The no 32 bus that we climbed aboard at 4.45pm was apparently one of the last buses riding ahead of the tide of workers as they left work.
We easily found seats and settled down. I thought about the buses that would soon be travelling behind us, packed to capacity with weary passengers.
We arrived at the Restaurant ( the name of which no one seems to know…), a group of 11 of us, and we were shown to a table.
The Restaurant is frequented by the Chinese community and is a type of restaurant that I have never experienced before.
I was feeling a little out of sorts that day – concerned about a few things regarding my job (it wasn’t quite as I had thought it would be – is anything ever?) and I had had a disappointment concerning my missing luggage. I was told that my suitcase had been found (yippee yay) and was on its way (woop woop). I was then shown a picture of a black case and asked – is this your case? – and it wasn’t. It wasn’t my suitcase.
That day I was wearing L’s corduroy trousers (too short) and new friends’ jersey and coat ( both very nice) but I felt lost somehow.
It was a bit of a revelation to me – the way I felt. I thought that clothing had never been very important to me. But I was wrong.
In my suitcase were things that I had specifically picked to bring, leaving as I was for two years. A friend told me once that if you hold an item, and it brings you joy, then you should keep it. If it does not – then give it away.
In my suitcase were things that bring me joy. Most are old, most have a story, most are attached to people and places.
Again I thought of the fire victims of Knysna, and one of them, a friend, who said – I have money to buy new clothes, but that’s not how it works. You gather things over time, you don’t buy a wardrobe in just one day.
In my case, being nearly 6 foot, a collection of clothing would be hard for me to find in Lanzhou.
My mind had been muddling through all these thoughts all day – surrender and acceptance, sadness and pity (for myself), excitement and loss, judgement and understanding (of myself).
And so on.
It was becoming exhausting.
It was becoming boring.
And so we arrived at the restaurant. Inside there were shelves and shelves, rows stacked with platters of food. Some of the platters were shrouded in an icy cloud. They contained an assortment of very cold (or frozen) cuts of meat and seafood – shellfish and fish.
There were bowls of cooked vegetables and cooked meat in sauces and spicy meat on wooden skewers, all arranged on long shelves.
There was a delicatessen stocked with cakes and biscuits and tarts.
There were racks bright with bowls of fresh crispy green salad leaves and stalks.
We were shown to a long table, with two silver basins sunk into two holes in the middle of it. The bases of these basins were covered with a disk of thick greaseproof paper, and it was hot.
The idea is that everyone chooses their cuts of meat and fish and places them on the hot base to cook.
It’s a sort of Chinese Bar-B-Q, and I guess is the closest China can get to a South African braai.
We all sat around and chatted. We stretched over each other and turned our cuts of meat and seafood over with our chopsticks. When cooked we lifted them out onto our plates. We dipped the cooked pieces into little bowls of chosen sauces, chilli, soy with coriander, peanut butter (sort of satay). We drank a few cold beers. It was all very delicious.
At tables alongside us groups of young Chinese people gathered. Friends sat together chatting and dipping and cooking and sipping brightly coloured coolers from glass bottles.
Later the waitresses changed the hot ‘braai’ basins for pots of hot water, served ‘half and half’ – one-half boiling and flavoured and milky in colour, the other half red and hot and spicy.
Into these boiling pots, you put more bits and pieces chosen from the shelves. The young people with us had tried frogs legs cooked on the hot base – now they ate crabs, boiled and pulled apart.
I sat back and relaxed. Eating in that way can be hugely filling, but as you eat over about 3 hours, fulness slowly creeps up on you.
The bus on the way home was very full. Our experienced South African friends led the way – don’t be polite, just push! And so we did, and all of us managed to fit in before the doors of the bus shut.
On the bus, there was standing room only, but almost immediately Lex was offered a seat. He took it, it would have been rude not too. And then I was offered a seat as well, which I also took.
Those standing looked to be the same age as we are. Maybe it’s the grey hair. I smiled at two young women clinging to the rail next to me. They were unsteady and too short to reach up and hold onto the loops hanging from the rail above them. I resisted the impulse to reach out and offer them my hand to help them. The bus rode on, with everyone pushed up close to each other, and swaying.
From my comfy seat, I watched the brightly lit buildings passing by, the neon signs, with big letters like art, in a language I do not understand.
We had to push past everyone when our stop came up. The freezing air greeted us, the road was suddenly empty and so we ran across the tarmac.
A kind of home again.