Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Damn Good Wine

Sunday was a particularly fulfilling day. I had given up yet another weekend to my translation work, cramming for two major deadlines. Lo and behold I sent out the documents at five on the dot, a time that means less and less when you’re working at home.

Usually the weather in Kunming is absolutely beautiful while I’m holed up inside at work, and turns to sh-t whenever I have free time. On this day, however, it had been raining all day, but things were just quieting down as I finished the last few sentences.

It’s been a while since I’ve had some quality time on the roof. I grabbed some wine leftover from the night before and moseyed out into the garden with Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red”.

It was as if the clouds had parted just for me. To the east was a low ceiling of grey rainclouds, no doubt still relieving themselves on all my friends over there. On the other side, the Western Hills were dwarfed by a massive, multi-tiered cloudbank. Bathed in the magical golden Yunnan sun and seeming to billow and stack up endlessly, they were definitely renaissance clouds, capturing all the glory of the creation forever on the ceiling of some rich Venetian trader. And right above me was a flawless, endless blue.

Captivating as it was, my Turkish murder mystery just couldn’t beat the weather for pure entertainment value. I grabbed my glass of wine and wandered off to the western edge of the garden. Gnats and flies must have been lured out by the fresh moist air, because I was presented with the spectacle of thousands of dragonflies on the prowl. They filled the sky over the tiny, lush garden valley that the next door slum carved out of the endless rows of housing complexes. If I were down there, I would be able to watch the children chase the dragonflies with nets. Tie a hook on the back of a dragonfly and you have an amazing, living, flying fishing lure to take with you to the lake.

But up here there was a different kind of hunt going on. Sparrows and other small birds, attracted by the buzz of wings, were hunting down the dragonflies, pulling off effortless war maneuvers. I’ve always wondered why, here in the middle of China’s most thriving ecosystems, I only ever saw slum birds. Maybe it’s just too nice out there in the hills.

There is another kind of bird in the picture. Several of my neighbors raise flocks of pigeons on the rooftops. Today there were two flocks out, flying in tight circular formation around the waving flags of their keepers. As I sat back down to my book, the garden was periodically swept by the shadow of these pigeons as they flew overhead. Once I master the pigeon language, I’ll thank them for never shitting on me after so many flyovers.

I glanced back at the massive golden cloudbank over the Western Hills. It was so distant and expansive, it looked almost like a giant movie backdrop. I spotted a black dot in front of one of the clouds. A bird? A plane? No, it’s an old man. In my American youth, kite flying was a father-son sport, where the father would toss the kite in the air and the son would run around seeing how long he could go before the kite hit the ground or caught a tree. In China, kite flying is about old men in the park effortlessly launching their kites into the stratosphere. On any good day one can spy tiny clusters of black dots hovering motionless over the city.

Seeing all this beauty at once reminded me why I had missed Kunming so much during my dust-covered days fighting through the social ladders of Beijing. It reminded me why I call this place home, why I had quit my corporate job and come back here to live the quiet life of a translator.

I leaned back, listened to the birds overhead and enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on my back, and I thought, “damn, that’s some good wine.”


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