Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Week 1 September 3

It is hard to believe that a first week is about to pass us by. As with any venture, you win a few and you lose a few, but we have been fortunate to be on the winning side most of the time. This morning we will venture out to explore the weekly local market and to get some cash at the Bank of China ATM. The latter activity is a repeat effort to confirm that we actually have a secure access to money (i.e., cash), because a credit card is useless in this community.

One of the things that appealed to us about a sabbatical in Beibei is that Beibei is most certainly off the beaten path. There is little to distinguish Shanghai from New York City—both are big, cosmopolitan, international cities where an expat (ex-patriot) can lead a comfortable life within a compound of transplanted domestic amenities. To learn about China in such locales is about as useful as going to Disney World to learn about life in the U.S. Rest assured, for the foreign visitor to the U.S. there is more to be learned in Gainesville than at Disney. In a similar fashion, there is more to be learned about China in Beibei than in Shanghai.

Beibei is a city about the size of Gainesville with a university about the size of UF. It is located at exactly the same latitude as UF with a climate of hot summers and mild winters. Unless you use Google Earth, you will not find Beibei on a map. Instead look for the nearby provincial capital of Chongqing (sometimes spelled Chungking and pronounced as chong-ching with emphasis on neither syllable). Chongqing and the province of Schezuan are located in the southwestern part of China. This is a relatively poor part of China with per capital incomes equal to about one-fourth of the incomes along the highly developed eastern coast of China. The city of Chongqing itself has about 17 million inhabitants and what we would call the metropolitan area has about 32 million residents. Beibei is about 35 miles northwest of Chongqing.

Because southwest China is relatively impoverished, the central government is putting a lot of development effort into this part of the country. The most significant public investment is the controversial construction of the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River. This is the largest hydroelectric project in the world and will provide plenty of cheap, non-fossil fuel, energy to the area by 2010. It is a flood control and hydroelectric project not unlike the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930’s (history buffs should review the economic impact of the TVA).

We have arrived in Beibei at a most auspicious time. Unlike Gainesville with its hot-wet, cool-dry climate, Beibei has a hot-dry, cool-wet climate. This summer, however, the weather in the region has been hotter and drier than any summer on record since modern scientific records began in the 1880’s. The last rain here was in May. Temperatures have been above 100o much of the summer and everyday since we arrived. The week before we arrived, Chongqing set an all time record of 44.5oC (this is a good applied math problem for the curious). Normal summer crops which is going to be a serious problem for many of the small and self-sufficient farmers in the region

It is so hot that the SWU (Southwest University) administration decided to postpone the beginning of the Fall semester from September 4 to September 11. Most of the buildings on campus are not air-conditioned, so it pretty brutal in the dorms and the classrooms. Hopefully, relief in the form of some cooling rains will come this week. Fortunately, our apartment has A/C and we are quite comfortable.

The main water supply for Chongqing is provided by some 300 earthen reservoirs, many of which are empty. The dry dams have cracked and it is reported that many of the earthen dams have gaps as large as a meter. There is great fear that if rains come rapidly, many of the dams will fail and there will be widespread flooding. Dry wildfires are also common in the forested areas nearby. Yesterday the sky in Beibei was filled with smoke from a nearby wildfire.

In spite of the weather, we have not had a single brownout in the electric system or loss of pressure in the water system. After living in Brazil where we had neither electric nor water from 7am to 7pm during normal conditions, we feel that we are currently living a life of relative luxury here in Beibei. It is all a matter of perspective.


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