I don’t know why I stopped in Nanjing on my way to Beijing. Someone had said it was good. Buddhist temples, a mausoleum for Dr. Sun Yat-Sen… Why not? I had time to burn and no place else to be.
It was only after I arrived, hot and grimy and exhausted from late night travel on a crowded train, that I learned from a guidebook that Nanjing was called one of China’s Three Furnaces. And of course, it was August. Fantastic. The sweat was already pooling in my eyes.
After hauling my backpack across the city I learned something else: the hotel for foreigners would not open until late that afternoon. I stood in shock, desperate for a bed that would not be available for six more hours. Behind the counter they were hosing down the cement floor of the foyer. I wanted to lie down on it. I don’t need a bed! Just let me take off my shirt and lie down there! Just let my skin absorb the cool, clean water!
I babbled some Chinese, attempting to propose this alternative, clarifying the request by citing the example of the lizards that absorbed water through their skin as a means of hydration. The man behind the desk stared at me as I spoke, his hand slowly reaching for the phone. I’d seen this before: invariably the call would be to the authorities, and a man in uniform would soon arrive to shout a million questions at me. I left before anyone could confiscate my passport and returned to the full blast of the furnace.
Only six hours. And also: six whole hours! A sign on a bank said it was 38 degrees Celsius; I was too tired to do the conversion to Farenheit but knew it was over 100. Beyond that point, what does it matter?
I trudged through the hot heavy air as if I were walking uphill through a crowd of people. What would I do for six hours? I had seen a picture of the mausoleum, it had a million steps and no shade. I needed rest first.
I found myself in a park with exactly two trees. The sun pounded me and everything I could see. The concrete was bright white and reflecting heat like a solar oven.
I needed not to move. This was the best place I could find where I would not be arrested. Others were here, lying sprawled on the benches. They looked like dead bodies, struck down by the heat. It looked like a better than option than standing up or walking around.
Every square inch of shade from both trees was occupied. Even the outskirts of the shadows were mobbed, as people had anticipated the movement of the sun and the new shade that would be cast.
The benches were all initially taken too, but in a great stroke of luck a man rolled off one and fell onto the ground. He crawled away, finding some comfort underneath another bench. I waited a minute to make sure he had left the first one behind. He had! Completely abandoned! All mine now!
And a second stroke of luck: a flagpole, unseen before, was casting a thin strip of shade across part of the bench! I could position my body so it covered my eyes. Or my neck. Whatever I wanted! I could fold my body, or try to shrink it, to maximize the benefits of this incredible gift.
It should have been inspiring, being so in touch with my body, living in nature the way I was, forcing myself to endure and survive. I had read that in some forms of Buddhism even non-sentient things can have a soul. Maybe that’s true under certain conditions. But it’s a lot easier to believe in the life force of inanimate objects when gazing upon a mountain or waterfall than it is when you’re staring at a cracking granite bench spotted with birdshit.