POINT OF DEPARTURE
BY RAY HENRY
As the van drifted deeper in the water, the wheels started bobbing along the road. Only one flight was leaving Xi’an and I was sure we wouldn’t be on it.
The fetid liquid oozed through the van door, carrying the odor of human waste, produce and motor oil. A muddy layer of loess, the light wind-blown dirt that covers much of western China, topped everything. The mud-thickened mixture choked the smaller Hondas around us until we were alone on a Xi’an road in two-and-a-half feet of water.
It didn’t seem fair. Dad had been on business in China for six months. To make sure he stayed put, the company decided to send the family to visit him for six weeks and foot the bill. My high school teacher, Ingrid Gray, told me it was the opportunity of a lifetime and euphorically recited Robert Frost’s poem about the two paths that diverged in the wilderness.
Some paths diverge; some are lightly trodden; and some lead to enlightenment, but this one was just wet. My buddies back home were on a road trip to a Dave Mathews concert, but I was preparing to walk through ox dung on the edge of civilization. I was stuck in a flood because my parents wouldn’t let me stay home and enjoy my high school graduation.
The flood less perturbed the other Chinese drivers. Washed out roads, police check points and frequent engine failures are common in a place where the last dynasty built the highways in 1909. However, our driver grew antsy as he surveyed the situation. Water was already inside the car and inched toward the air intake on the exterior. One more foot and the van would be useless.
Of course, we weren’t the first travelers to experience hardship in Xi’an. The city had been the starting point of the Silk Road. For thousands of years, wayfarers had their luck — even lives -- changed while tackling that hard-worn path. My family’s immediate problem began the previous night.
The summer had been especially hot in Xi’an, which borders the great, dusty Mongol plains. The heat seared the topsoil, making it impervious to water. When the delayed downpour came that night, the water flowed into the city’s low-dug, sewer-less streets instead of penetrating the ground.
The morning after the deluge, Dad asked the concierge for a car and driver to take the family to the airport. The concierge didn’t speak English and though Mom suggested we find someone who did, Dad persisted. Using a combination of sketches and hand gestures, he managed to get a vehicle — a rather large vehicle.
I reverted to my old New Jersey skepticism upon glancing at the massive 12-person diesel van and suspected the hotel of attempting to run up the bill. As it turned out, the concierge did us a favor.
The driver, who didn’t speak English, hopped behind the wheel and expertly steered the van between columns of bicycles, oxen, motorcycles and the occasional rickshaw. The streets, mostly wide avenues lacking any road markings, teemed with life, color, sound and the smell of cooking. Without warning, I was propelled against my seatbelt.
"Fènbiàn, hóngshui!" the driver swore, before plunging the van into a foot of water.
The rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists slowed and looked hesitantly at our aggressive driver. Up ahead, people waded out of the street and climbed to the rooftops of the one-story residences lining the avenue.
"Bob, are you sure this is a good idea?" Mom asked.
My mother Roberta is a teacher: professional, reliable, aggressive — but not in China. She relished the chance to have the family together but traveling in a strange land dependent on others made her nervous. Her delicate fingers anxiously rubbed the fabric of her blue shirt.
"Don’t worry — it’s fine. No problem. Everyone else seems to be driving through. We will too," Dad said.
Unlike Mom, Dad’s fingers weren’t so shapely. He had stuck one in a bike spoke at age seven to see what a bone looked like. He earned his college tuition ten years later by convincing a coach in a sandwich shop that he could play football. He once turned down a job offer because it was only nine-to-five.
After watching occasional gunplay on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, and getting stuck on trains in India, his idea of a bad trip was different from the rest of the family’s.
No sooner had he finished his reassurance than a lone motorcyclist loaded with a four-foot tall sack of watermelons tried to pass us in the flooded street. As his tiny Honda scooter strained ahead, it started skipping on the surface of the road. When the water became too deep, the watermelons became ballast buoying the rest of the cycle from behind. The man decided to abandon ship and swam off.
Chickens were stacked in a series of wood and wire mesh cages on the side of the road. As the water rose, it drowned one bird at a time, reducing the flock to a frenzied state of squawking, mirroring the general chaos outside the van window.
The driver managed to slosh through the next corner, almost fishtailing in the flowing rainwater. Old Chinese streets often suddenly narrow and up ahead was an obstacle I figured was the final challenge.
A flatbed Russian truck and a small Volkswagon had stalled in the water adjacent to each other, but in opposite lanes bordered by street-front shops. Water gushed through the narrow opening between the two vehicles. Most of the pedestrians had chosen to circumnavigate the juggernaut, but it was too late for the van. We were moving forward too fast to turn around and the brakes were hopelessly wet. My mother and sisters had definitely clued in on the situation.
"Ray, tell the driver to slow down," said my sister, Janet, temporarily forgetting that I don’t speak Chinese.
The driver sensed the concern in her voice and tried to wave off the worry, but as soon as his hands left the wheel, the tires left the ground. The water had finally risen too high, making traction near impossible and choking the engine.
The van drifted forward like the rest of the road debris. We were approaching fast with less than an inch of clearance on either side. The collision would not have been at more than 15 miles per hour, but it would have been wet. If the van log jammed, we would definitely have to wade out or climb onto the roof.
"This isn’t going to work," Dad said. "Bert, make sure that door is fully closed and get your hands away from the window. We could broadside."
Maggie, my youngest sibling, piped up, "What does broadsi-"
"Quiet. What will we do about the plane? We’ll never make it on time and there’s only one flight out a week," Mom demanded.
"It’ll work out," Dad replied.
Sure, Dad, I thought. Combustion engines always work well when submerged. How would we handle a Chinese traffic accident? Who’s responsible? For how much damage? Is there even car insurance out here?
The van suddenly jolted to the left after colliding with something underwater and surged forward as the tires unexpectedly made contact with the road. The acceleration was enough to put us through the obstacle and, amazingly, to clear the sides. Oddly, I felt cheated.
"Hen hao!" exclaimed the driver with a smile, as if he had planned the entire situation.
We emerged from the water half a mile later and found a dry road to the airport, a jet runway in the middle of a cornfield. The flight would ultimately take me home. We all eased back into the van seats.
"Excited to see Ellie and your friends again?" Mom asked.
I almost answered with the expected "yes," but hesitated mid-sentence. Was I really? What was back in Hillsborough? Corn? Cows? A few nights with friends, at most. Dad glanced over the top of his newspaper.
"Not yet," I said.
Mom shrugged her shoulders and went back to her reading. Dad went back to the business page, but with a slight smile.