Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cat Hunting

This is the end of the story of my grandson's hunt for cat. I think you will find it informative, funny and, quite possibly, an effective appetite suppressant.

Sunday December 1st, 2008

Guangzhou City Airport

Disclaimer: the following contains graphic descriptions of differing cultures.

In the last 36 hours I did a day-trip to Macau, came back, and tried to finish off the previously mentioned quest.

Macau, returned in 1999 to China from the Portuguese, was a crazy place to be. I took a two hour bus from Guangzhou to the boarder city of Zhuhai and then walked through customs to the island. My first sense of the city went against my instincts, and for a second I felt like I had already been there. Every city has a different 'feel,' and similar cities feel similarly. For example, Paris feels more like London than Beijing, which feels like more like Shanghai than New York. What made Macau so interesting was that other than the street signs that were half-in Chinese and the people who spoke a dialect that was not quite Cantonese, I would have thought that I was in Europe. The streets were narrow and building's architecture was reminiscent of old European. Large cathedrals dotted the rolling cityscape and patisseries sold fresh bread on the corners. The smell of dirty restaurants and car exhaust was replaced with baking bread and fresh fish carried on an ocean breeze much like Barcelona. There was one major difference though: casinos. Macau is called the "Venice of the East." Casinos tower over the streets, everlighting up the landscape. Also, cars drive on the other side of the road, which confused me for a while. I seriously thought that the first car that I saw had no driver and that the woman in the passenger seat was driving! My hostel was right downtown, 3 minutes from the casino strip and quite noisy but cheap and simple.

Today, I woke up early to cross back to the mainland from where I caught a bus back to the Marriot Hotel in a part of the city that I was not familiar with. The sign for the airport shuttle was across the street and I would later wish I had written down the address. Having no plans, I picked a direction and walked hoping to catch a cab to the Orchid park (the home to 10,000 potted orchids, 5 of which were flowering). I happened to stumble upon it after 20 minutes and walked around before visiting a teahouse and finishing off a pot of tea as I tossed sticks into the koi pond, laughing as the fish tried to eat them. Satisfied and rested, I resumed my quest for cat. It was 2pm, and I decided that crunch time had arrived. I picked a direction and asked every store down the way until someone gave me a hint as to where I could find cat. Five stores later, a woman pointed me in the direction of a nearby restaurant saying she thought that they had what I yearned for. I crossed the street and stopped in to inquire. As I walked up to the greeter, my heart started to race. Would this be the end of my quest? Only 30 minutes after starting? It was too easy. Like all things that are that easy, it was not the answer. She laughed at me and I assured her I was serious. I needed to eat cat and I needed to do it within the next 4 hours. The customer standing next to her and polluting the world did know a place and he led me to the corner where he asked a policeman if he knew the address of the cat restaurant. He did, and wanted to know if I would wait an hour for him to get off work so he could go with me. I hesitated and he offered to write the address down for me. The one thing about handwritten Chinese is that everyone has their own shorthand; legibility is based on the speed of which it is written. Without letters and with some characters containing more than 20 strokes, a few shortcuts can easily mean illegibility. Thus was the case. I asked three cab drivers if they knew the address, none could read the note and all turned me down. Alas, I went up to another security guard who told me how to get there by bus. 20 cents later I was walking down a street that I would guess fewer than 100 foreigners have ever gone down before. Not only did people stare, but they stopped their work to gape. I split from my path four times down different alleys before arriving at the restaurant. The sign out front had the character for cat on it and pictures of cats on it (along with pictures of dogs, snakes, and goats). I walked in and the place was empty. Hung on the back wall was a yellow placard with their dishes; cat was there. Multiple times. For the second time today, my heart raced with anticipation. This was it, I could feel it. I weaved through the scattered chairs and tables while swatting away the flies unfazed, I needed to find a waitress. I found her in the kitchen, which in any other countries would have been called either a cave or a bunker. It was low ceilinged and wok smoke darkened the fridge and shelves. I spoke, "Cat, do you have it?" Surprised at first by my Mandarin, she smiled. "I am sorry, we are closed."

All my years experience of cajoling and wheedling my way into things culminated in the next five minutes. I told her my story starting when I was born under the star of dogs, sworn enemy of cats. I told her how I was raised with the one purpose, to eat cat in Guangzhou on the first of December, two thousand eight. I told her how I had traveled from Shanghai especially for this one moment and that I could not go back until I ate it and that she was now the only thing standing in my way. "The cooks are off work." I explained how I had worked in a restaurant and could do it myself; all I needed was the supplies. No, she refused again. I stepped into the kitchen and looked around in desperation. What were all of those pots on the counter? Cat? Yes. Why could I not eat that? It was not cooked yet. Microwave? Not here. She offered to let me take it home and cook it, but I had a plane to catch and no kitchen. "Sorry," she said, "I can't help you."

I walked away dejected. She knew of no other nearby restaurants that served cat so I crossed the street and asked the woman behind the counter of the tobacco shop. She pointed to the kitten on the sign across the street. "That's the only place I know," What to do? I had already spent two hours on this quest today, and time was running low. Finding another restaurant might take another two hours, and cabs were hard to come by at this time of the day. I decided to go ask again. I walked back to the kitchen and said I'd take the half-cooked pot that she had offered earlier. She refused on the condition that it was not cooked (which I respected, cat is notoriously dirty). What if I gave her a little more money? She looked hard into my eyes and sighed, "I'll go ask the cook." She came back shaking her head. "But if you really want it, go talk to him yourself."

I must have looked ridiculous as I walked into the room next door where the cook was eating. He stared as I approached, and I stared back. Unfazed and unshaven for four days, my white button-down safari shirt dirtied and half-way unbuttoned, I repeated my proposition. My hiking backpack with sandals hanging off and cinched around my waste and camera hanging at my side yelled tourist— translation: money. We walked next door and into the kitchen. That is when the haggling began. He started at 100RMB for a plate, which was ridiculous because the menu said 15. I haggled it down to 50 for a good sized portion, and sat down. Victory. It was mine; all I had to do was wait. Or not. He brought the pot of cat out right away and set it on a heater on the table. "Can I eat it now?" I asked, "Dig in." Slightly perturbed that I had been lied to about it not being cooked, I let it go and asked the waitress to take a video. She held the camera as I used the chopstick skills I have been developing over the last six months to fulfill the cliché of Chinese restaurants.

The meat was like all of the other meat in china, littered with bones that make any speed-eating impossible. I gnawed and spat and slurped and licked, savoring my victory. The meat itself was tough with large chunks of fat and blood vessels and bones running through it, making eating difficult. It had a slight smoky flavor but was not sour like I had been told. It was simmered in a stew with carrots, water chestnuts and pieces of wood cut into 4 inch pieces that I tried to eat thinking it was bamboo. It was not and I never quite figured out why it was there. The flies that swarmed threatened my food and I had to keep a watchful eye that they didn't land on my plate while I was taking pictures.

While I was eating, a police truck pulled up with its lights flashing and two cops got out. They stared right at me and approached. For the third time today, my heart raced in anticipation. Was eating cat illegal? Was I somewhere I shouldn't be? Fortunately they walked right past me, right into the kitchen where they stayed for at least five minutes. The waitress quickly walked back to talk to them and the cook straightened up chairs, covered some boxes with a tablecloth, and got something out of a drawer. Yelling ensued, and the police came back out, dragging the woman by the arm to the car. The cook (who I think was her husband) grabbed one of the policemen and tried to get his wife back to no avail. They forced her (pushing was involved) into the truck and drove away, lights still flashing. The cooked ran after the truck and whipped out his cell phone, but was left in the dust and returned, texting away. What's wrong? I asked him, looking from him to the kitchen to the cat as the dust from the police settled. "Oh, no problem." I nibbled on a few more hacked off pieces of cat and decided that I had had my fun, it was time to go. I paid, took a few more pictures, and said goodbye.

I walked back to the bus stop where I had been dropped off and caught a cab to a dim sum restaurant, where I ate the rest of my hunger away. The waitress told me how to get to an airport shuttle-bus, and I again wished I had remembered the address of where I had been dropped off earlier. I thanked her, paid, and headed to the metro. After waiting in line for 30 minutes for a token, I rode so far the best subway system that I have experienced in China. One of the problems with the metro here is that the once the doors open, people pushing on do not let people get off. I have seen very confrontational people almost get in fights just to be let out at their stop. Here both sides of the car open, one side lets people on, one side lets them off. Problem solved. Anyway, two lines later I escalatored up to a surprisingly familiar scene. For a second I could not place where I was, and then it hit me, the Marriot hotel. I had traveled full circle, eaten cat, and seen the city.

What a day.

I land in 30 minutes, seats up and tray tables back.

From China with Love,


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