I placed myself in the center, on the unclean wooden floor that gives promise of stains and splinters. I’ve decided this to be the most appropriate place for stability and therefore securing the idea that I won’t go over board. The sun is shimmering on the water and I’ve declared this the most questionable boat I have stepped foot on. Nevertheless we are steadily gliding onward with the roar of the engine that requires a manual start and lights up sparks through the smoke it produces. We are shopping for dinner. On the water. For all my uncertainty on the reliability of this vessel I wouldn’t be anywhere else. We set out early to drive over the mountains and take the boat out to explore the fish farms of Luoyuan bay, my step mothers hometown.
The mountains are beaming with the warmth of the sun. The water is opening up to reveal a floating city of ramshackle wooden houses that stretch out over the sea to cover almost the entire bay. We pull our boat up along side a hut and jump ship for the first expedition. I’m being directed over the uneven narrow floorboards that make up a network crossing that lies on the surface of the water. Below are cages and nets housing everything from lobster to scallops. My attention is guided to the cage of abalone. When opened these shells incorporate all the colors of the ocean. I collect the empty shells that have been washed up among the ropes and wash them off hoping to keep my balance and composure. We bag some up and make our way back to the boat.
Crossing the water surrounded by mountains I’m captivated by these simple homes that float within the fish farms. China’s mariculture industry has exploded over the last 25years and is now so large it accounts for two thirds of the world’s entire production. With this in mind I cannot help but consider the environmental impact harvesting at this level would cause with biodiversity being irreparably damaged. There is a three month ban every year for stocks to replenish but somehow I doubt those numbers balance out what has been lost. Putting these thoughts to the back of my mind I turn my attention back to the scenery and sea air.
This time we are leaning towards the direction of another boat and not quite slowing down as rapidly as we appear to be approaching! With what could be labelled a collision we stop and tie off to each other. Stretching over the sides of both boats I hop aboard and choose my step cautiously. There are nets being half dragged along the wet floor by the hostages inside. I don’t know what has surprised me more. The child in her pajamas waking among the crabs or the squid that is hypnotically dancing on the floor, it’s tentacles feeling for the opportunity of escape. There is a third boat attached with ropes forming a floating line of vessels. We buy fish from one and crabs from the other. While leaving this boat some words appear to be exchanged at a heightened tone and before I ask for the translation a fish is thrown at my feet. This is one of those moments to simply except the differences of this culture. I decide to return the fish to the water without uttering a word or question as to the reason behind this display.
Continuing navigating the fish farms we finally settle behind a larger boat that looks far more capable of crossings seas. We return our circus style routine of balancing along the boards to the security of the platform in front of the hut. The preparation begins for dinner. As we are joined by those I assume own the hut the washing and boiling begins. I’m directed onto the large boat all of a sudden and it seems we are leaving. I haven’t eaten over the entire day and I look longingly back at the food as we head around a mountain. It appears we cannot dock along the stone staircase ahead to reach land. Instead I find myself on a raft held together with rope and floating on barrels. I’m baffled by how I’ve managed to remain dry. It appears we are off for a hike to further work up our appetite.
At the base of this winding hill a phone call is made. As always I’m unable to understand the details so I take in the amazing view of the bay. These fish farms are really quite spectacular and a tourist attraction in their own right. My attention is shifted towards the dirt track ahead and we start to climb. Half way up we meet a truck. There’s a discussion and suddenly I’m in the back of this truck clinging on with white knuckles. My step mother’s wild spirit gives way to laughter. We jump off at the top, I regain stability soon enough yet remain confused as to why I’m not yet eating what we spent the day purchasing. It all comes to light. Walking through an area of forestry I’m confronted by a narrow gap between caves. Obviously this is our route. My step mother joyfully takes lead and moves like a cat, winding her body around the rocks with a childlike excitement which is nothing short of infectious. The view is worth every scratch and spider that is now crawling on me. China is so far the most beautiful country I have seen.
The walk back down the hill is full of stories of how when my step mother was a child she used to hike into the mountains and collect various leaves for tea and dry grass for fire. When I think of my childhood in comparison it’s almost shameful how privileged we are in the western world, without any concept of life outside our own familiarity. There is a man at the base of the hill holding a bottle of red wine and a smile. The answer to the earlier telephone conversation. Back on the raft and a climb onto the boat we are on the move again past the hut and towards another mountain. I’m sticky from the hike in the sun and can’t remember the last time I have been this hungry. Alas, it appears I must wait as this is a day for adventure and earning your meal.
We reach a stone walkway and I see that it is another hike to this next destination. This time I spot a small stall and without notifying my company I’m gone. It was here that I was first introduced to an old ice lolly, a milky taste that is incredibly refreshing. Even with half of it dripping down my hand in the heat I’m relieved to have something to keep me going. I do not have the stamina of my step mother or her friend that has been guiding us this whole time. Upwards we go to discover more caves and a beautiful stone statue that is a place of worship. I’m aware of how little I know of China’s diverse religious beliefs and hope to one day dedicate the time to learning more about this countries ancient history.
As the sun’s light begins to lose strength we find ourselves back on the boat. On the platform the small table is laid and the smell is exquisite. I’ve never had sea food this fresh and the crab is worth every effort required to devour past its shell. We finish the wine and food and take home the remaining crab for the following day. Finding ourselves on our original boat, I take my place on the floors center and we leave the fish farms behind. The sun is setting on the water as we reach our destination and it’s another journey over the mountains home. Although not practical to shop for your food like that every day this has been an amazing experience. I’m incredibly fortunate to have an invitation to this real world of China outside of the guide books and known tourist locations. My step mother resides in Abu Dhabi with my father but I’m fortunate that she is here for my first month in this new country. Along with the rest of her family, she has not only shown me areas that I would never have been aware of but has shared her culture with me in a way that has allowed China to feel like home.