Touring China á la Gilligan’s Island

by Debbie Carini

“A 12-day tour, a 12-day tour”

(Sing to the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island”)

When seven people set sail on what was scheduled to be a three-hour sightseeing tour on the charter boat The Minnow, they got caught in a storm and ended up stranded on an uncharted tropical island—it was a three-hour tour that lasted for three seasons and innumerable reruns as the television show Gilligan’s Island.

I just returned from China where I, too, was a member of a diverse and eager sightseeing group and though we weren’t shipwrecked or forced to tour the country in a bamboo taxi (featured in three episodes of the show), we did eat a lot of exotic food and met some people who packed like the Howells.

My husband and I have never been on a “tour” before. We fancy ourselves adventurers (albeit, ones who like to stay in hotels, shower with hot water and eat at restaurants); when we travel, we seek out the quirky and unpredictable. Did you know that there’s a 70-foot passageway in San Luis Obispo called Bubblegum Alley that is composed entirely of previously-chewed gum?

Sensing we might be out of our league in a country as vast as China—especially since there are no ABCs in words, as the standard Chinese writing system uses a non-alphabetic script—my husband opted for a guided tour, complete with meals, lodging and transportation.

Our guide was the flag-toting Sonny. We received a name tag—which, when I put it around my neck, made me feel like I was in third grade again visiting the La Brea Tar Pits—and a receiver and headset so we could hear Sonny pontificate on the sights and history of the cities of Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai. We traveled by plane, bus and, ever-so-briefly, rickshaw. There were families and retirees, young couples and best friends in our troupe. We hailed from every corner of the United States and even Myanmar.

The first instruction from Sonny was that the restroom would be known to us tourists as the “happy roo.” He also explained that in China, they refer to it as the “karaoke” room. He enlightened us on the use of the squatty-potty, and all I can share in this regard (in this newspaper) is that I now understand why the Chinese won 12 medals in gymnastics at the last Olympics.

We took in the great sites: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors. We experienced Chinese dinner theater—a dumpling banquet followed by a Tang Dynasty stage show, which I can only describe as the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat of Buddhism.

We also visited a tea plantation where there was a presentation that sounded almost like an Amway pitch (green tea as a facial scrub, sunburn treatment, wrinkle reducer, foot bath and carpet cleaner) and a silk factory.

On the bus, we morphed into an extended family, much like the castaways on Gilligan’s Island; instead of “the professor and Mary Ann,” we had a guy who couldn’t get off the bus without purchasing something (even at a truck stop!) and a self-declared “group photographer,” who posed us in front of beautiful garden scenes like we were once again a bride and groom. Together our group marveled at the incredible architecture in Shanghai and the fact that many, many Chinese woman like to wear high heel sneakers.

We got to visit our son, who’s studying in Shanghai. He introduced us to street food, Cong You Bing (a delicious green onion and egg pancake).

We didn’t end up stranded on an island with our fellow travelers (á la Gilligan and crew), but we’ll certainly relish a lifetime of memories: the gastronomic, the cultural and the unexpected. When we asked our tour guide if he’s able to watch American shows on his computer, he proudly shared that he has downloaded and enjoyed Forrest Gump and Desperate Housewives. It’s a small world after all.

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