Thinking Makes It So: The best surprises include a little venom

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By Kelly LeVan

Every year, there’s a day where I glance around and suddenly realize how green and full the streetscapes look, trees flush with new leaves, colors so bright they belong in a detergent commercial.

This day happened Sunday. As I walked back from the Atomic Man Duathlon – where my friend Claire had recently completed the race and hit her time – Grand Canyon Blvd. seemed crowded with spring. Maybe it was the darkness of the fresh tar that set the greens off just right, or the orange of the traffic cones. Maybe I was still giddy from Claire’s accomplishment, and so the world felt richer, more plentiful and generous.

Whatever the case, I added this walk home, this Sunday, this blooming, bushy, emerald view to my mental collection of April moments that annually take me by surprise.

Even though I love it, the seasonal fattening of bony branches and the accompanying astonishment cannot, of course, compare with the other kind of surprise: the genuine, unfamiliar, doesn’t-happen-every-year kind.

You don’t have to leave the continent to enjoy one of these, but I recommend it. My recent trip to Beijing presented many such shockers, from small dazzlers to those that involve glitter and venom.

Semi-surprises included the amount of English we heard and even read on storefronts and billboards; the gorgeous freakishness of the “bubble cube,” where the Olympic swimming events will be held; the men riding around on ’70s-style bicycles with big baskets full of hot potatoes; and the huge number of bicyclists, sans potatoes, pedaling down any given street, any time of day.

These bikes, when locked in a massive metal bramble of bikes at Beijing’s bus stops and subway entrances, looked just like the hundreds of bikes parked and waiting in the transition area at last weekend’s race.

The omnipresence of McDonalds, Starbucks, Håågen-Dazs, TGI Fridays, Subways, 7-11 convenience stores – the whole American chain gang – looked more like Albuquerque.

I think Beijing had more Volkswagens, however, than I’ve noticed in any American place, especially as taxis.

I knew about the smog, but I did not foresee that I’d be able to look directly at the sun and not go blind. I didn’t  even squint. I didn’t know how disconcerting it would be to look up at a sky that never turns blue, in the New Mexico sense of the word. I also didn’t know how accustomed I’d become to things like the color of the sky, let alone all the little rules I take for granted in the States, like how to safely cross the street or properly tip in a restaurant.

I had a heads-up to avoid certain public-market scams and that street salespeople might be more aggressive than the saleswomen in say, The Gap, but I didn’t expect elderly women stockpiling plastic bottles to flock around our bus, vulture-like, fly-like, almost zombie-like in their single-mindedness. I definitely didn’t imagine belly dancing.

Nevertheless, on our tour group’s final night in Beijing, we hit up A Fun Ti, a Middle-Eastern restaurant on some road that looked like an alley.

While eating our Mediterranean entrees with chopsticks, we watched women onstage dancing with plates on their heads and the beautiful, though plateless, belly dancers.

Wearing mostly jewelry, they shimmied in a way that evoked ecstatic shouts of support from the audience, particularly the men. The men also reacted approvingly when the belly dancers came down from the stage to dance with them one-on-one.

As she flickered from one tourist to the next, one of these girls even took my own sweet Michael close to her sparkling, swaying hips.

Some of the lucky guys danced not only with a belly dancer but with her snake, which she would drape sensually around their shoulders, just for a second, just long enough to make them feel brave.

A Chinese businessman, perhaps intoxicated, ignored the girl and went right for the reptile, yanking it out of the girl’s hands and swinging it by its tail like a lasso over his head. He knocked over a hookah. We all ducked. The dancer managed to grab back her snake before the poor animal could begin its doomed flight.

One of our group-mates won an onstage game where men and women randomly paired up and formed letters of the alphabet with their bodies. For his prize, he had to choose between taking home the snake, a bottle of wine or the girl – the belly dancer who had moments before saved the snake and possibly several guests from a really bad night.

“I’m married,” our group-mate told the emcee, sounding a little unsure.

“Is your wife here?” she asked him. “No? What hotel are you staying at?”

He couldn’t remember. His marriage remained the holy and perfect union it had always been.

The crowd grew bored by such oath-keeping. We picked at our dessert fruits and headed back to our buses, and then to hotels we could not name, and dreams of hookahs no caterpillar ever smoked.

See pictures from A Fun Ti at www.thebeijingguide.com/afunti/afunti.html.

E-mail Kelly pictures of pretty spring flowers at laeditor@lamonitor.com.