Prelude: 36 Hours
My first foreign experience was back in the late fifties as a teenager living in Los Angeles. I spent an afternoon, or maybe was it a couple of afternoons, hard to tell at this distance, with a friend in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego. The main tourist drag was lined with taverns, or maybe they were girlie bars. Sidewalk recruiters tried to draw us in, but in any case I was way too green to enter. The streets were choked with fumey bunged up old beater cars sold across the border for little more than scrap. And all approaches to the town made it seem like backyard type custom auto upholsterers were the city's #1 industry. Thirty dollars for seat covers, ninety for a complete interior and three hundred for tuck and roll everything, headliner, steering wheel, floors, you name it.
In 1965 I needed to get divorced from a wife who had inconveniently disappeared. Living in New York at the time made this a very difficult proposition. The majority of the electorate, being Catholics, didn't believe in divorce and left we citizens with only one avenue for untying the knot - adultery. You literally had to get someone on the stand to swear they made it with your old lady. Quickie Mexican divorces on the other hand were painless and relatively cheap.
My time was limited but my financial resources were even more so, so I rode the Greyhound to Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from San Antonio, and back. Rolled into town after two full days and nights on the bus about midnight, was divorced at nine AM, was back on the road at ten and needless to say I didn't get to see much of Juarez. After five days on the bus with only ten hours respite, I swore I'd walk before I'd voluntarily subject myself to that degree of torture again.
Then again vows are made to be broken. Jesus said don't make a vow, you are a mere mortal whereas making things happen is strictly God's prerogative. Making vows is akin in its consequences to being angry at others for things in ourselves which we dislike and can't admit, and both in turn insist we do 180 degree about-faces. Our personal spiritual growth is held ransom to our willingness to turn completely around and do what we swore we'd never do. Or to become, to replicate, even if only in small measure, what bothers us about others. Fortunately for my spiritual growth and not surprisingly, Iíve been on the bus a few times since then, but the future - a year of traveling on third-world Asian buses, there are often no budget alternatives - will make Greyhound seem like a magic carpet.
My third and last prior foreign experience was part of a cross country hitchhike from Portland to Washington, DC and New York, and back, that I did with a girlfriend and my teenage daughter back in bicentennial summer. We rolled into DC about 3 AM on the Fourth and found a grassy spot to relax and regroup with helicopters buzzing by and hovering overhead. Soon we were rousted up by police who suggested we make our way to the back of the Capitol Building where lots of people were camping.
We gathered ourselves together and headed out but never made it. On the way we stuck out our thumbs and got picked up by a niteowl named Ford, but no relation to the then president, who had a cooler full of soft drinks and was happy to have us accompany him on his midnight rounds. He proceeded to give us a three hour guided tour of Monumental Washington. He then took us to his house for a snooze and shower and later that afternoon dropped us off at the Mall. We hung out there till evening and awed to a bicentennial scale, million dollar fireworks show with a million other Americans, and then hitched out of town at 11 PM.
After a few more days amongst the holiday festivities in New York, amounting to another extreme dose of Americana, I couldn't resist that ever-present itch for foreign travel, so after we left the big city on our way back to Oregon I thought we should try to finesse our way into Canada. We had just a few dollars between us but successfully assured the border guards that we only intended to spend the afternoon in Montreal. But we fooled them and hitched through the night from Montreal through Toronto and on to Windsor across the river from Detroit.
I remember Montreal for it's French style wrought iron balconies and unique rubber tired subway. About 4 AM our ride detoured off the highway to give us a glimpse of downtown Toronto. He assured us that Toronto was a fine city and from what I could glean in passing through in the middle of the night I'm sure he must be right. Windsor seemed a perfect little Eden. Detroit, just across the river, a vision of hell.
All tolled Iíve accumulated about 36 hours of foreign experience in my 50 years. Not being inclined to do things in little ways I'm about to compensate for my deficiency and satisfy a lifetime of longing by spending the next year roaming the low-end Asia travelers trail. I expect to range about 12,000 miles in Asia itself - boats, trains, planes, and of course buses. My itinerary is well thought out but changeable at the whim of the moment. I can't be pinned down cause Iím on the nowhere special express. No children (finally grown up), no job (thirteen years is enough at one job), no commitments and no schedule. Still you can be reasonably certain I'll be gravitating towards tropical isles, national parks and hip traveler magnets. I'll start in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year and try to be in Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India, for Christmas near the end of the trip.
This was originally hand written and minimally distributed as I went and I will try to maintain its sequence of discovery. Refining ...seriously upgrading in many cases, but changing little except to correct factual errors. January 1992
Hong Kong: In The Space of a Hiccup
How long is the flight Stan? (Good thing I'm not embarrassed by my own naiveté). Well let's see, leave at nine AM, arrive in Hong Kong at eleven PM, fourteen hours, right? Except Thursday nine AM turns into Friday eleven PM... but it can't take 38 hours. No matter how many times the concept of the International Date Line has entered my consciousness, it's still somewhat incomprehensible how you can go from one PM Monday to two PM Tuesday in the space of a hiccup. And besides there are eight time zones to cross.
From the initial feelings of awe - wow, this is really happening - as the flight began, 22 hours and three planes later I arrived at almost midnight enveloped in a cabin fever fog. The colony's airport is slated to be replaced in a $22 billion project that involves leveling a big chunk of a nearby island and connecting it with a freeway and light rail. Meanwhile one of the world's busiest airports is built on fill in the bay adjacent to a densely populated area and with the size and power that exemplifies Hong Kong, offers a very dramatic approach and first impression. Like skimming skyscraper tops.
Iím intercepted on the way to catch a bus or taxi to the main budget tourist area, "Looking for a cheap place?" It's a lot more than I want to spend ($20 /night) but hard to think of searching for a place at midnight in a strange, and for me at my level of experience, exotic city. I wound up in a decent but home made room, (probably illegally) added on to the roof of his apartment building, sort of connected to his apartment. Access required going up a short flight of stairs and through a doorway that measured 20 inches by 3 1/2 feet - probably to hide itís true function.
It also had what surprised me then, but was later to discover is the rule in Asia, a toilet and shower that are part of the same apparatus. The Asian bathroom concept almost always involves using the whole bathroom as the shower stall, that is, there is a drain in the bathroom floor and itís so designed that everything can get wet.
The room also came with a radio and out comes afro-pop from Zimbabwe and then, announced in moderately thick British, "Loud guitar music by (a band whose name I didn't get) and recorded in Bellingham Washington, USA". It turned out to be British armed forces radio. The typical Hong Kong station will alternate English and Chinese songs and throw in an occasional old favorite translated into Chinese.
Second night, wound up at "Chungking Mansions". It's the city's budget traveler magnet but still expensive - dormitory beds start at about $6. Singles, especially if you want a window, upwards of $15. Each floor has several of what would ordinarily be, and maybe even once were, strictly private apartments. The building is about 200' by 200', 17 stories and divided into five "blocks" with several units on each block. Many are still private apartments, the remainder could be almost anything including guest houses, sweatshops and restaurants. Next door to my guest house is a restaurant. "Ragu Mess - For Members Only - Bangladeshi"- where I was nonetheless invited to eat. There are many South Asians in the building - Indians, Nepalese, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, the rest are mostly African, Anglo, Filipino and of course Chinese.
The room itself is clean. I only smashed two roaches in five days which is surprising considering the condition of some of the public areas, not to mention that the garbage cans are large uncovered wicker baskets. The "Lonely Planet Guide" - the budget traveler's bible, describes the mansions well, "Take a look down the light wells off the "D" block stairs for a vision of hell, Chungking Mansions at its worst. Dark, dirty, festooned with pipes and wires and covered with what looks like the debris of half a century. When a toilet paper roll falls off the bathroom window sill on the sixteenth floor it falls only halfway down before lodging on a ledge or drainpipe. Soon it's joined by plastic bags, clothes fallen off lines, an apple rolled of the sill; all manner of garbage drapes or hangs down from above."
Meanwhile we are flanked by a Holiday Inn and a Sheraton and across the street from a Hyatt. Hong Kong is a free for all hodgepodge where not much could be out of place. If you want to erect a large neon sign that reaches all the way across the street within inches of the other side and covers up everyone else's signs in the process, no problem. If you want to crowd the entrance to a multi-unit building with a mini retail store so it's barely wide enough for one person to walk through, no problem.
Before leaving the airport, I handed the $35 in my pocket to a money changer. He said, "Is that all? Tomorrow Saturday, banks are closed", so I dug deeper. But as it turns out not only were the banks open but there are about ten money changers in Chungking Mansions' first floor arcade, amongst more than a hundred shops and restaurants altogether, and they pay a much better rate - equivalent to five cents more on the dollar. Laissez faire free enterprise has always been the Hong Kong way. Britain fought a mercenary little war with China back in the 1850's to secure Hong Kong as a protected base for it's very lucrative opium trade. Today it's duty free, highest quality to lowest. It is probably underestimating to guess that there are a thousand radio or camera stores within half mile of Chunking Mansions, though some are barely more than cubbyholes. Altogether it's a true riot of sight.
The food can be tasty and cheap as long as you keep a distance from places with names like "American Cafe". Irrespective of it's status as a British colony for the last 140 years, and the fact that it is one of the world's great business centers, the typical noodle shop only has menus in Chinese so I often merely point at the first thing I see. I love soup so I could often just say "wonton". But bring your own napkins, or buy a small packet at the cash register. And I really hate to say this but the difficulty of finding a morning cup of coffee drove me to eat at Mac's more times in a week than I had in many years.
A few blocks away at the waterfront is the Hong Kong cultural center which includes three theaters, a space museum and an art museum. In the historical pictures gallery of the art museum is a large reproduction of a painting of Hong Kong harbor from the 1880's, and prominent in the painting is an American flagged ship named Willamette! Oregon only became a state in 1859. I had gone halfway around the world in my first release from home fetters only to be impressed at how small the world was even more than a century ago.
We are also a short walk from the Star Ferry terminal where boats leave every seven minutes for the ten minute ride to Hong Kong Central. Hong Kong Island is the business center of the colony, though most of the island is mountainous terrain. Just a few blocks from the water the land begins to rise steeply to a 2500' ridge which is enjoyably reached by a cable car ride. Once up there is a trail that circles the ridge that was thick with New Year's holiday strollers at my visit. It provides some spectacular views of both downtown and Kowloon on the mainland where Chungking Mansions is located.
From up on the mountain or across the bay the tallest and most striking building in downtown Hong Kong is the 70 story Bank of China tower. In a relatively short time - July 1997 - control of the colony reverts back to China. Considering the city's current construction pace the approaching changeover has seemingly not affected the life, health or future prospects of the city. There is apprehension, especially I imagine amongst the colony's non-Chinese residents, but on balance China needs Hong Kong as it is currently constituted to help fuel it's industrial growth. China is growing so quickly towards Hong Kong in an economic sense that the colony may well not experience drastic changes. If anything, Hong Kong could easily become a thorn in the side of a China that tried to rein in its exuberance.
The Chinese characters for tangerine also mean coming prosperity, and as a result the city is full of miniature tangerine trees given as gifts to mark the new year. This language is fascinating and baffling in equal measure. Actually there are many mutually unintelligible spoken languages that use the same written characters. Mandarin, the language of the north, has become by decree China's common language, though it is still a second tongue to most.
In Hong Kong, not subject to China's decrees, the language is Cantonese. It has a much softer, rounder sound with less of the strange to our ears, 's', 'z' and 'sh' sounds typical of Mandarin. Happy New Year loosely transliterated into Cantonese - "Gung Hai Fat Choy", into Mandarin - "Gung Shi Fa Tsai". All movies made in Hong Kong, one of the world's most prolific producers, as well as those made in China, include Chinese subtitles. Most baffling is how anybody can read all those Chinese characters as they flash across the screen faster than I can read a short English sentence.
Aside from the tangerine trees, a spectacular fireworks show and wall to wall people in all the recreation spots the city shuts down for the holiday so people can be with their families.
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