I take a “leaf in the wind” approach to traveling, relying less on planning and more on just doing whatever looks fun and interesting. With that attitude I arrived in Beijing looking forward to ten days of adventure and discovery. On my very first day I met a pair of nice young women who spoke English. They invited me to have tea with them at a traditional Chinese tea shop, followed by drinks and karaoke at a nearby bar. At first I was filled with the kind of joy that came from smug self-satisfaction. I was seeing the real China, not the one manufactured by organized tours and guidebooks! Well it wouldn’t have hurt to crack open a guidebook before I arrived in Beijing, because then I would have been aware of a scam where tourists are taken to overpriced bars and tea shops and bilked out of large sums of cash. By the end of the evening those nice young women had taken me for nearly $300.
Needless to say I was very upset once I realized I had been scammed. Not just because of the money, but because once again I had reached out my hand in friendship only to have it slapped down. I had struggled to make friends my whole life with little success. Sometimes I tried too hard and sometimes I didn’t try hard enough, but either way I spent most of my time alone. On the one hand it allowed me the independence to travel anywhere I wanted on my own terms, but on the other it fostered a deep sense of loneliness that made me fair game to any con artist with a smile and a few kind words.
I decided to get out of the city and visit Chengde. The town is best known for Mountain Resort, an imperial palace and garden that served as the summer residence of China’s last emperors. I went there with no intentions other than to look around, eat, and go back to the hotel. The grounds were enormous and took all day to explore. I was awed by the beauty of both the terrain and the buildings, some of which were older than the United States. While walking through a field I thought I heard someone yell out “hello!” I ignored it at first, but then I heard it again. I turned around and saw a small group of people sitting underneath a tree, inadvertently making eye contact with the woman who had been calling out to me. “Hello!” She shouted one more time as she gestured me to come over. I suddenly found myself walking in her direction, reasoning that it wouldn’t cost me anything just to say hello.
The woman smiled and introduced herself as Lin, and then she introduced me to her two children, her sister, and her sister’s two children. We sat and chatted until the sun began to set, and then she invited me to have dinner with them. Despite the huge red flag being waved in my face, I said yes. We ventured into town to a very nice restaurant, where we met up with Lin’s husband, brother-in-law, and parents. Dinner was a meal fit for an emperor. We enjoyed traditional Chinese dishes such as crispy peking duck, savory pork dumplings and tender steamed vegetables. Only Lin spoke English well enough to carry a conversation, but the rest of the family was very friendly and tried to make me feel welcome.
Unfortunately due to my previous experience with friendly people I was unable to relax completely, fearing that I would be stuck paying for everything again. Why did I agree to this? Why was I such a sucker? Why was I constantly setting myself up for crushing disappointment? My questions were answered when the bill arrived. Lin picked up the tab, expressed how happy she and her family were to meet me, and hoped I would enjoy the rest of my time in their country. And I did. I saw many amazing places and met many nice people, none of whom tried to rip me off.
The world isn’t always such a great place. There are some people who will try to take advantage of you, and that doesn’t change just because you go on vacation. Every time you put yourself out there you run the risk of getting burned, and sometimes you will. But if that’s the price to pay for a lifetime of wonderful memories, then I’ll bring some burn cream when I set off on my next adventure.
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