While waiting to board the boat from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento today, I took out my passport ready for the Immigration control officials to clear me for entry to Uruguay.
There was no organisation in the queue ahead of me as we stood in the waiting hall of the Sea Port. At least eight separate strands of people had suddenly formed on either side and converged on my line. The lone offical who was barring the entry door at the far side of the room looked panicked. I was somewhere at the back and because I was travelling alone, didn’t see the sense in rushing to get aboard. After all, we would be leaving at the same time. Bored and facing a long wait, I took the opportunity to study some of the passport stamps I have collected. I would be entering my twelth country soon enough and was a little excited if truth be told, to see which patch of space the official would choose to stamp, and what design and colour it would take. With a swell of pride I noticed that there were fewer empty pages in my passport than there were stamped ones.
One in particular always managed to draw my attention because the page was thicker than the others, reinforced with a separate document gluing it in place. Thumbing through the pages it had always served as a bookmark. Everything before it, evidence of my far flung Eastern European and Asian travels. Everything after, showcasing my current South American adventures.
The Chinese visa was issued to me almost three years earlier and I spent a total of twelve days in the cities of Dalian and Shanghai, admittedly nowhere near enough time to form a real impression of the country. But as I stood in line looking down at the Visa, I couldn’t help but recall one experience in particular which made me smile. It took a long time before that had become my automatic response.
It was my last day in Shanghai. The uneventful six days leading up had been filled with the usual tourist jinks – dining out in local eateries (my favourite being the steamed bun with crab meat and pork stuffing), being harangued on the popular shopping strips by shady vendors who approached under the guise of selling massages but offering much, much more. I also visited my fair share of Temples which were initially beautiful but once you’ve seen a dozen golden buddhas, they tend to lose their lustre after a while. Given the high pollution rates of Shanghai, I wasn’t particularly keen to spend too much time outdoors either. Walking around the city mid-afternoon under the fog of a dust cloud, brushing shoulders with mask-wearing locals made me edgy like I was in a Steven King novel or had landed in some radioactive postapoalyptic future.
Nevertheless, bored in my hotel room on my final afternoon, I set off to check out Yuyuan Gardens which my guidebook had reliably informed me was ‘a little oasis in the bustling metropoplis. The two hectare garden is a fantastic getaway for those who want to see the cultural side of the city.’ Sounded good to me.
After paying a small entrance fee I spent a couple of hours walking around inside and it truly was beautiful. When I left and finding it was still afternoon, I began exploring the outer walls and nearby region. I came across a busy plaza, free of traffic but where a lot of tourists congregated. Some of the surrounding architecture was amazing and I began snapping a few photos.
A couple closeby politely asked if I could take their photo in front of one of these buildings. When I had done this, they returned the favour. I was determined not to be that ‘selfie’ guy on this trip and always asked others whenever possible to take my picture. We started making some idle chit chat and as it turned out they were from a city not too far away, college students visiting Shanghai for a friends wedding. Although they were both Chinese, the woman’s English was very good which I complimented. Her name was Lin and she was probably in her 30’s. Her companion Jan was in his mid 20’s but didn’t speak much. I wasn’t sure if it was because he was younger or that his English wasn’t very good. Either way it became clear to me that she wore the trousers.
I was happy to be talking again which I hadn’t done much of on my trip up until that point. Staying in hotel rooms was probably a bad idea in that respect and I was surprised at the lack of Europeans or English speakers in the city. To illustrate this point, on a separate incident at the start of my trip, a group of teenage students found the courage to approach and join me on the steps outside a museum where I had been sitting, eating a sandwich. They were eager to practice their English and take pictures, politely referring to me as a Beckham lookalike. In truth I probably have a closer resemblance to Victoria than I do David. Perhaps thats who they meant. Nevertheless it’s probably the closest I’ve felt to being famous, posing happily for photos with my new fanclub.
Meanwhile back at the bustling plaza and after a few more minutes of conversation with the very pleasant Lin and Jan, I had filled them in with my backstory and where I had explored in the city so far.
“You haven’t tried the tea tasting?” Lin asked. My blank reaction brought a look of horror to her face, and she spoke in rapid Chinese to her male friend translating this fact to him.
“You must come then,” she said, “we are going to try it now. And it’s free.”
I weighed up my options. It was free. I was in a new country on my own. It was my last day. It was free. I had met two very warm and friendly people who spoke the language. They were inviting me to try an authentic and local experience. If I stacked the quiet one on the shoulders of the woman, I would still be taller than them if it kicked off. And, it was free!
“Yeah sure,” I said. “Why not?”
Her smile was comforting before suddenly she was gone, speeding off at breakneck speed through the crowds leaving me struggling behind to catch up. Twisting and turning through various side streets, the throng of people started to thin out. I was about to ask if we were almost there before she stopped abruptly in front of a house and pulled a sliding front door across and entered. Jan followed and they did so with such a natural air and without so much as a glance back in my direction. I looked around for any signs around the doorway that would tell me what I was entering but failed to find any. This was certainly not on the guidebook which, I considered, was precisely what I wanted. An authentic dose of culture. I ducked under the doorway into the darkness keen to catch up, eager not to upset my new friends.
They were standing inside and smiled at me which was reassuring. I was still in complete control, there of my own volition and could chase tail anytime it got hairy. The room we were in was sparsely decorated and stank of cigarettes. In the far corner two reclining chairs faced a TV set which was turned off. A smallen wooden table was beside one of the chairs, on top of which were a splayed set of playing cards in a puddle. The deck was wet probably from a spill from the glass at one side – a half full tumbler containing some brown liquid.
In terms of cultural experience it wasn’t exactly Shanghai’s Museum of Modern Art.
When Lin opened an interior door and walked in with her friend, she beckoned that I join them. This time I approached with much more reluctance. From my new vantage point, I could see that the room they had entered was much smaller and the decor was a little bit more impressive, namely that this room had wallpaper that stuck to the wall.
I could see a third person in the room and she was dressed in a bright royal blue silk apron. There were dragon symbols and pictures of flowers embroidered on it in intricate designs. Her back was to me and through the aperture of the screen I could see she was preparing various cups and kitchen utensils on a table in front. Shelves lined the interior of the walled room and I could see various foods, beans and seeds there collected in large glass jars. It looked like the world’s smallest shop.
When I finally got close enough to peer in, I could see there was barely any room to breathe, let alone drink tea. For whatever reason that gave me encouragment. There wouldn’t be any surprise visitors except through the screen door, and I was pretty sure I could puncture that if need be with a swift punch.
When I sat down with my two new friends on either side, the woman who was barely in her twenties began unscrewing the lids of some of the jars on the table. Three tiny ceramic cups that wouldn’t look out of place in the world of Polly Pocket, were placed in front of us. One by one, the host began to explain the range of teas before pouring the boiled mixture into our cups.
Disclaimer: I’m not a tea drinker. Never have been. Probably never will be. I just don’t like the taste. The teas on offer, and their properties when my friend had translated it into English sounded amazing. Even the little prayer, and ritual we had before sipping (swirling three times – drinking in 3 sips) was all very well and good. I could buy that, sure. But the taste. It did nothing for me. We spent thirty minutes trying ten different teas (when it’s free and you have an afternoon to kill, why not!). Jasmine, Acai, Ginseng, Peppermint…There was very little to differentiate them but as the others beside me waxed lyrical over the blends and richness of certain types, I played along for the ride and complimented our host on a most delightful experience.
“Did you enjoy it?” Lin asked.
“Absolutely! Great to try something new.” I lied back.
“I’m happy that you liked it.” She said.
“I want buy a gift for you.” My quieter friend Jan had now found his voice. “You like Cherry the best?” he said in broken English.
“Yes, but…” I started to explain.
He ignored me and spoke quickly in Chinese to the host who pulled a small tin vessel from a drawer in the desk, wrapping it neatly in pink paper before handing it to me. I was touched.
“That is so kind! You didn’t need to do that for me. Thank you so much guys.” I felt a little bit silly having doubted them at first, and was delighted to have lucked out by meeting them.
“Your welcome.” Jan said. “Would you like to try more Aidan?”
“To be honest, my stomach is full now!” I said, patting it gently for effect. “I think I’m done for today.”
“No problem,” she said and relayed this to our Host who left the room suddenly.
When the woman came back a few minutes later she handed a piece of paper to Lin who looked at it gravely, before passing it to me.
“Let me calculate this. 6500 Yuan divided by three…”
I watched as my friend struggled with the sum. Her expression was tense and her face scrunched up tight. Linguistics and not Math was clearly her stronger suit. But her reaction was contagious because soon after, I was struggling with my own thoughts. Why was she dividing anything?
“Wait. I thought this was free.”
“No, no.” she assured me. “The first taste is free, but each drink after that you needed to pay for.” The way she said it made me feel like she had not expected the high cost either. Damn it, I thought. We’ve been played here. I loosely translated the currency to euros and it came to around 200 each.
“Do you mind if me and you pay a little bit more? Jan is in his final year at University and doesn’t really have the funds to pay a third.”
Poor Jan, I thought. He was so generous in buying me the little gift after I told him that my Mother liked to drink tea in the gallons. She would love the gift. Of course I would take up the slack. After all, the little gift he had bought me had cost around 8 euro.
“Sure.” I said like a shmuck. I didn’t want to be the stingy tourist and leave my friends hanging. We had both had an expensive lesson and neither of us had escaped with much glory. It wasn’t a crippling amount of money in anycase and I decided to pay up without dragging things out. I just wanted to get out of that little room and leave Shanghai behind.
When we paid up, we exchanged email addresses and although I was still hurt by paying the obscene amount for a private tea tasting class, I comforted myself in the knowledge that it was still an interesting experience at the end of the day. Plus I had made two new friends in the process.
As I walked back to my hostel, my curiosity was piqued by what had just happened. It all seemed so slick, and I hadn’t seen my two friends actually exchange money with the Host at the end. Plus, they seemed to know the coffee house and the Host quite well.
With Google’s useful predictive search function, as I began typing ‘Shanghai Tea…’ into the search bar, the first entry screamed at me. Scam. When I clicked the first search result I was brought to a specific blog forum where dozens of others had just experienced what I had. To the letter. The description of the duo also matched my two friends.
It was beautiful! I was gutted, and I couldn’t remember which street the tea house had been on or else I would have returned. This only added to my sense of frustration.
Ever since that happened, I’ve swotted up in advance about scams and tricks that the locals play on unsuspecting tourists, and I’m glad to say I’ve been wise to them so far on this trip. Perhaps in some weird way I do owe Lin and Jan for the harsh lesson. It’s made me less naive.
I ask myself what I would have done if I saw them again, and I honestly don’t know. I’m one of probably dozens of faces they’ve scammed over the years. I still have the little tin of tea that Jan bought me, lying around somewhere at home.
Considering the cost incurred to get it from that little pokey house in Shanghai all the way to the Emerald Isle, I’m savouring it like a fine wine for a special occasion. Perhaps if my friends visit me in Ireland. Though for some odd reason they haven’t responded to my emails.