When you walk in Kunming, you walk oceanside.
I frantically scrawl this sentence in my notebook from the belly of a whale shark, master of the tributaries. Within, I am jostled, but safe, peering into the water through clear panes. Outside, I can see the fast-paced bustle of oceanic life; unceasing, even at night. The only difference is that the whales are emptier.
These sharks swim in great purposeful circles, skillfully navigating the currents. For people who would rather not swim, they are benevolent, impersonal giants. These beasts, the beast that carries me now, are all the least self-serving of the ocean’s creatures. They stop frequently to disgorge and swallow passengers into their stomachs.
Passengers perch within, vigilant and knowing, waiting for the shark to swim through their section of the sea.
They are slow to start, slow to stop. Other fish part before them and trail in their wake, the narrow rivers blocked entirely by their size.
And, if you walk with your feet in the sand, you can often catch a glimpse of an amusing sight: The great sharks blocking a narrow tributary, frustrated fish clumped behind them like wedding trains or seafoam gilding the edge of a wave.
Smaller than these whale sharks are the vastly more numerous schools of fish that dart like silver arrows, independent and brazen. Some (illegally) steer their fins to land and swim through the sand; the vast majority, however, slice through the water in their own narrow streams, parting before sharks and weaving around people who wade. They all gleam, scales shimmering in every color imaginable, and their riders are often masked, bodies shrouded to protect them from the burn of the swift water.
These fish form an oceanic lifeblood, a bridge between person and creature. They are the darters.
Larger than the darters are the dorados, smaller than the sharks and of dissimilar temperament. They are more maneuverable in the water than their larger counterparts, and more numerous, but are usually outspend by the smaller and more impudent fish. Still, they are personal, larger, and safer for their riders than the darters. They, too, can be colorful, but share a certain uniformity. Like the darters, they are bridges, but instead of compromising with their riders, they form an uneasy medium between the benevolent whales and the ornamental, audacious darters.
These fish swim in choreographed, organic harmony. Vigilance, grace, and vocally rude personalities define the vast majority of these fish. To stand, oceanside, and watch them swim…
It’s like staring into the rich depths of a coral reef, swarming with life, color, and watery finesse.
Still, there is one more creature in the ocean. Not to be forgotten, not to be ignored:
People walk in sand or surf; the former of which is cobbled or paved, the latter of which is separated from deeper waters by a simple white line. Darters often swerve into the shallows, weaving around people and sharks alike. People, who ride the whale sharks, darters, and dorados, are integral to the ocean. They are common as darters, but more cautious, slow, and tired in turn.
Motorcycles, buses, people, and cars flow like water in Kunming. This thought struck me as I stood on the sidewalk, paused in my walk to the program house. My eyes raked over the fast moving motorcycles, the darters, and I eyed the heavy, slow moving whale sharks of buses as they trundled along.
The cars streamed past me and I thought of a reef. I thought of an ocean.
So this is it. These are Kunming’s streets. This is the ocean.