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Born free

Meng Ye hugs a boa constrictor, 120 kg and 7 meters long, on an island near Iquitos, a city in Peru's Amazon River region. Provided to China Daily

Publication Date : 23-04-2012


Shanghai's men are often characterised as neat and financially astute, but hardly ever as masculine or adventurous. Meng Ye, born and raised in Shanghai, is an exception. He has visited some 150 countries and regions and refers to himself simply as a traveller who prefers to visit places where most people don't go.

In March 2011, he went to Yeonpyeong Island, close to the site of a fierce artillery exchange between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, in 2010.

Also in 2011, in April, he visited the Chernobyl nuclear power facility in Ukraine, just days before the 25th anniversary of the disaster.

The following month he was in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed; and in October he went to the Golden Triangle region on the Mekong River.

"It's so cool visiting these places," says the garment industry businessman, who is tall and strong, has a beard and likes wearing military-style clothes, a white cap, and smokes a Cuban cigar.

It was in 1999, after he had saved enough, that he began his travels.

"Once, I was an ordinary traveller like everyone else who would be wowed at the Eiffel Tower, for instance," says Meng, who admits to being born in the 1960s, though he won't give his age.

"But now, what impresses me most during my journeys is not beautiful views, but the people living there."

Having just completed a tough two-month journey along the 6,400 km Amazon River in South America, the second longest river in the world, Meng says he misses the people he met.

Meng set out with Travel Channel to produce a documentary about the area's tribes. He says the trek was boring at times, fraught with danger and plagued by mosquitoes.

The Amazon River's more than 1,700 branches form a labyrinth, concealing the tribespeople he was looking for.

While boating down the river he met a man in his 20s whose boat was made from more than 30 tree trunks, bound together by wire, which took him nine days to float downriver - without an engine or tiller - and eventually sell for about 40 yuan (US$6.34) a trunk.

"I wondered if cutting down trees without a license was illegal in Peru, but here was a man who needed to make money for his family. It is hard to criticise him as not environmentally friendly," Meng says.

Meng interviewed locals by initially asking such questions as, "What's your dream?" The response was usually along the lines of, "I hope I have enough food to eat tomorrow".

"Hearing this, I thought that asking about dreams was nonsense. The pressure they face in their day-to-day lives is unimaginable. But what made me respect them so much is that no matter how hard life is, they still smile happily at strangers and never complain."

Meng's Peruvian guide, Juan, had travelled from Guatemala to Costa Rica and arrived in the United States' New York, aged 23. He married a woman who was 20 years older than him, but she divorced him and didn't allow him to visit their daughter. Juan then returned to Peru and married a local woman, with whom he now has six children.

"Compared to my guide, travel for me is just a crazy hobby, while to Juan it is his whole life," Meng says.

Rituals, he says, are still part of Amazonian life, however. When boys reach 12 years old in some tribes they must endure being bitten by about 300 huge ants for an hour. If they can withstand the pain, they will receive a warrior's sword from the tribal chief.

"I saw a boy's face twisted in agony, but he didn't make a sound, as he knew that if he shed just one teardrop, he would not receive the warrior's sword."

"The reason one falls in love with a place is usually love. I loved the colourful people I met in the jungle and I recorded their unforgettable stories."

Born into a working class family, Meng's younger years were not adventurous. He learned to cook when he was 7, and his father once cut his basketball in two when he was playing and forgot to tend to the boiling rice.

"I was so sad, both for my basketball and my mistake."

His talent for writing poems and playing musical instruments was not recognised, as being a scientist or joining the army were valued at the time.

But his "useless talent" helped him gain a reputation after he got a job at a factory, especially among his young female colleagues.

It was at the factory that he met and later married his wife and he says that after 30 years she still enjoys cooking while he plays guitar for her.

Meng has developed from being a shy boy to a man who can "make seven friends in one minute".

Though he is now a Chinese-American, Meng says he is still a Shanghai man at heart. Every summer the family takes a trip abroad.

"My wife and daughter like shopping in Japan and I carry their bags for them and follow them from one boutique store to another. This is something every Shanghai man must do!"

The documentary, Go to Amazon, will be broadcast on Travel Channel from Monday to Friday, for two weeks, starting April 17.


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