“It takes stamina to climb,” said the Chinese tour guide, looking up into the eager faces of my ninth graders, American students from a private school in New England. We were about to hike part of the Great Wall of China on a brisk March morning. Eighteen students,two guides, two teachers and me. The grumpy principal. “Big, strong boys will go the farthest,” said the second guide. Our three clowns – Roxy, Ted and Philip – started to guffaw and flip their crimson school caps into the air. “That’s us,” they joked. In fact, they were probably the least athletic of all the students and the least competitive as well. A few girls grimaced at the guide’s sexist comment, then vowed to walk faster than any of the boys. Rival teams formed and the two teachers got caught up in the fun.
I said I’d hang back and be the check-in person. From where I stood, I could see hundreds of tourists ascending the path, hawkers selling plastic water bottles, workmen scrubbing the stones.The Great Wall looked like the arched back of a giant dragon, undulating towards the horizon. The kids and guides set off. I could tell that Roxy, Ted and Philip were fooling around, as fourteen year olds tend to do. I could see them dangling each other’s cell phones over the edge. I trusted the teachers to keep the boys on their radar. I watched them until Roxy’s bright blue parka became a small dot and the crimson caps were merely red blurs in the distance.
On that particular morning, I was feeling cynical. I am an avid traveler, with dozens of exotic entry visas to my name, but I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about this quick journey to China. I had my own views on the best ways to give young people valuable cultural experiences abroad. Where to take them. How to sensitize them. How to make things real. But I was new to this particular school and this trip wasn’t my baby. I thought the itinerary was heavy on shopping, light on discovery. So I was sulking a bit. The time passed. We had agreed to reconnoiter at noon.
Slowly everyone returned. I counted heads, one crimson cap after the other. There were supposed to be eighteen heads. I waited. Where were the clowns? I tried calling Roxy or Ted or Philip. No signal. A half hour passed. What could have happened to them? An accident? Why didn’t the teachers keep track of them? The students stopped chattering. An hour passed. A pit opened in my stomach. We were seven thousand miles from home. Three boys for whom I was ultimately responsible were missing. We put out messages in Mandarin and English through a megaphone.
How long is the Great Wall of China? Longer than our vocal chords could stretch. All of us stood around saying nothing, thinking everything. The wind picked up and slapped our faces with fear. “Can we at least go to the bathroom?” asked some kids. “Only if we watch you like hawks,” I answered. One of the teachers and I accompanied a group to the restroom, located near the main entrance. It was a low-roofed building tucked into the side of the wall like a lean-to. All of a sudden a figure flew off the roof like a giant blue parakeet. “Holy crap!” said the teacher, “That’s Roxy!” Within seconds Ted and Philip also landed at our feet. Their story came out in a torrent of words and interruptions.
They had jumped off the wall in one of the low places. Just for as a joke, kind of. Then they had no choice but to walk back down through rocky brush until the entry point. But without our ticket stubs or yuans, we couldn’t get in. They climbed onto the restroom roof and were planning to sneak over the wall, avoiding the admission takers and security guards. But then we heard your voices. Some Principals might have lost their tempers on the spot. Or doled out an immediate punishment. But I could do neither. I was feeling nothing except profound relief.
I had imagined catastrophe and received a gift in its place. Three young boys were safe and whole and humble. Had they been foolish? Yes. Irresponsible? Yes. Was this the worst-case scenario? Hardly. No one knows where good fortune comes from. At that moment, I thought about all the good luck symbols commonly found in Chinese restaurants and shops. I could only imagine the graceful “fu” character, upside down, floating over the crimson school caps of my students. All I could do was look up into the endless Asian sky and speak softly of gratitude.
About the Author: Gabriella Brand’s writing has appeared in over thirty publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Echoes, and Room Magazine. She is a Pushcart Prize Nominee. An itinerant linguist and educator, she travels extensively, mostly on foot.
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