Ann and Darrah are unquestionably very different women. Darrah, from New Mexico in the US, is a certified USPTA tennis instructor who only moved to China last June to teach the sport. Guangdong-native Ann, the wife of a British-Aussie expat whom she met while managing an ESL school, has lived here her entire life. Together they are walking from Zhongshan to Beijing to help raise money and awareness for people with disabilities in China.
The four month journey will take the women a total distance of 2,600 km, through of some of China’s most stunning locations. Having completed the first month of their trip, and now just inside Jiangxi province; I imposed on Ann and Darrah’s hard-earned downtime with the following Q&A to find out how they prepared for this trip, what motivates them, and what the experience has been for them thus far.
To start things off, can you give me a bit of background on where the idea for this trip came from? What made you choose this route and destination?
Darrah “Polkahontas” Johannes Blackwater: Sure! After a few months of being in China and volunteering at the New Day South Foster home, I got the idea to do a fundraising walk connecting the two New Day locations- Zhongshan to Beijing. The idea came to me last summer. I’m not a religious person, so all I can say is that the universe bitch-slapped the idea into me. I was, at first, afraid to give voice to the idea. But after meeting a few influential people, I mustered the courage to give it life.
Ann “Annimal” Liang: Once I decided to walk with Darrah, we started working on a route. We made the route based on the beautiful side of China. I wanted to show Darrah the beauty of our country, and experience it for myself. For example, we decided to go through Jiangxi to see Wuyuan, the most beautiful village in China. We were also trying to avoid the mountains. But we are mostly following the beauty.
What were some of the things — physically, mentally, financially — you had to do to prepare for a trek like this?
Polkahontas: When I first had the idea, I knew that I didn’t have all of the resources or connections to pull it off- yet. But I had faith that everything would fall into place. Boy, did it! Meeting Ann was the most important part. She said she’d walk with me after meeting me once. As she got to know me better, it was too late to back out- she was already committed … sucker! Ann went to work finding us sponsors. She did a great job.
Annimal: I had to start walking a lot because I have never done exercise in my life. Before I started training for the walk I took taxis everywhere. Once I decided to join Darrah for The Walk, I started walking every day. The furthest place I walked was to Zhuhai from Zhongshan and back, about 50 kilometers in two days.
Polkahontas: As far as mental preparation, we had no idea what we were in for. All we could do was make sure we were logistically prepared, and hope for the best.
You’re both walking to raise money and awareness for people with disabilities in China. What made you choose this cause, and these organizations, to walk for?
Polkahontas: New Day South is tattooed on my heart forever because I absolutely fell in love with the children. They are mostly kiddos under the age of 4 (except for Naomi, who is 9). They’re so stinkin’ cute. The foreign volunteers and Chinese nannies do an AMAZING job of caring for these children, supporting their surgeries, and advocating for their adoptions. It amazed me to see so much love for children who would otherwise only know neglect and abandonment. Ann and I both have hearts for people with disabilities, and we share a vision of better services and connotations for people with disabilities in China.
Annimal: To me it’s very natural because I have been working with The Sunshine is Beside You for many years, since helping found it in 2010. Last year my husband, Jerry Grey, rode his bike from Zhuhai to Urumqi to benefit TSIBY. I couldn’t let him have all the glory! This charity is very close to my heart and I feel that it is my responsibility to support it.
At the time of writing, you’re about one month into the four month journey, and have just left Guangdong, heading into Jiangxi province. What has been the biggest challenge so far, and what has been the biggest reward?
Annimal: My biggest challenge was the first week, before I had my walking trailer. I was carrying a backpack, which was too heavy for me. My body was in so much pain and I had blisters that made it almost impossible for me to walk. That was a very difficult time. Now that I have my walking trailer, my body is mostly better, but my knees and ankles are still giving me pain at the end of our long days.
The greatest reward is seeing local volunteers get involved in our project. Many volunteers who have offered us so much encouragement and kindness have hosted us along the way. For me, their words confirm that we can inspire all kinds of people with The Walk. I never knew I could do such an important thing, but it is a good feeling to know that we can make a positive difference in other people’s lives.
Polkahontas: My biggest challenge is simply being out of my element. That means eating food I’m not used to (I am a vegetarian and I am so. tired. of vegetables and rice), not understanding people or being understood (我的中文不好), and generally experiencing what is possibly the greatest case of culture shock in the history of the world. I’m learning so much because I’m so far out of my comfort zone.
I can sometimes feel myself clinging to anything that is familiar. For instance, a few foreigners from Zhongshan have visited or joined us for a few days. I talked to them constantly, and when it was time for them to go I basically had to stop myself from begging them to stay with me. This desperation is born out of simply feeling like a fish out of water 24/7 for the past month, and knowing that I have 3 more months of this feeling in store.
Some days I just want to shut the world out because I don’t believe I have the patience to live another day in this culture that is not my own. When I start to feel this way I take a deep breath, look up at the beauty of China, and say to myself ‘I’m fucking walking across China for disabled orphans and that is epic’. I remind myself that if I were back in The States I’d be bored, wishing to be out on some foreign adventure. Then I can smile and laugh about the fact that I’m such a big baby sometimes. It gives me a dose of perspective that I need but sometimes forget to keep.
There aren’t many people I’d willfully choose to spend 120 consecutive days with. How have you guys found being together so much?
Polkahontas: There are challenges for Ann, I’m sure.
Annimal: It works. We are both very easy-going people.
Polkahontas: We have both learned a lot about each other. Probably more than we’d like to. We’ve developed a routine- a pattern that we’re comfortable with. We sometimes have miscommunications, but we can always work through them. I respect Ann very much, and she has respect for me. In this way, we can work together through any difficulty we might face.
Having just watched the new film “Wild” about Cheryl Strayed’s trek, one of the things she dealt with very early on and to rough consequence was having greatly over-packed; I’m curious how you guys packed for the trip. How did you decide what to take and what to leave? Anything you would change now?
Annimal: We thought that camping would be a larger part of our trip. We wanted to be prepared for anything. I’m glad we were prepared, but we have found that much of our camping gear is unnecessary.
Polkahontas: I’ve been on many backpacking adventures in the States, so I had a good idea of what I might need. I like to keep my pack as light as possible, so I’ve left behind a few things that I deemed unnecessary even after we left. My old Oakley sunglasses were gifted to a hotel maid outside of Shaoguan, a heavy camping knife was ditched in Ganzhou, and my makeup was left behind long ago. Carrying everything on your own back really draws the line between necessity and luxury.
Looking at the road ahead – excited, nervous, a bit of both? How are you feeling about the rather daunting amount of trek in front of you? Any places along the way you’re especially looking forward to?
Annimal: I have been very calm. I don’t often think about what’s ahead of me. I just walk. I am looking forward to the beautiful places ahead such as Nanjing, Wuyuan, Hangzhou, and Suzhou.
Polkahontas: I’m completely opposite from Ann. At first I was daunted. I cried for the first few days of the trip because I was so overwhelmed with emotion, and overwhelmed by the enormity of the trip in general. It was an extremely difficult pill for me to swallow. I got through it by literally taking one step at a time and focusing on that moment instead of the moments to come. This is a practice I’ve tried to master for a while, as it is the basis to mindfulness and meditation. Even though I am less overwhelmed now, I am still trying to focus on what’s right in front of me. It helps that it’s so beautiful here. I’m looking forward to Suzhou because I think there is a community of foreigners there who will hook a girl up with a bomb diggity milkshake.
What happens when you get to Beijing? Are you planning any sort of event to mark the occasion?
Annimal: Yes. We will arrive in Tiannamen Square. Jerry, my husband will be there. I believe a few disabled volunteers from my organization in Zhongshan will be there as well. Then I want to meet up with an organization called Chinese Poverty Alleviation Fund. They also help disabled people on a very large scale. Before we go home we will take Darrah to see the Great Wall, as she hasn’t seen it yet.
Polkahontas: I’ve tried to imagine what the scene might look or feel like. I suppose it’s too far off for my brain to truly fathom. I’d love as many supporters as possible to be there. I know it will be an important day for us. The important day for me will be getting to New Day North outside of Beijing in a city called Langfang. That was my original goal, and I’m excited to meet the kiddos and volunteers there.
And finally, any advice for readers that might like to try a challenge like this? Tips on planning, or not over-planning? Insight on how to physically/mentally prepare?
Polkahontas: Just make sure your heart is in it. We’ve faced a few especially difficult days that would have made us quit if we didn’t have our hearts invested. As far as physical preparation, train slowly at first. Go as slow as you need to, be patient with yourself, and prepare to give yourself a lot of grace. Taking on a big challenge means you’re asking a lot of yourself — mentally, physically, emotionally. You’ll rise to the occasion in surprising ways; and when you don’t, shrug it off, give yourself some love, and do better tomorrow.
Annimal: Make a decision and just do it! Don’t think too much!