Expecting the Unexpected

You never know where the day will take you.  That’s true of any day, really.  No matter if you’re entrenched in a worn in routine or not.  But this year, more than any other in my life, it’s become a sort of mantra.  For someone who likes plans and expectations – it’s been a daily exercise in the unfamiliar.  Letting the day take me, letting the world take me.

Today’s end found me somewhere outside the city limits of Tengchong, Yunnan, carrying roasted ginko nuts in my pocket, sleeping in the bed of a 10 and a half year old girl, and wearing a yellow winter jacket three sizes too small to keep out the nighttime chill.  And while I’ve had a host of amazing days the led to amazing day’s ends, this one is most likely the one I’ll keep repeating well into my old age – even if I see my grandchildren rolling their eyes in anticipated boredom.

It started plainly enough.  I was awoken at my hostel by one of the puppeteer apprentices at 6:30 am.  She wanted to make sure I’d be ready by 7:30 am.  I was.

I hoped into a car packed with fellow puppeteers and makers from the family troupe and we set off.  In a short 20 minutes, we found ourselves between mountains and well outside the din of the city.  After a quick breakfast of local Erse soup boiled in a clay pot on the street, we whisked off again to see the local inactive volcanoes, a lunchtime market, a ginko tree forest, and much more.

Somewhere in the middle of the feasting, walking along fielded paths, waterfall gawking, and more – I was led into the old house of the shadow puppet master.  There, I got to spend a few hours looking through their trunks of old and new puppets and a lesson in how to cut a Tengchong puppet.  Amongst all the festivities, welcoming and touristing – this is always the thing that makes my heart race the most.

Being able to see this family work both in the city and in their home village, it was made clear to me what an extreme duality this younger generation of puppeteers are straddling.  By day and most nights, they live in work apartments near the provincially sponsored dinner theatre they perform at in the city center.  By day, they’re often home in the village, helping their parents harvest, attending to their children and creating a community here.  The juxtaposition of the two worlds is jarring for me; while they bag up the dried rice for winter storage, they ask me about Steve Jobs’ death.  They seem to take it in stride and think of it as nothing more than evolution.  I can’t help but be impressed with their agility.

The night ended with a pickup jam session of traditional Chinese instruments on the second floor of the village’s 200-year old prayer building and watching a performance from the ladies’ dance troupe.  After a rousing few numbers, I exclaimed my joy and insisted on photos with both dancers and audience.  This endeared the audience to me enough somehow so that they insisted on my joining the dance troupe for an encore number.  My initial hesitation was so brief, I hardly heard it – as a year of letting the day take me has nearly always proved rewarding.

A few dance numbers later, we were worn out and the entire village slowly walked back to their homes as the street lights flicked off.  I laid my weary body down onto a skinny plywood bed in the bedroom of my hostess’s daughter.  Around my head was a collection of trinkets, doodles and collectibles that somehow seemed identical to my own 10 year old self.  In my head, were swirls of memories of the day.  I lay there barely wanting to go to sleep as that would mean the end of today’s adventure.  But tomorrow, there’s always another one.

The day would have only been made better if I could have had you all there with me; eating, laughing and dancing the day away.  Hope you enjoy looking at the pictures as much as I did taking them.

Thanks for reading~

Xun Li Cun Village’s Main Gate

Walking down mainstreet

A view from the road

The village’s 200 year old prayer building.  The village is primarily Daoist.


My puppet master points to some names on the epitaphs of prior puppet masters

Making lunch

Eating lunch in the house courtyard

More surrounding beauty

Learning to play cards…

Puppets on the clothesline

A puppet head

The cutters at work

A nightly jam session with about 15 total traditional Chinese musicians

Musicians and puppeteer – everyone finds a way to participate

The dance troupe performs!

The audience watches…

And then implores me to join in.  I couldn’t refuse.  Darn good fun.

A sweet end to a most wonderful day


3 responses to “Expecting the Unexpected

  1. You’ve totally convinced me, that is a day I would love to have.

  2. What an honor to be invited to dance along!

  3. You have allowed us to vicariously travel with you. It has been a wonderful adventure and the journey of life, for this guy, is just that–we all know the destination. So thanks again and I so look forward to see you on your return. Best, Lance

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