The highway out


Favorview Garden, a housing estate on the edge of Guangzhou, China, catered to expatriates and the rich. There was a guardhouse and a gate. Buses, private cars and taxis crossed to enter the estate grounds. The guard wore a stiff, crisp blue uniform. His polished black shoes clacked on the sidewalk as he left to call a taxi for us.

Stephanie and I stood at opposite ends of our group. The four of us went to Charlenes house to get ready for the winter dance our school, the American International School of Guangzhou, held. Two months ago, Stephanie, Charlene, Monthinee and I were inseparable. Now, four months into 10th grade, Steph and I were no longer friends and there were two meters and a world between us.

Wheres the taxi? Charlene asked. She checked her small silver watch and shivered. The wind blew the asymmetrical edge of her black skirt. Were going to be late.

Were forty minutes early, Monthinee said in her calm, quiet voice. Dont worry.

Stephanie lived two apartment blocks away from Charlene. She took the taxi with us because her parents didnt want her traveling alone. Taxi drivers liked to cheat foreigners. Our fancy western dresses made it obvious we werent local Chinese girls.

The steady rrr-rrr-grrrrr of an engine and the glare of headlights told us our ride had arrived. We were four princesses attending a ball and our carriage was a battered red taxi, its hood grimy with dust and its windows half rolled down.

Monthinee climbed into the front seat. She drew the seat belt across her blue Thai silk dress. With a glance at Steph and me, Charlene clambered into the backseat and left the taxi door gapping. Stephanie crossed her arms and stared at the block one apartment obscuring the sunset. Her red dress swayed in the wind. She wore her hair gathered in a complicated knot at the back of her head: a bun with spiraling shoots. The hairdo resembled a black flower.

Get in the taxi, Steph, I said.

Steph swept past me. I climbed in after her and slammed the taxi door.

Steph, can you tell the taxi driver where were going? I dont know the name of the restaurant, Charlene said into the silence.

Backstreet Restaurant, Er Sha Island, Stephanie said in Cantonese. The driver glanced at us through the rearview mirror, let in the clutch and stepped on the gas.

Tall concrete buildings framed the roads we sped along. Large round columns sprouted upward, supporting the highway. Guangzhous road system is a maze of flyovers, tunnels and bridges. Express highways, long and unbroken, snake throughout the city, running parallel to the older roads twenty-five meters below them.

Twenty minutes into the taxi ride, Monthinee said, Guys? Her voice startled me after the engines constant hum and the crackle of gravel under the taxi wheels.

Do you guys know where we are? Monthinee said. She gazed ahead, head tilted. Because this drivers route is a little strange. Er Shas in the middle of Guangzhou.

We passed under a street lamp and orange light flooded the taxi. Just before we flashed back into darkness, I read the taxi meter. Thirty-two renminbi, the meter said in a steady red glow. In most other countries, thirty-two renminbi was a paltry sum. In Guangzhou, it was pricey.

Charlene pressed her face close to the window, her hair flying around her face in the gritty air. Monthinees right. I dont recognize any of these buildings. Dont you think its a bit dark out there? Theres hardly anyone around.

Were at thirty-two RMB right now, I said. How much does it usually cost to get to Er Sha from your place?

About thirty-five. We should be there by now. We took a different route because of traffic, thats what the driver said, Stephanie replied. Do you guys see anything familiar?

Monthinee leaned to her right. Charlene and I hunted for street signs or the neon company names many large buildings had tacked onto their sides.

Orange light flashed over our faces, our jackets and our fancy dresses. The taxi meter beeped and ticked up another renminbi.

A signboard towered over the roads as the taxi swerved into a fork, one road leading straight ahead, another up to a flyover and a highway. I couldnt make out the white Chinese characters. Wait. I dont think that sign said anything about Guangzhou Da Dou or Er Sha.

I dont think so either, Charlene said.

I think were heading for the express highway out of Guangzhou, Steph said in a strangled voice.

Charlene stared at us, her eyes wide. Monthinee pulled forward and struggled against her seat belt. The stiff black material swished as it wove in and out of the buckle. I gripped the plastic covered seat. My dress felt two sizes too small, my jacket stifling.

The taxi zoomed up a turn that led to the flyover highway. The four of us screamed in a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese.

Monthinee stayed calm, but her steady stream of perfectly pronounced Mandarin rang like bells. Where are you taking us? she said to the driver.

Dont try to trick us.

This is nowhere near Er Sha Island! Charlene said.

Stop the car right now! Steph and I screeched, she in Cantonese, I in Mandarin. The taxi skidded to a halt at the point where the road meet the highway. The tenth floor of a building loomed over the roadside barriers.

Where do you think youre going? Steph demanded. She clutched at the metal bars that separated the front seat from the backseat. The bars prevented passengers from robbing the drivers of their hard-earned money. The metal barrier looked like prison bars to me. I told you Er Sha Island!

The taxi driver looked at the rearview mirror. His dark, narrow eyes met mine, then flashed away. Er Sha Island? You need to be clearer next time, he said.

Turn back right now, I said. My parents often told me tales of young girls who were kidnapped and driven off in taxis to be sold in the countryside.

Youre a young girl and this isnt your home country. In a country this large, the police will never find you, Dad would say, shaking his head. If they even bothered searching, Mom would add.

The taxi driver turned his head and addressed us through the bars. Little miss, theres no way I can turn back. Were on the main highway.

How far along this highway would we have to travel before we hit the next exit? I muttered softly in English. I didnt want an answer.

I dont care, Steph said. Reverse. Therere no cars coming up from behind. You reverse the car, and you take us to Er Sha Island. Thats in the heartof Guangzhou, do you hear me?

The taxi driver and Steph waged a war of stares. The taxi meter chimed and jumped up another renmenbi. I shifted in my seat so the taxi driver could see me and added my stare. My shoulder brushed against Stephs. We didnt move and we didnt say a word.

The driver shifted into reverse. He peered around and muttered. The taxi driver spoke a sharp-toned Chinese dialect. I couldnt understand a word he said. The taxi shot backwards.

Guangzhou Da Dou, I said to the taxi driver as we rolled back down the ramp with the engine shrieking. The taxi curved into a sharp U-turn below the flyover. Were heading towards Er Sha Island, I said.

Which is smack in the middle of the Pearl River. Got it? Steph said. Her eyes followed the drivers every move. The locals listened when someone spoke in Cantonese. Cantonese speakers were likely to be city folk or from Hong Kong. Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, were often from the countryside. I leaned back and left Stephanie to her job. She spoke perfect Cantonese — the rest of us didnt.

Are you guys okay? Monthinee? Are you okay? I asked.

Im fine, Monthinee replied. Ask that question again when we reach the restaurant.

Im okay, too, Charlene said. Something glowed in her hand. I peered closer and recognized the sleek black sides of her cell phone. I touched my fingers to my purse, reassured by the hard edge of my phone.

Theres no way were going to pay him, I said. I gritted my teeth at the taxi driver. I knew he couldnt understand our English conversation. Even if he wasnt trying to drive us off to Shenzhen or something, its still a bloody rip off.

Charlene leaned back against the car seat so she could see me behind Stephs back. I dont care how much we have to pay him as long as we get to Er Sha in one piece, Charlene said.

Im going to make sure he gets us there, Steph said with teeth in her words.

Yeah, I said. I know you will.

Twenty-five minutes later, the taxi rumbled onto Er Sha Island. The arc of the Xing Hai Concert Hall and the lights shining on the islands edge were reassuring sights.

We jerked to a halt in front of the Backstreet Restaurants sleek, chic entrance. Through the glass windows we saw our school mates, dancing, eating, chatting.

The numbers 64:00 glowed at the taxi meter. I shoved a fifty renminbi bill through the bars. Charlene donated a crumpled ten renminbi note. Wed worry about splitting the fee properly later.

Were only paying you sixty renminbi, I told the taxi driver. I kicked the taxi door open and scrambled out.

The four of us huddled outside the Backstreet Restaurants glass and metal entrance. Charlene shoved at the car door and slammed it shut. We watched the taxi speed off. The white light atop the car blinked on. Stephanie glanced at Charlene and at Monthinee. She looked at me and then away.

Ill talk to you guys later, she said, and strode off. Music blasted as Steph pushed the doors opened.
I stared at Stephs back.

Come on, Charlene said. She took our arms and the three of us passed though the doors and joined the crowd within.