIS PLACE???  It is full of table top vendors with teapots, scarfs, slippers, beauty products, etc.  You name it, they have it.  In every color.  Nicole focuses on slippers and I make my way to an Art Supply shop.  I.  Am. In. Heaven.   Paint brushes and inks the quality and quantity of which I have only dreamed about.  $100 CAD later and I’m good for supplies for the rest of my life.  Thank goodness they take VISA-Cause this is everywhere I want to be.   We look for the boys and are told that, despite promises, there is no grocery store here.  We are out of beer, wine and rum-and would have loved to have a nice drink for our last night in China, but we’ll have to settle for buss beer in our hot springs tub tonight.   We are too drunk with shopping happy to care (right Gary???) and make our way back on the buss full of  souvenirs and art supplies.   The only thing that will top this day off is a trip to the Resorts Szechuan restaurant!

We quickly drop our purchased off in our rooms and make our way down to the eatery.  We are seated and given the usual I pad to order with.  I am tasked with getting everyone fed-the only requirements are “Spicy, nooders, pork and beer.”  Easy.  I order 5-6 large family items, beers and spicy nooder soup to start.  It all arrives quickly and we hoe in.  Szechuan is not the type of spicy you are used to-or at least not the kind I am used to.  Its a different kind of heat.  You feel it in your bones.  You don’t get red faces and sweaty like when your eating buffalo wings, you get full belly warm.  I can’t describe it any other way.  It pumps through your veins and warms you like a furnace, slow and steady, easing up when you take a break, and stoking back to full force when you start eating again.  Its a comforting heat, and yet light and delicate at the same time.   It is agruably the best food I’ve ever tasted-Italy and France included.   Our entire meal (of which we only eat 1/2) comes to $50CAD and includes 3 beer each.  I feel like leaving here tomorrow is going to be like being ripped from a warm, boozy womb.  I’m not even going to think about it yet.

For a few minutes at the end of dinner we are all very quiet.  Strange for us.  But I think its hitting each of us how epic this is/was.  How far we’ve come to be here.  How many sacrifices we make to travel together like this-and how worth it it truly is.

Or it could be the szechuan.