Lost in translation
My friends – Noel Iligan, Lulu Abelido, Toks Lopez, and I just got back yesterday from a 4-day visit to Guangzhou, China.
I cannot recall exactly how we ended up choosing Guangzhou as our destination and part of what is becoming an annual tradition among friends to travel to some exotic sounding place.
But it turned out, Guangzhou is far from exotic and though it has some sights and exciting things to offer, you would have to travel outside of the city proper to really experience the China we’ve read about in books.
Nevertheless, this trip will probably go down in our personal history as one that made storytellers out of us.
Wanting to explore Guangzhou on our own, Noel drafted an itinerary based on reviews and suggestions gathered online and sought out a travel agent to finalize this for us.
Having an English-speaking guide would cost us $300+ more and so Noel decided to just book us a van that would will ferry us around. We were assured the driver speaks and understandsbasic English but throughout the entire 4-days, we never got anything out of him except his name, which he finally told us on our last day.
It was like a hop-on, hop-off tour from our van to the site without knowing where we were at and what we should do there.
Ding, our driver, was contented for the most part to follow the itinerary given to him, drop us off at the entrance of the site, buy us entrance tickets, point us to the direction where we should go and leave us to fend for ourselves.
First stop was at a park where we just followed other Chinese local tourists that brought us to this towering statue of five rams. Of course we had our obligatory pictures not knowing what the statue stands for. Good thing Toks had the energy to research about it back at the hotel and told us we just visited Wuxian Guan, a Taoist Temple with the stone statue of the rams built to honor the celestial beings that rode on the five rams and saved the city from famine. In fact, Guangzhou is also known as “ram city.”
And then it was off to the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King that houses the 2,000 year old tomb of King Zhao Mo, found in downtown Guangzhou only in 1983. Of course the tomb is off limits and again, we had no idea where we were since not one of the museum attendants can explain it to you. In fact, just asking directions to the toilet was comical as we had to act it out.
Mind you, these were triple AAA places recognized as top places to go to but we really just got lost in translation. We had to mimic out eating to let our driver know we were hungry. Finally, Noel found a system by calling the travel agent who speaks English to let us know where we were set to go and what to see in those places and then to call back the driver to give him instructions. Thank goodness for cellphones!
But even that was not completely helpful when we had a stop at the breathtakingly Chen Clan Ancestral Hall which now houses the Guangdong Folk Art Museum. The estate was filled with beautiful carvings of characters from the roof, to the doors, to the hallways that really tell stories, but none of which we learned and that was where we finally summoned our storytelling prowess in our attempt to make head over heels of the things we see.
Getting lost in translation gave us a very expensive lesson too, as in literally expensive.
We had a stop in one of the restaurants beside a river in Shamian Island. It was filled with people and it was a good restaurant as it boasts of being recognized by Esquire Magazine as one of the best dining places in that area.
At the point though, we couldn’t care less as we were hungry and we agreed that it must be good and popular since that was where our driver brought us after getting through to him through actions that we were famished. We were really playing Charades with our driver to make him understand what we want.
We had to contend ourselves with pointing out dishes in the menu that looked delicious and affordable as that was the only way we can communicate with our server. But Noel had a sudden craving for lobster and they had to call one supervisor, the only one in the lot who speaks a bit English, to answer Noel’s query.
Since there was no price indicated on the menu, Noel asked how much will it cost. The supervisor said they price it by half-a-kilo. Noel then asked if half-a-kilo is good for the four of us, combining it with gestures, the supervisor readily replied “ok, good.”
When the lobster came, it was definitely not half-a-kilo. It was an entire lobster weighing two kilos, half-a-kilo for each of us, and we had to take away half of it and gave it to the driver as it was just too much for the four of us along with the other dishes we ordered.
When the bill came, it was 1,611 CYN (yuan) or about P13,700 with the lobster alone costing 1,011 CYN or P8,500. We nearly fell off our seats and in guilt, Lulu said we had to eat some more so it won’t go to waste.
Getting lost in translation can really cost you an arm and there were more mishaps that followed which we eventually just shrugged off in laughter otherwise we’d end up crying. But I’ll share more in my next column.
Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable trip and far less harrowing than we expected it to end. I guess at the end of the day, it’s really who you spend the trip with and how you make the most of your experiences that will make it one hell of a trip down memory lane someday.*
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