The minibus from Yangshuo was not a minibus; it was a rickety, shuddering box on wheels which creaked every few minutes. I had to settle for a hard wooden seat which creaked just as badly as the bus rumbled along the dusty road to Guilin.
I was in an old, ramshackle bus in China and my back was starting to hurt.
I was the last to get on board. The other passengers had already taken the choice seats- the ones next to the driver or the few that were padded, although most of these were terribly worn out and were almost completely flat.
The other people on the bus were an assortment of local villagers and workers. They didn’t just look poor, they looked undernourished and worn. The man sitting across me couldn’t have been more than 40 but he appeared weathered and sapped of energy.
An old woman sitting next to me, her hair in a loose bun which wobbled as the bus shook, looked disapprovingly at my rucksack, which was the most unsightly piece of luggage on the bus. “Sorry,” I said in Mandarin as I moved the rucksack closer to me. I was genuinely embarrassed.
Who was I to complain about this bus when these villagers would have to take it for the rest of their lives? My back may be suffering from sitting on this wooden bench but I would be out of here in a few hours; these villagers, they would still have to take this bus long after I left.
Not everyone has the option of leaving, I told myself.
I had to go to Guilin to catch a train that night to Shenzhen, after which I would take another train back to Hong Kong. Yangshuo had been lovely; I’d stayed with a couple in their guesthouse where Wei, the husband, gave me Mandarin lessons while his wife taught me how to make vegetarian dumplings.
Before I said goodbye, I gave the wife a batik sarong. Overjoyed, she removed her old tablecloth and spread the sarong over the table.
This part of China was a breath of fresh air. I liked Hong Kong with its harbour and layers upon layers of skyscrapers, but Yangshuo with its beautiful Li River and karst hills was quiet and peaceful and gave me time to think.
I looked outside but there was nothing much to see. I tried to close my eyes, but was distracted by a little boy sitting across the aisle.
The boy, about two years old, was tugging his mother’s hair playfully as she planted kisses, first on his nose, then his cheeks and forehead, over and over again, speaking to him gently as she did so. It was the most tender moment I had seen in a long time.
As the bus rattled along, I watched as the young mother whispered words of love as she smoothed down her son’s unkempt hair and dirty clothes. He was an adorable child but his chubby face was streaked with dust, his fingernails were black with dirt and his bare feet were dirty. The mother, whose rough, dry hands appeared to belong to a much older woman, carried only a plastic bag. There was only love in her eyes.
This child came from a poor family but surely that didn’t matter because he was loved and happy. He had a mother who adored him and in the grand scheme of things, that must be good enough.
If he and his mother could be happy with the little that they had, surely I too, could learn to let go of my excesses.
Suddenly the mother turned around and caught me staring. Once again, I felt embarrassed.
I turned away and looked out of the window, and for the first time, noticed the green rice fields.
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