Chinese water torture: the pool I haven't been allowed to use, with my building in the background.
Chinese water torture: the pool I can’t use, with my building in the background.

Labor Day is the saddest day of the year at Riverbank State Park on the Hudson in Manhattan. At 6 p.m. the park’s two pools, having been largely turned over to the kids all summer, close for a month for cleaning and other maintenance. The plugs are pulled, and two days later, the pools have drained. And I start my annual scramble for a place to swim. Chelsea Piers on guest passes, the 92nd Street Y on Groupon, the Southold town beach within walking distance of a friend’s house – I’ve scrambled to them all.

Spending this September in Guangzhou, I thought I’d be able to skip the scramble. “Do they have a swimming pool where you are going in China???” asked Georgia Keghlian, chief usher at Circle in the Square, when I took nights off so I could make the evening adult swim at Riverbank. Actually, there are two, right outside my window. But I haven’t been allowed to use them, so once again I’m scrambling.

Why? It seems you have to pass a health examination before being issued a pool card. I arrived two weeks ago and couldn’t get an appointment until last Tuesday, with a three-day wait to pick up my results on Friday. In the meantime, I’ve listened to the sounds of happy swimmers outside my window every evening. (No self-respecting Chinese would swim outdoors in the daytime. They might get a suntan, which would mark them as field workers. They carry umbrellas as shields from the sun as much as the rain.)

When I taught in Hunan five years ago, I spent my first month with noplace to swim and thought I was going to die. Guangzhou is semi-tropical, though, and nearly every hotel boasts at least an outdoor pool. The only Guangzhou listing for a public pool I could find on my standby,, sounded disgusting. So, as a stopgap until I passed my health exam, I adopted the philosophy of my friend Leslie: “To make a problem go away, throw money at it.”

I had read about a W Hotel apparently not far from campus with a lovely pool that charged $40 a visit. Since my record for a swim is $116, I thought I could swing that once a week. I started scouting for inexpensive hotels with pools where I might check in overnight on a weekend to buy two swim days. Somewhere on the Internet I found a Ramada advertising a Wellness Center with indoor and outdoor pools. But there are two Ramadas within striking distance of campus. Which one?

I phoned one to ask about its policy, and a very nice man told me yes, the pool was open to the public for 30 yuan (less than $5) a visit. Was it within walking distance of Jinan University? “Ten minutes away.” I checked a map, though, and it didn’t seem to be nearby, so I marched out to the South Gate, got into a taxi and asked to go to the Ramada Plaza. Good thing I took the cab: the Ramada is 10 minutes from another Jinan campus.

At the pool I looked for a place to pay my 30 yuan, but a lifeguard simply nodded toward the changing room. The pool has two shallow areas and one deep one, which is rectangular and, while short of Riverbank’s 25 meters, good enough for laps. Midway through my first visit, the lifeguard and a Chinese swimmer gave me big smiles and thumbs up – a compliment on my swimming.

Afterward, I asked at the front desk if there was another Ramada with a big outdoor pool; indeed there was, the Ramada Pearl, and a young woman behind the desk wrote out a card with its address in Chinese. “We have a very nice pool here,” she added. No one seemed interested in my 30 yuan, so I bought the breakfast buffet in thanks and took a cab home.

A few days later was a national holiday, so I set out for the Ramada Pearl, which was indeed the one with the Wellness Center. At 9:45 a.m. it cost 300 yuan (about $47), but if I waited 15 minutes, the desk clerk said, it would be just 150. I waited five before she said, “You can go now.” On the other side of the locker room was an indoor pool suitable for laps and the resort-caliber amoeba-shaped pool mentioned in a previous post. The shape makes it less than ideal for laps, though the Chinese swim around it in big, lazy circles. I found a bay just the right depth for water aerobics and, armed with my aqua disks from Wroclawskie Centrum Spa in Poland, did an hour’s workout.

The chaises are hard, and the quiet is punctuated at regular intervals by older men performing the Chinese salute. I’ve filed the indoor pool in my head for when winter comes, which I’m told is in November. Still, the Ramada Pearl is a fine place to spend a day reading by the pool and, yes, tanning.

I was still hoping for something within walking distance of home. An indoor pool at another university nearby seemed uncongenial. Then, sitting in a second-floor window at (OK, I admit it) McDonald’s, I looked across the street and saw the Vanburgh Hotel. I went on another reconnaissance mission. Did it have a pool? Yes. Was it open to the public? Yes, for 100 yuan (about $16). It was currently closed for cleaning, but it would reopen on Sept. 12.

At 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, I returned, cheerfully handed over 100 yuan and proceeded to the sparkling pool. Its curved form made lap-swimming disorienting, so I got out the aqua disks and started aerobics. The 1.4-meter depth is just a little too buoyant for my 5-foot-4 body to do aerobics comfortably, but I managed, moving more languidly than usual among the stone seals (or are they sea lions, like the ones I once swam with in the Galapagos?) spouting water. The Vanburgh was a winner.

So now I have my choice of three pools: the Ramada Plaza for laps, the Pearl for a relaxing day poolside and the Vanburgh for quick trips at the end of a workday or between monsoons. As for the pools outside my window: as soon as I left the clinic on Friday, I texted my main handler: “Got health report. Want pool card!” She texted back: “The swimming pool is open until mid-October. . . Need to bring 2 photos to do a different physical exam in the university clinic.”

Another health exam, for a pool that’s going to be open for a few more weeks, one of which I intend to spend at a beach hotel on Hainan Island with its own pool?

Maybe not.

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