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A Letter From China
Vilma's Visit

The weeks roll on and we move the clock to the very end of March 2011. Soon I have an email from Vilma stating she is leaving Costa Rica soon and will be in Foshan in a few days time. I get Candy on board to help us, making it plain she needs to treat Vilma as a special client with full support. Arrangements are firmed and we have an adaptable plan in place, however in true Chinese style, this will not be confirmed until the very last minute. I have no worries at all, as I know Vilma is in good hands.

The story of our meeting is unusual, for she contacted me last year after searching and searching the internet for somebody to contact from her ancestral home – which just happened to be Gaogong (Jiu Jiang) or the place where I used to live! Apparently her searches threw up one of my Letters From China, which she read and then contacted me directly. Our correspondence has continued ever since.

Vilma’s Grandfather used to own the large building in the centre of town that is now the main Police station. I had to go there to register my Certificate of Residency when I first arrived. Her Grandmother was a local girl from a village within walking distance, and now part of the town conurbation. Relatives now own many local properties – one being a very large consumer electronics outlet.

There is talk of me helping her to offer her Grandmothers house as a holiday home for the more adventurous traveller, whilst we have toyed with the idea of erecting a plaque on the Police station outside wall extending it as a gift from the Family to the local people. There is a Hong Kong connection as Vilma's Grandfather comes from Hong Kong, and this slightly complicates matters but it may yet come to pass under the right circumstances = hence reactivating my old number.

Then the day comes and I get an email from Vilma stating her meteorological conference in Nanjing has now finished and she is actually in Beijing – for she likes to extend her business trips and add in a period for social time and holiday. I think this is excellent!

I ring to confirm with Candy; and being China she simple states that it will all be fine, but the details are not settled yet. She is waiting for confirmation from a private driver we know and trust, which will come tomorrow sometime. Meanwhile I am also aware that if everything goes wrong, then Candy will drive to GZ airport and meet Vilma personally – but she has not long passed her driving test. Now, I know this, but I do not want to send an email to Vilma stating: ‘This may happen, or that, or something else’. It is not what you want to read – so I leave the email reply until I have firm understanding of what will actually happen.

The next morning I get an email from Vilma saying, ‘Where are you Jonno’; and I immediately feel terrible, because she is waiting for me to simply confirm that everything will be all right. I reply immediately of course, and then send another email later when I actually know what will happen = Paul number II will collect her from the airport, and Candy will greet her at the hotel we have reserved for her.

This is what Vilma had to say, "The reason I sent the message saying 'Where are you Jonno?' is that my visit to Beijing was almost over, I was ready to fly South and I didn´t have news from you on how we would meet. I was looking forward so much to meet you, I was almost about to cancel the trip if you didn´t show up. But you did show up and your letter will become my memory in the future".

I had planned to be there with Candy to welcome Vilma, but my day is extended by business, so I rearrange to join them late afternoon – and know this eventuality was always on the cards. I clear my desk by 2 pm and change quickly to catch the first available coach. It is a flyer for a change and I make Foshan by 4.30, arriving at the hotel after visiting the cashpoint and then booking into a convenient local hotel before 5 pm. I don’t even bother to check the room, as I know this one well, and at £9 per night, I have no problems whatsoever!

I then top up my mobile credit, for I am running on empty when Candy rings me as I arrive; and call back to find that arrangements are being made, and I am becoming confused. I sit a while and take a cigarette before wondering if I shouldn’t be on a bus to somewhere for the evening meal. Therefore I call Candy again determined to be going somewhere to meet them. There is a discussion and I am told to get in a taxi, head for Namhoi, and call for instructions of where to go.

I am actually in luck, as the Foshan rush-hour is moments away, and I hail a cab within seconds. Ten minutes later and I know it can be impossible! As the driver comes across and parks, so I have Candy on the line and they spend 5-minutes discussing where I am to be taken. Then the phone is handed back to me and I find out he is a local driver and speaks Cantonese. He compliments me on my language skills and we chat away quite merrily as the miles roll past.

We are headed for the area near where ‘Bad-Boys’ son got married, but Namhoi is not an area I know well, and neither does our driver. However, he does take me to our destination, and I am told to go and wait outside MacDonald’s. I wait, have a cigarette, then another, and wait some more. I am standing near the intersection in the hopes of finding somebody driving passed in a car looking for me. Instead Candy parks where I got out of the taxi and walks across the pedestrian plaza to meet me. She leads me to the car where I am eventually introduced to Vilma, and also Chinese cousin Sarah who speaks quite good English. I am impressed immediately.

We then take a short ride as pleasantries are quickly dispensed with, before arriving at a very nice restaurant for evening meal with the whole and greater family; including an Uncle of many years who has the seat of honour, and a little later – the family from Gaogong and others. Apparently they do this on a weekly basis, so from this you will instantly realise that Chinese families and greater families in particular, are far closer than our western equivalents.

The meal is excellent and typical Chinese, and whilst I do indulge in a few beers and several toasts, I refrain from smoking until people are getting ready to leave, for it seems I am the only smoker in this private room. I sit near to Uncle, who is a lovely lad and although it is clear that ages have taken their toll, he is sprightly and interesting to talk too, accepting I speak the local language without a passing thought and merest mention – but there again, he would have to wait until his late teens or early twenties perhaps? for mandarin to even be invented!

However, a couple of hours later and the meal is concluded. People are not drinking except for toasts, and so we wish everyone a fond ‘fare-thee-well’ and head back towards Foshan with Candy at the wheel. We are supposed to be following somebody, except none of us remembers which car to look for, so we take a sidestreet, and one that I recognise. I tell Candy to go ahead, and then turn right, but instead there is chatter on the mobile phone, as we go passed the turn. We then turn around and turn left (The right I had told them to take originally), and following the microbus, eventually come to an area we all know well; Foshan.

Candy drops us off at Vilma’s hotel and she waits while our guest goes to change. Vilma surprises me by coming down with a bottle of special rice wine as a gift for me, and I feel quite humbled. So Candy leaves with a promise to see us all the next morning, although during the last hour she has developed a nasty looking red eye. I am quite concerned about her and Vilma offers her a western treatment before she leaves. However, we later learn Candy also went to the hospital (Doctor’s in UK speaking) and was given a remedy there also.

I have no idea what to do with Vilma, and am very pleased to learn she does not want to go shopping, although I would gladly have shown her around. I think she is too well travelled to bother with such trivia unless she has a plan. I am also very aware that she is not the sort of person to take pleasure in bars and disco’s, although the Musical Fountain remains a last resort for live entertainment. So we head out into the local streets and I suggest visiting the best local massage place for a ‘Foot-washy’. This appeal’s to her, as it is an extravagance in Costa Rica, so I lead the way over the footbridge as we chat while the few short blocks pass.

Then I make a startling discovery – for the whole block – and I mean half a mile long; has disappeared and been reduced to rubble. Ok, time to reassess, and a foot massage is still the preferred option, so I think of two other very good ones. I know the best one is in the centre of downtown, and the one with the best decor is close by, if I can remember exactly where it is. Neal; you will remember this as the one next to the hairdressers, and with Japanese interior.

I think I startle Vilma when I say, “Why don’t we just hail a cab and see where we end up?”

Fair play to her, for although I can see uncertainty and doubt clouding her persona, she says she’ll give it a go!

I actually know we will always be safe to get to the downtown location, but milk the moment for her appreciation. We do pass the one road that I am pretty sure leads directly to the Japanese place, but by then I am having a great laugh with the taxi driver, as he seems determined to discover where he is taking us.

OK, it was my mistake, for I muddled my words and chose the wrong combination to begin with. ‘Sao Juk’ together means ‘Brother’ in Cantonese, or literally, ‘Hand and Foot’. ‘Juk’ is actually more Hong Kong speaking, and later we learn that locally it can be pronounced as I already know, ‘Geu’, or more appropriately ‘Jok’.

I am sure Vilma is wondering what will result, and if she should call a friend, but then the driver and I work out what we are doing. The correct phrase is ‘sai jok’, and with that he elaborated with the Cantonese word ‘massagey’. We have crack’d the conundrum and we both know he is taking us downtown to the very best place. I tell Vilma it is sorted, although I am not sure she believes me 100%.

Within minutes we arrive outside the best ‘foot-washey’ in town, and paying the fare we both ‘High-5’ the driver. It was a lot of fun, and I think I see a little respect growing in Vilma’s eyes … or was it sheer relief?

The massage is actually excellent, and the girl I have would be great for a boys’ only session. Upon entering the TV is automatically turned to a western sports channel, before we tune it in to some relaxing music and turn the sound down. I broach the rice wine as Vilma is surprised to find individual computers as part of each chair. Although we only sip occasionally, this rice wine is excellent and made with a hint of fruit, instead of the usual industrial drain cleaning fluid. Siu Ying then rings me and I tell her what we are doing. She is a tad jealous at missing out, but then tells me of Nonni’s day and I hint that perhaps I will come home tomorrow afternoon sometime – but nothing is settled yet.

Both the girls are actually very good, although I think I got the more experienced one unfortunately. She was a total ‘babe’ however, so I switched the thought off and tried to ensure that Vilma enjoyed the experience as much as I did. When offered, I order an ‘ear-cleansing’ for both of us, but was disappointed we did not have the chance of a pedicure.

I also missed a trick at the end, for unusually they hurried us out of the place to go and pay. Normally we are left time to recover our wits. I should simply have given the girl the money for us both, but instead Vilma insisted upon splitting the bill – but that’s to know for next time; for nothing ever stays the same in China for very long.

You know, Vilma really enjoyed the experience. I offered a late night drink of food, but she was obviously tired and totally relaxed, so dropping her off at her hotel I let her get to sleep and wandered down the block to my local hotel. I did toy with the idea of hitting the streets, but I too was very relaxed and simply couldn’t be bothered, although passing up a few real draft beers in nearby DJ Café was a first for me.

Our arrangements for the next day are a little in the wind, although there is the though pervading that Candy will meet us around 9.30, and that I will meet Vilma a little earlier. I wake at 7 am and loiter with the TV before the lack of channels gets the better of me.

Nearer to 8.30 I give Vilma a call to see what she is up for, and she says she has also been up for a while and is still feeling relaxed. She bids me come to meet her and we will take breakfast together. I had wondered about this, as this hotel does not do catering

I greet her with my best, “?Hola, como estas?”, for her default language is Spanish. She then replies in great style and it takes me a while to work out exactly what she may have possibly said to me? I think I understand some of the key words, so reply in English. She laughs and it is good between us, for she is relaxing and enjoying time as it passes us both by. I would add that my typed International Spanish is far better than my spoken words. A-hem!

I am mystified when she then produces two breakfast tickets and tells me the restaurant is on the 6th Floor. This hotel only has 5 floors, so we go up in the lift to the very top, and then go back down again seeking clarification. The girls behind reception only seem to speak Mandarin this morning, which does not help, but they are quick to foresee the problem we have encountered, and despatch a ‘boy’ to show us too the restaurant. He is local and speaks Cantonese, so at last we have communication. However, it seems his status is considered too lowly to really talk to guests, so exchanges remain limited – well, his job is probably on the line.

It turns out the restaurant is on the 6th floor, and is accessed by using the lift to floor 5, and then the stairs. This brings us out onto the hotel roof, and around to our left is a conservatory set with tables and one wall of tables offering culinary delights that were all cooked several hours earlier.

The presentation is as you would expect of an international hotel, and the views amazing I presume, but it is raining and cold, so the glass is steamed-up and the exterior out of sight. For research purposes only I take a good plateful of various things that would be on other occasions be considered as sausage, bacon, eggs, et cetera, in any country other than China.

It was actually all right, although definitely not of white hat or Michelin guide status. But if all you wanted was to line your stomach with something before hitting the road, then it was ample. We actually got chatting to another patron for a while, but I will always remember this simplest of meals for one reason – Vilma asked me what I thought about ‘God’.

It was a simple extension question that came out of our preceding conversation, and dropped us immediately into another dimension of mutual understanding. It was something I answered ‘ad hoc’, for it would take most of us many lifetimes to even prepare to answer that particular question.

Now I do believe in a ‘God’, but my first response to her question was to state that ‘the words of god that we have handed down to us through millennia; be they Christian, Moslem, whatever; are actually the words of men pretending or believing to speak on behalf of God’.

These are not the words of God him/herself, just what a man or woman presents us with for their own benefit. I touched upon my belief that there is something there, although it may be better envisaged as an all embodying presence, perhaps created from the soul or life-sparks of all things. It is within these types of discussions that quantum theory, religion, and reincarnation all become one aspect of the same … mere personal observances of the Space-Time-Thought Continuum.

One of us then mentioned Buddhism, and so our light breakfast conversation became quite interesting in terms of what we actually believe, and what others would want us to believe so that they could control us and our ordinary lives as individuals. I suggest you try it yourself sometime, but an open mind is one prerequisite.

I am considering going back for seconds’ when the mobile rings and Candy says she will be with us ‘shortly’. Overnight her eye has virtually closed, and so much so that her husband and my dear friend Lawrence has taken a day off work to drive for us.

I am given to wonder if any modern western citizens of say: UK or USA; would be so readily accommodating or accepting of Chinese people?

The plan for today is to meet the owner of the electrical appliance shop from last evening’s meal and then go and visit a couple of family houses. We will take photographs and then discuss business matters with the family before leaving. Vilma will return to Foshan tonight, and I may accompany her, or may not – it depends upon how things go.

With the use of mobile phones we connect with Chen San (Siew Chon) and he is waiting for us. Note: Cantonese also use 'San' as a form of address, just like the Japanese, meaning 'Mr'. We follow as Vilma makes notes of the roads we are using, so that later we can mark the place on a Google map. First we visit her Grandmother’s house, which is a typical rural home that has been completely refurbished in traditional and local style.

It has been renovated to a high standard, but requires a few additions such as air-conditioning before we could rent it out to foreigners. However, the basics are all fine so Vilma is happy and all she needs to do is ask for the extra’s to be fitted and it is ready to rent. With Mr Chen owning an electrical store, our requirements can be easily met, and at trade price!

Then we wander around the corner to see the second and larger property. This is a typical Lingnan house with wok-handled roof. It has double bedrooms on the second floor, and is still being renovated. Unfortunately we do not have the keys today, but can tell from the outside that it will provide excellent accommodation of a family of pair of couples. The standard will be the same as the other house, and we have no reason to doubt or to worry.

Time passes as we prepare to leave, but we do walk the short distance to the local shops to actually check what they are selling. The basics are all readily available and so we are satisfied that guests would enjoy a holiday here. With this checked, we then head for Sunday lunch, and Chen San has one special place in mind for us this day.

The restaurant turns out to be a friendly fish restaurant on the other side of the river, and appropriately opposite where I used to live on the island. It is located several miles down a dirt track and would be extremely difficult to find if you did not know of its existence. Mr Chen knows the owner very well and soon we order three main courses for the barbeque: chicken, meat, and a large fish that we select from the pond ourselves.

The rambling bamboo building is ideal for family gatherings and packed-out. There are easily three hundred patrons, and maybe many more! The dishes keep on coming as the central hole in the table is filled with hot fuel and large woks set to simmer on top. Side dishes as added and soon we are wishing for a large table. However what we have is a lot of fun, and the meal is totally delicious.

I sit next to Mr Chen son who is called Kimmi and speaks reasonably good English. He also has email so we can all keep in contact, and offers to act as driver for our visitors. Then thoughts turn to business as Vilma pushes for ascertaining for definite what support her crazy idea actually has. We discuss the addition of air-con, a fridge freezer, and several other items that are not currently present. These are no problem to Mr Chen, and he refuses to take the money offered by Vilma, stating it is family and will be sorted out later. She then discusses charges and commissions, and very soon the business part of the meal is concluded as we relax in the afterglow of a fine dining, Hoksan style.

On the way back we detour to the Hong Kong ferry, so that Vilma is assured it is there and available. It seems we are too early for the building is closed, and opens in thirty minutes. Therefore we call the information number listed on a placard outside, and speak to one of the people inside. You have to laugh to keep from crying sometimes.

Later we return to Gaogong where we say goodbye to our hosts. The next thing on our agenda is to check the ferry booking and departure point to Hong Kong, and Candy has researched the one place where this can be booked; moments from the centre of town. It turns out to be the local branch of CITS (China International Travel Service), a trusted and reliable company to work with.

I had not realised, but there is also a ferry connection to Hong Kong via Shunde Port, with about one dozen trips each way, each day. However Vilma is interested in the local one, so we end up booking a ticket for her to use in a couple of day’s time. This done we then go for a coffee at Mona Lisa, the local western restaurant. The coffee is ok, and the place plus menu fine – so this ticks off more boxes as Vilma comes into the belief that foreigners really would enjoy staying here, even if they missed some of their more familiar food. She already knows there is a 24-hour MacDonald’s just up the road, so this is soon wrapped up and we relax over our drinks – the girls finally deciding upon freshly pressed local juices that are very acceptable.

Then it comes time to depart, and Vilma has picked up unpin the fact that if I catch a coach from here, then it will save me many hours in the car. I do offer to stay with her tonight and show her around Foshan once more, but it is also clear she is a little travel weary and probably due an easy night to recharge her batteries. I have already pointed out some places close to her hotel, like the Red Café; so know she will have no problems, and so take the offer of being dropped off at the main road.

As usual I wait on this nasty stretch of very busy road for forty-five minutes, to catch one of the coaches that in theory run every twenty. Eventually one of the familiar lime green chariots comes hurtling around the roundabout, and is going so fast we have to run a quarter of a mile to reach where it landed. I am standing for the first stretch of the journey as the bus is packed, but I know that by the time we reach Hoksan or the hinterland that many will depart and I will get a seat. This takes longer than I expected, but comes to pass before I am struggling.

This bus is known as ‘the fastest stagecoach in the east’ for very good reasons, and whilst not a greyhound, once it has reached cruising altitude it simply continues to eat up the miles flat-out, as lesser mortals fear of other hazards on the road.

I actually get a call from Siu Ying as we are preparing to make a scheduled stop in Hoipeng (Kai Ping City in Mandarin) and she is delighted to know I am already on the way home. It seems both girls missed me. Awww!

I get in around 6 pm and head for home, we greet and do family stuff before I turn the computer on and start work. Time passes and then I think to check with Candy and Vilma. I give Candy a call and find that everything went well, and that Vilma paid her most adequately for her services these last two days. Vilma and I had discussed this the night before, at her behest, but knowing that Candy is happy is all I need to know.

I then go to ring Vilma, but notice the time is just turned 8.30 pm, and think better of it – just a feeling, that’s all. The next day I do ring her and reassure her that both Candy and myself remain available if needed. However, she is an independent type and quite happy to complete the visit herself, which tomorrow will see her transfer from GZ to Gaogong, and using the local connection, take the Hoksan ferry to Hong Kong. You may think her a little crazy perhaps? Well I do not, for she wants to check this personally before it is used by any prospective clients.

My premonition concerning not ringing Vilma the night before proves to be correct, for it appears she was so shattered from all the great times and travelling that she returned to the hotel and was asleep by eight o’clock! However, I did learn that the entrance to the Foshan Guangzhou metro station is a little further away than I had imagined, but she found it to be extremely convenient.

We are in touch with each other several times before she catches her flight back home to Costa Rica, and I am happy to know she really enjoyed the experience, and that the services we provided were far more than simply acceptable. I will stay in Grandmother’s house for a day or two, my part of testing whether it is suitable for travellers, although in my mind I know it already is.

Time will tell what becomes of our unusual venture, but meeting somebody from the other side of the world, simply because I decided to create this website and write about my small life remains with me as one small achievement. The bonus was to meet such a lovely lady, and make a new and lasting friendship.

I also know that for anyone who is an experienced traveller and who wants to discover the real China – then what we have in place is perfect. The village is very rural, yet lies five minutes drive from a decent sized town where all the necessities for daily life and pleasure are to be found in bounty. The local area is a treasure of interesting sight-seeing destinations, be that a water park for kids, or cultural elements like the local Buddhist mountain and the Temple of the Queen of Heaven, which is very close to the village.

We have a private driver arranged, and have bicycles for those who just want to ride the country lanes. Big cities like Foshan, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong are a couple of hours away or less – so the overall package is very well organised. Add to this being able to meet the local family and people: Plus having Candy and other people ready and eager to assist you, and then I think this is a winner.

However, this is only our idea and it remains to be seen whether others like our proposal. I hope they do, for it will invigorate the local town and bring with it foreign culture to this hidden and unspoilt oasis of Chinese rural society.

With prices set at USD $20 and $30 per night respectively, we feel this makes both homes affordable for those who really want to experience real China today.

Good luck Vilma, it was my pleasure to meet you!

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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Vilma's Visit
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Image: Grandma's Cottage front patio and entrance - Click to Enlarge

Image: Grandma's Cottage front patio and BBQ - Click to Enlarge

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Image: Family commemoration plaque in Grandma's Cottage - Click to Enlarge

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