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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

A chicken and egg dilemma in Tibet

January 24, 2010

April Orcutt
The San Francisco Chronicle
January 22, 2010
        
As far as I could tell, no chickens were on the
bus. In my three-month solo exploration of Tibet
and China, I had traveled on many buses with
chickens. But this rough two-day journey north
across the bleak Tibetan Plateau - from Lhasa,
the capital of Tibet, to Golmud, once known as
the "Chinese gulag" - should have no squawking.

The driver assigned me to an aisle seat in the
third-to-last row of the crowded and funky bus,
which was destined to negotiate potholes and frost heaves for 700 empty miles.

A pleasant Chinese man sat across the aisle from
me. Through traveler charades I divined that he
was an art teacher, and the black-and-white
sketches of village life he showed me weren't
bad. He offered me a drink. The drink was in a plastic chicken.

I had seen orange juice in glass oranges,
lemonade in plastic lemons and lime juice in
squeeze-bottle limes but never a beverage in a bantam.

He snipped the cockscomb top open with scissors
and handed the chicken to me. I peeked inside the
hole in the banty head. A rust-colored liquid
sloshed around. The sanguineous brew was
presumably some kind of food, because it came in
a sealed chicken and the man across the aisle now
gulped from another chicken himself. I declined
and passed the chicken back toward him.

He seemed offended and pushed the bird back at
me. I know cultural rules govern this sort of
thing - obligations for acceptance of gifts, the
honor of being offered special cuisine, food and
drink to be eaten in certain ways, damnation if
you mess up and so on. I brooded about the brooder.

If I had spoken Chinese, I could have said I was
vegetarian and must avoid all chickens. But I
would be cooped up with him for the next day and
a half so, not wanting to be a rude American, I
faked a smile, took a deep breath, put my lips to
the chicken's head and took a sip.

A chemically saccharine syrup resembling
lounge-lizard after-shave brewed with sticky
artificial sweetener and turpentine pooled on my
tongue. The essence oozed "perfumy polluted river."

Wine connoisseurs hold wine in their mouths,
swirl it around, savor its characteristics and
flavors. They notice where those flavors party on
their palates. They wallow in a long, lingering
finish and hail vapors that continue to caress
their taste buds after they swallow - even if
those flavors suggest "asphalt" or "cat pee."

But what would they do with something really
vile? Something far beyond rotgut? Something like
chicken-ade? My taste buds wilted in agony. I thought, "I will die from this."

Unlike wine-tasters, I could not discreetely
expectorate into a container provided for that
purpose. Throughout China I had seen signs posted
in several languages forbidding expectoration. But, oh, how I wanted to spit.

I closed my eyes. I winced. I swallowed the foul
sip. It assaulted my tongue and throat.

I know now that I could never be a diplomat. If
at a critical summit meeting foreign delegations
presented me with a platter of ant-encrusted
cockroaches or chocolate-dipped mice, I would
simply clamp my jaws, snub the prime ministers
and allow World War III to begin.

The man put his empty chicken in the ashtray on
the back of the seat in front of him. He clamped
its head down with the handle above the ashtray.
I did the same. Certainly I violated no cultural
taboos by following his lead of imprisoning the chicken in stocks.

There the fowl would have to ride for the
remainder of the trip. I hoped the sticky
raw-sienna grog wouldn't squirt out at my camera
or ooze down onto my only pair of shoes.

Then the man offered me a hard-boiled egg. I hate
hard-boiled eggs. I said, "No," but he insisted.
I put the egg into the ashtray, under the chicken.

All the rest of that day - until, after midnight,
when the bus stopped at a spartan guesthouse with
no electricity - and beginning again at 7 the
following morning, I stared at both chicken and egg.

Late the next day, the egg cracked. Soon it would
stink. I'm not a litterer, but I had to get rid
of it. The bus stopped only every four to six
hours. I couldn't chicken out. I threw the egg
out the bus window and into the empty plateau,
offering some critter oeuf a la rue. The deed is
done, I thought. For the moment at least, I was
tired of walking on cultural eggshells.

Freelance writer April Orcutt lives in Marin.
E-mail comments to travel@sfchronicle.com .
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