How My Hoped For Cute-splosion Became a More Moving Experience Than I Had Anticipated

This post was supposed to be adorable. It was going to be filled with pictures of me sporting a cute, crimped ponytail, scooping some panda poo and making panda lunches. I was hopefully that it would also include photos of me actually feeding a panda the lunch I had just lovingly made him in the nearby panda kitchen.

And alas, I was off to a great start.

After a 5AM alarm woke me in what was still the dark of the night, I scarfed down some Marshmallow Maties and headed out the door to be the first one at the consulate for the day’s exciting adventure. (If only we knew then just how exciting it would be…) Half an hour later, as I leaned against the van, checklist in hand, counting heads and collecting cash, I had a moment where I thought I was going crazy. You see, ever since the 2008 earthquake, I have been less than trusting of the steadiness of the earth beneath my feet. So as I rested against the vehicle, I could have sworn I felt a tremor under my feet. Doing like I always do when I feel that uneasiness (which is more often that I would like to admit), I instantly stood up straight and looked for something that would help me judge movement- a bottle of water, a hanging lamp, a flag suspended on a pole- anything that would show the vibration. But, as I quickly scanned the horizon (with crazy-eyes), trying to not be obvious about my personal issue, I saw nothing out of place. Chalking it up to my now five-year old paranoia, I leaned back against the van, awaiting the arrival of the last adventurers.

Skip ahead a few hours.

As my intrepid group traveled up to Ya’an to spend our day with the pandas, we started getting texts about an earthquake. Where? Ya’an! Many of us thought we felt some weird shaking on the highway, but chalked it up to less than stellar road maintenance. Soon though, after pulling over in a small town, where everyone (!) was outside their homes, we were able to piece together information from friends/colleagues back in Chengdu as well as news coming out through local sources and realized there had been a 6.9 earthquake, centered exactly where we were headed!

Needless to say, after circling the wagons (or at least pulling the vans off to the side of the road) and having a discussion about our options, we decided it was best to turn around and head back to the city.

I could write all about the amazing response time from the Chinese government. (As we headed back to Chengdu on the expressway, we passed ambulance after ambulance, busloads of military, flatbed trucks with digging machines and countless other emergency equipment and vehicles headed to the site of the disaster). I could write about the heart-warming reaction from our community. (When I called around to each officer/family on Monday morning to check in, many of them were already asking me what we could do to reach out and help the victims of Saturday’s quake.) Or, I could write about the continued aftershocks that roll through periodically. (While there have been numerous smaller quakes, there was one particular one on Sunday evening that made me consider crawling under my dining room table for whatever small amount of protection USG furniture would provide.)

But I don’t want to.

All last week as I planned this post (yes, my organizational obsessions extend to my blog- I’m always plotting and planning my next entry), I couldn’t wait to share what I hoped would be jealousy- inducing photos (still trying to get family and friends to come visit!), cuddly cuteness and fun stories of up-close-and-personal panda encounters.

I need more cute in my life. (Lately I’ve been obsessed with the neighbor’s corgi, an adorable dog named Johnny. He currently has a cast on his leg as it heals from a recent break and he owns an array of bandanas he sports as he goes out for his daily walk. If only having a pet in the Foreign Service wasn’t so difficult and expensive…)

So how do I turn an earth-jiggling week into a cute post? By sharing the book I got in the mail this last week. My four-year old niece wrote me a story, illustrated it and, with the help of her wonderful mother, bound the book and dropped it in the mail, headed to China.

For your reading pleasure, Scouty Scout by Audrey.

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It’s So Fuzzy! I’m Going to Die!

PANDAS!!!

That’s right. We’ve been in Chengdu for two full weeks without seeing China’s cutest export, so we figured it was time to make the short trek to the edge of town and see as much fuzzy adorability as possible. Chengdu is starting to get hot and humid in the daytime, so to avoid as much stickiness as possible, and in hopes of seeing actual panda movement (not a guarantee with these large, sloth-ish mammals), we headed out just after 7AM. (I’m telling you- the pandas must be awesome if Thad was up that early on his day off!) The preserve is about thirty minutes, by cab, from our place, but it is no problem getting there. If a foreigner gets in a taxi and mumbles anything that sounds vaguely like “da xiong mao,” he is going to end up at the panda preserve.

For a mere fifty-eight kaui (a bargain at less than ten American dollars) I had my panda ticket in-hand and was ready to witness all the delights that pandas have to offer. We opted out of the tour cart, which could be had for a few more dollars. (Tour carts are a hit with the Chinese people. They like to load up at the front gate and be driven to the major tourists spots of any given locale and then driven back to their original starting point.) We embarked into the tunnels of bamboo that lead the way to the largest of the animal enclosures. (As we made our way through these forested tunnels, that remarked that while it was a nice stroll through bamboo for us, it was a buffet line for the pandas!)

Pandas are split into three main categories at the preserve: adult pandas, sub-adult pandas and infant pandas. There were quite a few adults in our wanderings, but they all tended to be on the “eat sixteen hours a day and sleep the rest” plan, which is pretty typical for a gigantic animal that has a diet consisting of nothing more than the low-in-nutrient (but surely high in fiber!) bamboo plant. The adults are big and fuzzy and black and white, but ultimately, a bit boring. Really, babies are where the action is at!!

We first visited the main baby panda area, where they were three young ones out in the yard. Out of the three, only one was awake. The other two were gracelessly flopped in the crooks of trees, taking their early-morning naps. The one little guy who was up was rummaging around his mom’s bamboo pile, flopping over the edges of his platform and putting on a show for the hordes of people loaded down with giant cameras. This little guy was cute, but little did we know we had yet to hit the baby-panda jackpot!

In our normal fashion, we soon wandered off the beaten path, away from the flag-waving tour guides and their duckling-like followers, and in to a section of the preserve that I am pretty sure didn’t exist when we were last there in 2007. The Moonlight Nursery sign lured us down a back pathway, down a rather steep hill and through some prettily landscaped scenery. About 2/3 of the way down, we wondered if the nursery referred to a bamboo nursery, as foliage was all that we could see, but figured we may as well go check out the plants since we were most of the way there to begin with. Thank goodness we kept going! At the bottom of the hill was another panda nursery, but this one hidden away so that few tourists made the mini-trek to see it. On the backside of this outpost building were what must be the world’s cutest panda twins! These little guys engaged in a mini-battle royal that made its way from the shrubs to the middle of their water fountain, to the top of their rock hill, eventually ending when one got stuck in the fork in a tree! The epic fight consisted mostly of a lot of huffing, clumsy rolling and the occasional ear-bite. I have to say, it is hard to look tough when your fuzzy little bum in sitting smack in the middle of a fountain.

America has many things going for it, including a steady supply of Lucky Charms and cheese (not together mind you!), but when we our great leaders sat down to choose an animal to represent us on the world stage, I think they could have spent a wee-bit more time considering the cuteness factor of their choices. Think about it: panda vs. eagle. A panda is going to win that vote every time, no question about it! I’m considering the need to start a petition to designate a second national animal- something more along the lines of a mascot. How about a porcupine or a manatee or a mountain goat? Even an armadillo! All of these animals have a cute-factor that eagles are lacking. The country could boost its economy through the loads of mascot-related “stuff” that tourists would purchase as exorbitant prices and haul home to their families abroad. (It would work! You would not believe the amount of panda-stuff purchases I saw being made today. Not one to shirk my duty, so far I’ve purchased a handful of panda postcards and a panda toothbrush holder. I am sure this is just the beginning of my panda-purchases over the next two years.)

It may have taken us fourteen days to get it done, but we have now done our official duty by visiting the Chengdu Panda Preserve. I am sure today’s visit was the first of many over the next couple of years, as we’ll have to make the trip with each set of visitors, as one can’t spend any amount of time in Chengdu and not partake of the fuzzy wonder that is the panda park.

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