Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where my slight phobia of manhole covers comes from

I've never really written much about our trip to China on this blog (I did on our old travel message board), but the other day Dan and I were talking about the trip and about one event in particular. It's a pretty good story, so here you go.

I've always been a relatively graceful person. I keep my balance pretty easily, I don't tend to trip over things, and I was always praised in ballet class for just GOING for it and learning how to fall in the process. If you went to school with me (and at least one of you did), you may remember that I once made a habit of ghosting the hallways, walking from class to class with my nose in a book, never looking up yet never tripping, falling, or running into anything. Half the time my shoes weren't tied, either, so I'm not entirely sure how I managed it. But I did, even during the middle school years when most people were at odds with their growing, oddly-proportioned bodies. I never really had one of those times; most of my height-growing was done in 10th grade and by that time I was old enough to deal with the new inches in my arms and legs.

So I'm not one who's prone to falls, and when I do fall, it's usually because I've chosen to, and so I can predict my landing (to some extent). This trick has come in handy over the years, as I'm sure I've avoided more injuries than I've sustained, just by being aware of my body and where it is in time and space.

When Dan and I went to China, we visited three cities: Beijing, Xi'an (where the terra cotta army is), and Luoyang (gateway to the Shaolin monastery). Beijing and Xi'an are enormous cities and people there are used to tourists any time of the year. Luoyang, on the other hand, isn't nearly as big (it's only several million people) and the culture is far more old-fashioned in terms of city improvements and transportation habits. In Beijing, most people used bikes, though there were a lot of cars, and the sidewalks were all in good repair. In Xi'an, there were far more cars, and you had to cross the street in a large pack of people to avoid being mowed down. In Luoyang, most motorized vehicles were either mopeds/scooters or small trucks hauling stuff around, and we saw very few cars. Everyone rode bikes. There weren't many crosswalks, and the sidewalks were in all stages of repair and disrepair. We had to really stare at the ground to avoid things like rebar sticking up, broken sidewalk sticking up, a sudden expanse of dirt below the sidewalk surface, etc. At the time we visited, it was early November, and what few (Western, non-Chinese) tourists the city gets in a given year were long gone. I think in the three days we spent in and around Luoyang, we didn't see a single non-Chinese person. Anyhow, we found the people to be very friendly (especially children, who when we passed them on the street would giggle or act shy, but half a block after we'd passed we'd hear "Hello!") and got to see a lot more of what life in China was really like for an everyday person.

One of the things that most Westerners don't understand about China is the difference in manners. We weren't as prepared as we could have been for the three S's: smoking (in all places, in all situations, regardless of whether there were signs prohibiting it or not), spitting (worst in Beijing), and STARING. Because we were the only white people in town, the citizens of Luoyang found it entirely necessary to stare at us at all times. By then we were kind of used to it (and by the end of our trip, when we passed a non-Chinese person on the street we stared ourselves just because it was such a novelty), so it didn't bother us, and we were so busy watching where we stepped on the sidewalk that we probably didn't see as much as went on.

Our first day in Luoyang, we took a bus out to the Longmen Grottoes, where thousands of carved buddhas of all shapes and sizes rested in amongst some gorgeous scenery. We bussed back into town after our amazing tour of the area, and were walking back to our hotel (set into the old city wall) along the same sidewalk we'd already trod twice that day. While walking along, talking about something, I took a step, and suddenly my right leg was not where I expected it to be. Rather than on solid ground, I'd stepped on a manhole cover that wasn't sealed. My leg sunk below the sidewalk, and the heavy cover flipped back and trapped my leg betweeen itself and the side of the manhole.

It hurt. A lot.

It hurt so much, in fact, that I wasn't sure what had happened at first. Luckily, rather than falling, I was able to balance on my left leg, squatting down, while Dan helped flip the cover open a bit to enable me to pull my leg out. It hurt a lot more. My pants were covered in grime. Some kids who were walking by pointed and laughed at me. I hobbled back to the hotel and we vainly tried to communicate the question of whether ice might be available (it was not) and my leg swelled to ridiculous proportions. The next day, I had a bruise about six inches long and four inches wide on the inside of my right leg, and I realized that the reason it hurt so bad was because the manhole cover had closed on my right shinbone.

It took about four months for the swelling and discoloration on my leg to go back to normal, another year after that for it to stop hurting completely when touched in the area I'd bruised, and I still have a palpable bump on my right shinbone. We have talked many times since about how it was a good thing that I was the one who'd stepped on the open manhole cover, because if Dan had done it he would have broken his leg, and we would have had to try to navigate the process of a Chinese hospital by ourselves in a city with very few people who spoke any English at all. I am grateful for my ability to balance, for my sense of body place, for my lack of shame and humiliation at the spectacle I caused on a messy sidewalk in Luoyang, and that it was me that took that step, rather than Dan. I still have a little twinge of fear whenever I step on a manhole cover, and I've mostly avoided them since then, even here in the States where we make sure our manhole covers are secured, dammit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ow ow ow ow OW. I've always been afraid that those storm cellar doors I pass on the sidewalk will cave in when I step on them, but now I'm adding manhole covers to my list.