Dave Graham and me in Getu. Photo: Colette McInerney.

ab_071111-56It was on the last night, at a packed outdoor restaurant beside a car-choked road, that Dave Graham taught me the most important lesson I learned during my entire two-week experience at the 2011 Petzl RocTrip China.

“You can only say ‘broccoli’ so many times before they understand you,” he declared.

Compared to where we had been an hour earlier, it felt like a miracle to be sitting here at this curbside joint in downtown Guiyang, enjoying wine and a delicious platter of whole fish and root vegetables swimming in two inches of bubbling-hot oil.

And of course, this plate of fresh broccoli—exactly what we had wanted.

We had faced many hurdles to get to this last supper. First was surviving a death-defying five-hour taxi ride out of Southern China’s Getu valley.

img_1309We’d been dropped off in the outskirts of Guiyang at a hotel whose name we didn’t know, and even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to pronounce it, let alone spell it. After we deposited our luggage into two shit-scented rooms, the taxi driver showed us to a restaurant next door. The restaurant was empty, looked seedy and we didn’t want to eat dog. We wanted to go back downtown, 10 miles away, where the tall buildings outlined by neon lights and the crowds of young people on lively streets suggested places with decent food.

But we also didn’t want to be dropped off in an alien city of 3 million with no way of getting back to the hotel whose name we didn’t know. More than anything we didn’t want to miss our flights home the next morning.

The utter unfamiliarity of this country had by now thoroughly depleted us. Communicating anything even slightly complex seemed impossible and, being so hungry and over it, everyone was resigned to eating at the seedy restaurant.

Everyone, that is, except Dave.

“We are not eating here!” he insisted. Through dramatic gestures and words harvested from a Speak Chinese iPhone app, Dave explained our intent over and over and over to the taxi driver, the taxi driver’s friend, two women at the restaurant, and the hotel bellman. The rest of us sat at a table with our heads propped up by our arms.

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After 15 minutes, the taxi driver rang up someone else, dragging a sixth person into our nightmare, because this person supposedly spoke English. Dave talked to this random other person for five minutes, but that didn’t get us any further.

Say what you want about Americans, but for the most part, we’re actually quite courteous, especially in a foreign country. Being inherently polite people, we were getting pissed that Dave was making such a big deal out of this. Couldn’t he just sit down, shut up and eat a little dog like the rest of us were willing to do?

Suddenly the taxi driver and his friend herded us back into the van, and it seemed as though Dave had finally gotten the point across. But when we veered off the main road and shot down an exit ramp toward to the airport, we all started gesturing frantically that we didn’t want to go there yet.

The driver screeched to a halt in the middle of the road and pointed to the airport, as if he was simply showing us where it was. We settled back into our seats and thanked the driver. “Xie xie!” Thank you. That was the only Chinese phrase I learned and I’m pretty sure I was still pronouncing it wrong.

Then the driver whipped a U-turn while blaring his horn to alert the oncoming traffic. Magically, the traffic parted as we entered its flow—as naturally as a fish released into a river.

After two weeks in China, the threat of death by vehicular accident no longer fazed us. Our nerves were too fried. It wasn’t till we sat down at this lively downtown locals’ place—with the taxi driver joining his friends, tallboys of 2.8 percent beer round their adjacent table—that we felt confident things would work out. We were finally enjoying ourselves.

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What ended up being the best night of the trip would have never happened had it not been for Dave. What had seemed like a character flaw an hour ago instead revealed itself to be a gift. Dave’s persistence, his compulsion to sink his teeth into the fleshy pulp of life, is an asset that is obviously the result of his past dozen years spent living abroad and climbing. Dave is a fighter, both on the rock and in life, and going to war to communicate himself seems to be the overarching theme of his existence.

“You can only say ‘broccoli’ so many times before they understand you.”

I love that line. Because what that really means is that even though you can get by on the easy path, avoiding conflict, you’ll never get broccoli. You’ll eat dog. And to go one step further, it’s the best stuff in life that forces you to get out of your figurative and literal hotel room and experience the world head on. To travel across the world just to do something stupid like rock climb, but in turn be able to experience one of the most rare and beautiful places you’ve ever seen. That’s what it’s really all about.

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