十六. The Mao Cap

We’d gone to Dali, to a market on the lake, but Ben had fallen ill with dysentery so we hadn’t been able to stay long. Without private toilets in our village, the government’s public toilets, built as part of a new sanitation drive, with their open cubicles and located some distance away, were still no place to have dysentery.

When we squat down to do our business, one or two of the locals would stare in on us unabashedly as if our anatomy was any different. Nights were the worst: there were no lights so it was hard enough to see but also our torches would cast a freakish glow on the maggots that jostled like a wave at the bottom of each hole. The maggots were fast little buggers.

Ben had gotten so bad that we had to get him to Xichang to find help. I too had run up a fever after we’d been caught on the hills in the rain with only our T-shirts.

Only Darius was OK.

So we weren’t going to argue when Darius suggested that we book into a tourist hotel once we’d arrived in town. I took a sample of poo, one from Ben, and one from me to the pharmacy next door and waited to see the outcome.

As it was, we were striving to get to Chengdu a day later. The train had been delayed because of a derailing and the delay suited our plans, suited our stopping over in Xichang for the night.

The following morning I returned to the pharmacist. Ben was still laid up and stayed in the room. A grey-haired man with a traditional wizened beard handed me a folded piece of paper that looked like a prescription.

“This person ok”, he said. Instead, it was my stool report.

Then he handed me another piece of paper.

“This person will die”, he continued.

I went white.

“What’s he got?”

The pharmacist handed me a small glass bottle of black pellets. The pellets looked like rabbit droppings.

“He take these and he goes home now.”

Well, we were stuck in Xichang for the night and yes Darius was fine, I would be fine, but Ben was ready to go. Until then, there was nothing we could do apart from feed Ben black pellets.

But it was Ben who insisted we go eat something.

I loved the atmosphere in these family-style restaurants. The locals surrounded us on large circular tables with cheap plastic cloths. You could be with them, or not. It was a raw food experience. They split chopsticks or clacked plastic ones, they staccato’ed Mandarin while scooping sticky rice, while fingering chicken feet and crunching the skins, then they spat the bones on the floor despite the ‘No Spitting’ signs. Yes, I loved that too.

But don’t leave the sticks in the rice. That’s not good.

So that we would all feel a bit better, we ordered masses of food.

Ben figured tofu would help, so we took one order steamed and one Mapo Dofu style, as well as chicken in peanut sauce and a steak hotpot. The tofu and the mounds of rice, we hoped, would help with the dysentery. (Note to reader: Please don’t take this as medical advice)

It was after we were done, after we were sitting at the table with full stomachs – well Darius and I at least, not Ben; after we were looking at the remains of the food in front of us, that Darius noticed a tapping at the window. A dark-haired man perhaps in his thirties stood there, a Mao cap in his hand, his hair matted and dripping with rain. 

I was stirring my rice around at the time, and once he saw that we’d seen him, he kept going, tapping, tapping to keep our attention. Then he pointed at our table and mouthed at us as he pushed at the window.

I hadn’t finished my Tsing Tao so at first I ignored him but he just wouldn’t let up. The rain poured down and made him a blur against the window.

So I finished the beer and reached over, and I cranked the window clasp, then handed him my can through the open window. Yes, he took it, but he also looked annoyed. Still pointing at the table, he began to talk louder, though none of us could understand.

I’d come across people who wanted the cans, but we never thought he might want the leftover food.

Darius was still picking at the chicken in the peanut sauce but he motioned the guy in, and the man disappeared from the window just as fast; was through the main entrance and by our table before we could get him a chair.

We thought he was going to sit down and help himself but he stood in front of us; he refused a seat. Instead, he held out his Mao cap and pointed at the food like he wanted us to put the food in it.

At first, I thought he was joking but he wouldn’t move, he held the cap like a bag gripping it by the sides, and with his head, he motioned towards the food.

Darius had finished his rice so we started by emptying his bowl in because we figured that at least the rice was dry and it wouldn’t ruin the cap. I held on to my rice. What little remained of Ben’s was a health risk, and we thought that that would be enough, but the guy kept the cap held out like he wanted more, kept bobbing his head up and down at the rest of the dishes.

I still wasn’t sure he was serious but Darius separated the leftover chicken from the sauce and put them in as well. Still, he wanted more.

Then Darius just said “Hang it!”

He scraped the peanut sauce in on top, then he took the hot pot, all but the broth, and he added it in, until there was nothing of the cooked meat left from the serving bowl.

The cap was bulging with the weight of our food, was overflowing, and by the time the plates had been scraped clean there was a skilful mound that protruded from the man’s cap. Nothing remained on the table but my own rice, so you can guess what was going to happen next.

I made some noises just to show the guy that I still wanted my rice, and I was sure he could understand me but he wouldn’t give in. Even though his cap was practically splitting at the seams he kept snapping at us in Mandarin and nodding his head at my bowl, but I kept it up, stirring the rice, looking up at him defiantly, making as if I was about to eat it.

The fact was that, earlier on, I had accidentally coughed up a bit of phlegm. I hadn’t known where to put it and didn’t want to swallow it or spit it on the floor. I figured that, as I couldn’t eat any more, I might as well spit it into my bowl. So that’s what I had done: spat it in and stirred it so that I wouldn’t have to look at it.

But here was this man adamant about having my bloody rice.

I thought of spitting in the bowl again to stop him from taking it but then I thought better of it. It would be rude, and he was getting more impatient.

So I started to eat, shovelled the now glutinous rice in my mouth. I kept going one ball at a time, while he watched me.

I was still going when he put down the cap then snatched the bowl from my hands and tipped it upside down on top of the mound of food.

It was a soggy mess but the cap held firm.

I said nothing. I just looked at him in surprise.

‘Saving Face’ was about pretending that there was no ‘Face’ to be lost in the first place, we figured, so we let it lie, and the three of us watched him walk away, cap in hand, with a feast full of food.

Then the next day I bought my own green Mao cap and Darius, Ben and I took Hard Seat to Chengdu.

བཅུ་​ལྔ་. No Limits семнадцать. The Mule
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