Who needs a guidebook, anyway?


This is a treatise on being a tourist, now that they are on their way. This is treatise on how to treat a tourist, and on me being an idiot.

It started in Beijing late on a Friday night. A planeload of older Americans on a package tour landed in China. They collected their luggage and filed off into the darkness following a woman holding a huge orange pom-pom.

"The sidewalks are uneven here, so watch your step," she said.

Then the airport was empty.

I reached into my pocket and found a hotel address someone in Japan scribbled for me, and I walked toward the taxi stand.

Let me start with this advice for tourists: You need a guidebook, even if it's just for the first day. It gets you oriented quickly, helps you find a place to stay and your first meal. After that, you can usually throw it in the trash.

But at that moment -- or at least during those moments when I was packing for China -- I firmly believed that I did not need one, and that a scribbled note from a stranger was all I needed to discover and decipher this city of 14 million people.

I threw my pack into the trunk of the first taxi and handed my note to the driver. It was written in Roman letters, and the cabbie didn't speak or read a word of English. We passed it around to all the cabbies until someone pretended to know what it said and we were on our way.

Advice for tourists: Don't let the cabbie pick your hotel.

Once we discovered that we couldn't speak to each other, the cabbie put in a language tape. We practiced the phrases together, me in Chinese and he in English, and we laughed.

We were headed into the heart of downtown and into the driveway of a hotel that I knew I couldn't afford.

I had exchanged $30 at the airport and have never in my life paid more than that for a place to stay. Here, as I walked across the marble floor with my backpack, I knew -- and the lipsticked women behind the counter knew -- that something embarrassing was about to happen.

After we all agreed that I would not be staying there, I asked them to translate my scribbled hotel name into Chinese characters so my cabbie could take me there.

I handed him the slip of paper and he said, "no" and started driving.

Advice for tourists: OK, so the cabbie had suddenly taken control of my life. He was speeding out of downtown, through a maze of alleys and onto the freeway. Not sure what advice I could give at this moment. I had the vague feeling that I was about to die.

When he parked suddenly on the side of the road, tore his TAXI sign off of the top of the car and threw it in the back seat and when he signaled me to follow him into the woods, there was no question that I was about to die.

"Please," he said. At the end of a little path through the woods was a little beach next to a yellow, milky river with stones perfect for skipping. The water moved slowly and smelled faintly of sewage. I was in China and he wanted me to see something beautiful.

We tried to sign our life stories to each other and when we had guessed enough about each other, he asked if I was hungry. I was.

We were back in the car and back in the maze of narrow alleys that finally opened up into a midnight market. I ordered a bowl of rice and vegetables for me, and everyone gathered to watch me eat with chopsticks.

Then we were driving again. We pulled up to the gates of the Conservatory of Music. Before I knew it, my pack and I were over the fence and I was waving goodbye to my cabbie. The security guard led me to an empty dorm room.

When I woke up, an old man with two teeth was watching me from the door. He smiled and handed me a scribbled note written in Chinese, then walked me to the front gate. 7 a.m. I was in Beijing. I put the note in my pocket. I had no idea what it said. I still don't know.


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