Ella and Nicole's birthdays seemed the perfect excuse to host a reunion of all of Jiangxi province. Our province is pretty far from all the other China vols, about 2 days on a train and there are 8 of us here. Rob and I in Yihuang, Ned and Matt in Zixi, Beth and Cat in Chongren and Ella and Nicole the furthest away, up North in the city of Jiujiang. Our schools all had their monthly exams and we were given an extra couple of days off for the occasion, with the addition of our weekend this gave us a 6 day break from teaching! We relaxed for a day then got the bus to Nanchang where we met Ned, Matt, Beth and Cat in the standard meeting place; Mcdonalds. We bought train tickets then went to the cinema to watch James Bond: Skyfall, unfortunately it wasn't showing there so we dejectedly made our way back to the station to catch an earlier train. We arrived in Jiujiang while Ella and Nicole were still out on some trip so we let ourselves in via a key that was sneakily hidden in an umbrella. With our hosts absence we immediately made ourselves at home by setting up Ned's new sound system, getting some tunes on, raiding the fridge, shotgunning beds and exploring the house from top to bottom. The place is frickin' huge, far bigger than anything we have. For a start it has stairs, the two girls have an entire three storey house to themselves complete with balcony and basement. Plus it had more than enough beds for everyone with plenty of sheets and duvets and blankets! After searching every inch we went out to get some food and eventually the two girls made it back and met us at the KFC. After a short catch up we headed home and had a few beers while playing taboo and the game where you have a name stuck your head and you have to guess who you are. I was Santa, and I nailed it after a couple of goes. I was rewarded by watching the game unfold extremely slowly, to the point of just being painful. Some people should have known better, Beth took her time guessing Churchill after going through every politician she knew (which wasn't many) and people also struggled with Frodo, Mohammed Ali and Scoobie Doo…
The next day I was up bright and early and since everyone else was content to stay in bed and be lazy I headed out on my own. My intention was to get some Christmas presents for people back in England and buy myself a big Chinese army coat to stay warm in the winter. After 5 unsuccessful hours trekking around Jiujiang I went home empty handed, I did know the city pretty well now though! I expected Jiujiang to have lots of shops to buy presents in, shops like the ones I'd found in Xi'an. Unfortunately all the other places we've been too has catered for Western tourists wanting to send things home, our province attracts pretty much no foreigners so the big city I was in just had lines of shops all stocking exactly the same things catering to a Chinese person's every need; not helpful. I also stumbled across three military shops and in all of them found I was far too big for the coats they had. I went home to find that the other lads had spent the entire day playing angry birds and Beth and Cat had bought lots of ingredients to cook a big meal for us all. Not feeling angry birds I lent a helping hand in the kitchen; my dough kneading and rolling with a beer bottle was second to none and I took Ella's poor attempt off her hands for her. After that I became 'kitchen helper,' I didn't dare go near the actual cooking for fear of Beth's wrath and knowledge of my own weakness in that area… I chopped and prepared lots of things though and eventually we all sat down to a pretty lush meal. Beth and Cat continued to labour away and brought out plate after plate of delicious Chinese food and I've got to say we were all impressed. The night was spent in pretty much the same fashion as the one before playing traditional family games.
On the Friday I was up before everyone else again and eventually managed to cajole Beth and Cat out of bed. They wanted to check out some of the shops and I thought maybe I'd have more luck finding stuff with a girls help. Not really, but I did get some very, very small things, some nice envelopes and another hat. I'm racking up quite the hat collection now! When we got back Beth, Cat and I went to No.2 Middle School, we wanted to see what the girl's school was like and Ella had requested we talk to one of her Senior Three classes who apparently were very excited that there were more foreigners visiting. They didn't appear that excited and talking with them was actually painful. They were just a boring class but eventually we got onto the subject of singing which no Chinese class can keep quiet about so we all sang a couple of songs to them and managed to cajole a couple of students to come out and sing songs to us. Then class over and I whisked Ella and Nicole off to an office to while away the next couple of hours while the others secretly decorated the house for a surprise birthday party. We whiled away the time playing tetris, adjusting personal statements, talking and I used the proxy they've bought to check facebook. I didn't spend too long on there and didn't post anything because otherwise I'd have lots of people trying to contact me via facebook and being all disappointed when I don't reply. I'm pretty glad facebook's blocked where we are to be honest.
I took them home to find the house decorated with banners, balloons and candles and we went and grabbed some food. We gave them our presents, Beth, Cat and I had bought some personalised bracelets when we were out the day before and the lads had bought slippers and angry birds cakes when they were forced out of the house by hunger and the iPad running out of battery. We played our favourite family games again over a few beers and then I remembered my Pikachu costume that most people hadn't seen yet. Obviously this needed to be put on display so we walked down to KFC. Unfortunately it was about midnight so barely anyone was about. We amused the few people we did see though. Later on after the others had gone to bed Matt, Cat, Ella and I made a Ouija board and did our best to communicate with any spirits that might be around. The coin did actually move at one point but only a little bit before Cat started laughing because she thought it was me. It definitely wasn't and she swears it wasn't her but after that we were even less successful, I think Cat and Ella's laughing offended anything that may have wanted to have a chat.
We had intended to visit Lushan mountain on the Saturday but Ella and Nicole were invited to a wedding and the weather didn't look great so we're going to save it for better weather next year. As I turns out the weather became pretty perfect later on in the day but that's just sod's law. I went to the supermarket with Ned and Cat to marvel at the sheer size and luxury of the place. In the towns that we live in meat is sold on blocks of wood covered in flies in the road. Here they had an actual meat counter along with other luxuries unheard of in our projects. I decided I wanted to try and cook something. I bought all the ingredients for pancakes and some sausages, eggs, bacon, cheese and bread. I then spent the next couple of hours happily destroying the kitchen producing dubious looking foods. I was content to eat it and other people had a try but my cooking skills still haven't really improved. It did fill me up for a little while anyway. I didn't realise it, being busy cooking, but I also smoked out pretty much the entire house with my efforts and it looked like there was an actual fire. Which there was - I continued a trend by setting fire to their pan handle and melting it away but apart from that things passed without incident.
Ella and Nicole's hot water had stopped working the day after arrived, and their water was now colder than cold. So after the first morning's shower I just didn't bother. I resorted to flannel washing and washing my hair in the sink with water from the kettle. Beth and Cat got committed and went to get their haircut just so it could be washed and in this time I find 3 insanely tangled and battered kites in a spare room (yes, they actually have spare rooms). I settled down on the floor and eventually managed to make two kites from the pieces of the 3 broken ones I'd found; it kept me quiet for a very long time. Some cellotape, new knots and knife-work later I was the proud owner of two Chinese kites which I decided we should take with us on our walk around the lake. Unfortunately the kites never got to be used; we walked for about 5 minutes before spotting some boats for hire and getting distracted from the prospect of our walk. Of course we hired the boats which looked safe enough… The girls went in one boat and the lads in another, after a couple of raids which involved stealing Cat's shoe and her taking my hat we made a truce and the girls vanished off into the middle of the lake to see nothing in particular while we patrolled the sides and pestered the walking Chinese people in our best Mandarin, they were loving it.
After the boat excursion there wasn't much time left to walk round the lake, we've decided that can be our Christmas Day walk. Instead we headed back to the house and had a quiet evening in. Which somehow turned into more of a party than any of the other nights after starting off playing Edward Beerhands, hide and seek and sardines. I won't bore you all with what happened the rest of the night but we had a lot of fun and the night ended messily for 6 out of 8 volunteers…
So that was our trip to Jiuiang and we'll all be heading back there to spend Christmas together!