During my early twenties, I lived in the countryside on the outskirts of Zhanjiang, China. Situated along the coast, Zhanjiang was a slow-paced, no-frills backwater city in Guangdong province. My Let’s Go travel guide promised the city was most memorable as the stopover between Guangzhou and the more tourist-friendly tropical island, Hainan.
When I moved to the People’s Republic in 2002, I was less interested in tourism than in eking out a living as an English teacher at the local university. But after eight months of teaching language and cultural studies classes, I ended my time in China with a short visit to Hainan Dao, China’s answer to Thailand’s rustling palm fronds and sandy beaches.
And it probably would have been paradise, in January. In July, when the daily temperatures hovered at 100 degrees F with 100% humidity, Hainan Dao would prove to be a Dante-style furnace, even in the shade. Of course, I wasn’t unacquainted with brain-frying heat.
Much of my time in south China was spent demonstrating various stages of sweatiness. There was the glowing perspiration after a shower, the darkened pit stains after a particularly vigorous lecture on post-WWII British foreign policy (have you ever tried to act out African post-colonial pro-independence movements?), and the burning-eye sweat during morning bike rides around Lake Hu guang yan. Still, Hainan Dao was a whole new level of hot. It emanated the kind of heat that makes you want to dive into a bathtub filled with ice until monsoon season washes ashore.
Undeterred, I decided to make the best of my last week in China, even if it meant traveling during a public health emergency. (I hailed from the province made internationally famous as the birthplace of SARS.) My buddy Li and I boarded a southbound ferry to Hainan, spirits high despite seasickness, no air-conditioning, and sardine-like conditions in the communal passenger compartment. We were on our way to tropical beaches and icy drinks sporting tiny umbrellas.
The ferry docked about an hour and a half later. Before we could even shoulder our backpacks, a posse of State public health workers boarded. In seconds, a hush fell over the crowd. Everyone on the ferry would submit to a body temperature check before anyone was allowed to disembark. I decided not to ask the stern-faced guy in a doctor’s jacket who was busily shoving the same non-sanitized thermometer in every passenger’s mouth if Li and I could opt out. If I had been clammy before, I was now a veritable sweat factory. I had seen plenty of images of hospital quarantine situations in China. I wasn’t keen on joining comrades on the SARS odyssey.
Ten minutes into the “health” check, an entire family was diagnosed with elevated temperatures. I watched as the ferry doors were barred. Certainly I had found myself in hairy situations as a solo woman traveler, but being quarantined on a stifling hot ferry with just one familiar face in sight was a new one. Two panicked hours later, the unfortunate family was ushered off to some undisclosed location and we were allowed to push our way off the ferry and onto solid ground. I crossed my fingers the family would be released once they found respite from our tight quarters.
Despite the rocky start and brain-sizzling temperatures (more stories forthcoming), Li and I had a good visit around Hainan. Below you’ll find a simple SARS-free cucumber recipe reminiscent of dishes I shared with Li during our time on the island.
Sure, if you’re hot, you can rub cucumber slices all over your sweaty face, but these watery vegetables are pretty tasty, too.
Cucumber Salad with Peanut-Lime Vinaigrette (adapted from Vegetarian Times)
1 Tbs. lime juice
1 Tbs. creamy peanut butter
2 Tbs. grapeseed or peanut oil (I used grapeseed oil.)
1 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. honey
4 medium cucumbers, peeled and sliced
Sricacha sauce for garnish (I used a Huy Fong hot chili sauce, which is my go to hot sauce.)
1/4 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts
2 Tbs. cilantro leaves
To make Peanut-Lime Vinaigrette:
1. Whisk together lime juice and peanut butter in a small bowl. Whisk in grapeseed and sesame oils until emulsified. Whisk in salt and honey.
To make Salad:
1. Arrange cucumbers in single or double layer on platter. Drizzle with vinaigrette and a touch of the hot sauce. Sprinkle with peanuts and cilantro.