The truck groaning with its bulky load,
the leaking radiator patched, the drivers still intrepid, our caravan finally arrived at the small snow packed lane leading up to the Chenzhou welfare institution. As if on cue, 40 institution staffers poured from assorted doorways and formed a joyous huddle around the back of the truck.
The truck gates flew open and the staff went to work, as if they’d been practicing this stunt for weeks. Within 15 minutes the entire truck was empty, with all provisions neatly stashed away in various parts of the complex. Caretakers headed for the babies’ rooms with stacks of blankets. Coal was shoveled into the furnace. The kitchen was soon humming.
Up walked the director of the institution, Mr. Shi, lighting one cigarette from the burning end of another. He was a sweet, lovable wreck. He had just gotten home to his family after a grueling day trying to get the power back on (in vain) when he heard we were arriving. He raced back across town to greet us.
He and I talk back and forth, pretending we understood each other, and basically we did.
Director Shi led us through the darkness from the institution to one of the few open restaurants in town. We walked past a rattling generator, over a tangle of electrical wires, to the only empty table.
What would you like?
What is there?
I’d even eat snake if it were hot.
What kind of snake?
They all laughed.
We had a fine meal beneath a bare, dim light bulb, and then made our way through the dark, empty streets to the hotel. We had reserved what was said to be the last available hotel room in Chenzhou—the “Grand Suite” on the executive floor of the town’s 4 star hotel. Apparently the first thing families with the option do when power and water are cut off is move into the few hotels that have emergency generators.
Little surprise our suite was available: They were asking 2100 RMB (roughly $300 U.S.) per night, lights guaranteed, water intermittent, no heat. One bed, a crew of four.
Can we get “roll away beds”?
No, they are all being used by other guests.
How about extra blankets?
Sorry, you need to bring your own.
Right. Book us for two nights.
I insist that Miranda blatantly play the “orphan card.” No go. The assistant manager in hooded parka felt our pain, but couldn’t help. “The computer sets the room price, he shrugged. “It’s out of my hands.”
In the elevator, I reflected on how the only one who hadn’t offered to help the kids was a computer programmed in some distant place not to recognize the difference between businessmen on expense accounts and motley groups like ours with different motives. Take the human element out of such matters and compassion disappears as well.
The important things were working, though. Back at the institution, the furnace was roaring again.