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••• The International Writers Magazine - 22 Years on-line -

The Great Wall of China
Joe Tortomasi
on a whiz and a breeze
"This isn't funny, Teresa. I'm cold and I'm about to wet my thermal underwear"...
Great Wall

Once upon a time in in China 1986.

Considering the fact that Chinese peanut butter had a price tag of 20 cents, my wife and I had come to the conclusion that $45.00 for a bus trip to the Great Wall was a rip off.

I could easily see my breath in our Beijing hotel room as I leafed through a dog-earred guide book. An item on page 584 activated the bargain basement in my brain. For six dollars, it said, the two of us could journey to the Great Wall of China. Qianmen Lu Bus Tours had the right price, which included a guide who would do the tour in Chinese and, incredibly, in English. Lunch was not part of the deal, but that problem was easily rectified. With Canton peanut butter, I could easily whip up a couple sandwiches.

So it was, that on a 35 degree (Fahrenheit, unfortunately) morning in January of 1986, our heated van departed Tiananmen Square, bound for the mother of all walls. We, the only Westerners, shared space with a half-dozen other tourists. Nestled in our seats, we took comfort in knowing that we had screwed the People's Republic of China out of 39 bucks.

Our guide was a local woman in her 20's who had the personality of a warm glass of Kunming beer. She pointed out the left side of our bus, directing everyone's attention towards the vast magnificence of Tiananmen Square. She droned on for a solid minute to her Mandarin-speaking customers. She then stared at the two of us and said as an afterthought, "Tiananmen Square." Next, we passed the Forbidden City, home to China's ancient monarchs, and our guide delivered her drab Mandarin travelogue. When finished, she looked right past us and said, "Forbidden City." We now realized that the extent of our English tour would equal that of a homily given by Harpo Marx. The bus struggled through city traffic which consisted of bicycles devoid of automotive fear. As paved streets gave way to dusty roads and leafless trees, the bicycle traffic began to lighten.

The drab atmosphere lulled us to sleep, whereupon we dreamed of things American -- like Mexican combination plates and margaritas. When we came to, our bus was ascending a mountain road and a stretch of the Great Wall loomed above us. A few minutes later, our bus pulled into a parking lot that was surprisingly small, but quite empty. Our guide turned to the group and began her long, harangue on what appeared to be a detailed history of the Great Wall. When she finished her spiel, she studied us and said with all the enthusiasm of a dumpling, "The Great Wall of China." The bus doors opened and we were instantly subjected to the Siberian winds from the north. My wife will tell you that I rarely get cold. However, by the time I started up the steps to the top of the Wall, I was whimpering like a two year old.

One of the big pluses of this precipitous drop in temperature was that we practically had the Wall to ourselves. Who else was nuts enough to be out in this weather? Besides the vindictive winds, the Wall followed the contours of the mountain which was anything but level. At times, we climbed steps that rose in elevation as abruptly as an escalator in the London Tube. Although the reality of being on the Great Wall kept my mind off the hardships for awhile, it couldn't compete with the elements and the fact that I now had to relieve myself. Now I really began to whine and even noticed my wife snickering. "This isn't funny, Teresa. I'm cold and I'm about to wet my thermal underwear," I said.

The winds battered my face as I forced myself to keep walking, in search of anything resembling a potty. I had two choices. I could struggle back to the souvenir shop, a good ten minutes away. Assuming they had a bathroom, there was no way I would retrace my long, frigid steps to return to where I was right now. That would be the end of my Great Wall adventure. My other option was to send a warm stream shooting from ramparts where the Emperor's soldiers shot arrows at marauders. The kink in this idea was that there were a small number of tourists roaming in my vicinity. Like most men, my urinary tract locks up at the sight of an audience. To make matters worse, something had just lodged underneath one of my contact lenses. In order to remove the offending ocular device, I had to take my cumbersome gloves off which now exposed cold, cumbersome hands.

A dozen Chinese soldiers walked by and stared at the half-blind American with nasal mucous on his upper lip and a distended bladder. After the lens was back in my eye, I noticed a set of stairs that led down to ground level. At the foot of those stairs was a shack made of corrugated metal with a tin chimney sending up a plume of smoke. There's life down there, I thought. And where there is life, there are bladders which occasionally need to be emptied. There is nothing that even slightly resembles dignity as a man descending a flight of stone steps with his legs crossed. Seconds later I stood in front of the shack's aluminum door, which I forced open like a cop making a drug raid. Inside was a dirt-floored room and three women surrounding a bonfire that was only inches from the ceiling. The ladies showed no fear at my entrance. One of them even motioned for me to enter, gesticulating to close the door behind me. The sudden wave of warmth attacked any remaining sense of logic that I had as I started talking up a storm -- in English. "Boy, have you ladies got a cold wall!" I said. They just smiled, nodded, and kept rubbing their hands.

Now that I was warming up, I began to focus on my urinary urge. As much as I had garnered friendships that would, as far as I was concerned, last a lifetime, I did not feel it appropriate to take a leak in a one-room hut in front of my new comrades. It was time to leave and do an abundant number one. In English, I thanked them, said goodbye, and added that if they were ever in the States to stop by my place and enjoy the comforts of central heating. They were still smiling and waving when I closed the door. I walked around to the back of the hut and noticed that its rear was only about a yard from the Great Wall. This space gave me the privacy I was looking for and a situation that posed a riddle: Where do I aim? If I shot at the aluminum hut, my lady friends would think a monsoon had hit. I turned in the opposite direction and there, in front of me, was 2,000 years worth of Chinese architecture. Of course, in my condition, it was nothing but a 1,500 mile urinal.

When I rejoined my wife on the top of the wall, she could tell that I had found contentment. On our way back to the parking lot, we stopped by "The Great Wall Souvenirs Store." I perused their T-shirt section hoping to find one blazoned with some message like "I Whizzed on the Wall." Instead, I found a shirt that announced in bold letters "I mounted the Great Wall of China." Now that's gotta hurt.

© Joe Tortomasi

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