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Standing at the beginning of a “path”— or whatever you would call a super narrow, steep, slippery space that wasn’t taken up by the rest of the forest— up Cangshan mountain, I had never been so excited to get drenched in a slush of mud and rain. I didn’t care that my clothes/shoes would get dirty, that my backpack would likely get ruined (RIP Hershey, it’s been a fantastic three years), that I would have to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in the same mucky outfit, or that I’d likely slip and fall multiple times along the way up (confirmed). I’m unclear on how we determined this, but “noodle” became code for rest, and “anti-noodle” meant it was time to muster up our energy to continue the hike towards the peak. The moments of rest in between our anti-noodles were the absolute best. Part of it was the relief of exhaustion, but most of the satisfaction came from the silence and bliss of standing in the middle of nowhere on a mountain. My only concern then was to catch my breath, and it felt refreshing to only have to/be able to focus on one thing at once.


I ran out of breath an uncomfortable amount of times and got slapped in the face by more than just a couple of bushy branches, but I was still weirdly thrilled to be there. Towards the end of the climb *cue Miley Cyrus*, I decided I needed to play some music to get me through the last stretch. I’m not joking when I say the first song that came on from my playlist was “The Only Way is Up” by Martin Garrix. We eventually got to the top and walked around an actual stone path (!!!!) up there for about an hour and a half. We spent the time listening for echoes, reading inspiring/at times hilariously wrongly worded messages and warnings written in paint on the mountain, watching the fog fill the space between the cliffs and then suddenly recede, and figuring out what the meaning of made-up words would be if they were real words.


This little 2-3-hour adventure ended up being my most memorable experience from my team’s week-long excursion to Yunnan, a province in southwest China that borders Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. Since we’ve been living in a city for most of this program, I was happy that this trip exposed us to a completely different environment as we lived in the small village of Xizhou in Dali. It was a break from our daily teaching grind, and it burst me out of a bubble I was unknowingly creating for myself in the past weeks. Every day in Dali was naturally filled with a chain of activities (Hsiao-mei likes to keep us busy), including a tie dye tapestry workshop, a couple of hikes up two mountains (Cang and Wei Bao), an interactive traditional Bai minority music and dance performance, a BaBa local pastry cooking class, a bike ride to Er Hai lake, and a tour around the majority Muslim WeiShan ancient city to learn about the Yi and Hui minorities. Our nights consisted of cracking up, getting frustrated, and spooking ourselves out in endless games of Mafia. This trip was particularly transformative in my perspective of China’s geographical/culinary/climatic/lingual/ethnic/cultural diversity, and I’m beyond grateful that it was a part of my Duke Engage experience. It reminded me to continuously challenge the tendency to pigeonhole different parts of the world into my own self-constructed categories and remember that life is so much more complex than the limits of my current knowledge that often ends up defining it.


As our bus reached the middle school in the evening of our return to Zhuhai, a crowd of host families welcomed us, ready to take us back home. I don’t know when/how this exactly happened, but the school, our Duke Engage office, Music Room 2, that little corner next to the canteen, my host family’s apartment, and Zhuhai became home at some point during my stay here. Considering this is our final week in China, you can imagine how difficult and emotional our group reflection was yesterday. I’d rather not get into the gross, mushy, tear-filled details, so I only have one thing left to say for these last few days we have left in Zhuhai…




Slip carefully friends,

Athina <3