Pudong International Airport is a traveler’s dream: visually sleek, reasonably efficient, with a high-speed rail link (eight minutes to the center of Shanghai, an hour by car) and useful services including a business center, a post office, designer shopping past security (laptops out, but no demeaning checks for shoes or liquids), even sit-down restaurants near the gates. The airport at Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, serves as a reminder that you’re still in the developing world. Debarking there is a little like arriving on St. Thomas, minus the teal waters of the Caribbean just off the runway. There are jetways, but not for my Shanghai Airlines flight; we debark down an old-fashioned stair, like jet-setters of the 1950s and ‘60s. Baggage claim is considerably more efficient than at St. Thomas, but then, apparently a lot less luggage has been checked. My two overweight bags, Big Blue and Little Red, arrive together on conveyor belt in little more time than it takes to visit the ladies’ room.
I’ve been told to look for my driver, here’s no one holding a sign with my name neatly printed on it, as there had been at Pudong. “Taxi? Taxi”? I hear around me. I shake my head and continue looking; my flight is an hour late, and I fear the driver may have given up. Then a wiry man holds out a piece of white paper in front of me and unfolds it; ragged printing in pencil spells out Diane. “Yes!” I say, smiling with relief. A cart materializes, and we set off to the far side of the parking lot. I settle into the back, on a Snoopy seat cover.
My destination, Xiangtan, is only about 20 miles away, but of course I have no idea in what direction or how to get there. We pass through the outskirts of Changsha, passing stores with names like Wal-Mart and Avon and a misspelled Michelin, and into what appears to be the city center, the driver intermittently chattering on an invisible phone. Just after one call, he pulls up at curbside and greets a chubby-cheeked boy of perhaps 8 or 9. To my surprise, the boy gets into the front seat, and then a woman I hadn’t noticed join me in the back, carrying a huge bag of oranges. We exchange ni hao’s. “My boy,” the driver announces proudly, in English; he does not mention the woman. In my brain, Rosetta Stone Mandarin kicks in. “Er zi. Tai tai,” I think without speaking. “Son. Wife.”
Since Big Blue and Little Red fill the trunk of the car, the woman and I sit through a traffic bottleneck jammed into the car, she with her shopping, I with handbag on my lap and laptop case at my feet. When we finally reach the highway, the woman pulls an orange and hands it to me. “Xie xie!” I respond politely, but I am unsure if it’s meant for now or later. I hold it in my hands for a while, then slip it into my laptop bag. When the woman pulls out another orange and begins to peel it, I decide, “Oh, why not?” and follow suit. The rind is thicker than those on the easy-peel clementines I enjoyed at home all winter, and my thumbnail makes slow progress. The woman smiles, hands me her neatly peeled orange, and takes back mine. “Xie xie!” I can’t section it neatly without spurting juice all over the car, so I bite into it like an apple. My fingers are sticky with juice, and I lick them clean.
As we arrive at my destination, the enormous campus of Hunan University of Science and Technology, she reaches into her bag once more and hands me another orange – a parting gift, and a start toward the next day’s breakfast. Welcome to Hunan.