We arrived, sleepless and bedraggled, in Hong Kong at six a.m. Our future was yet to be determined, we hadn’t eaten, and it was already an alarming 32 degrees at this time of morning. Taipei, racked by a typhoon, was not going to let us, or anybody, in.
Though the airport troll in Bali made our fate seem rather dire, the plucky sprites at the Hong Kong airlines desk seemed more optimistic about our chances. As long as we showed up remarkably early before whatever flight to Taipei we desired, we would be put on standby. Comforted by this vague but slightly less doom-shrouded outlook, we set off into Hong Kong.
Having already been to Hong Kong, as had Tony, we were moderately familiar with its layout, but bowled over by the summer haze and extraordinary heat, it suddenly became difficult to navigate. We wandered up and down streets I only realized later to be familiar, blasted out as they were by all the fire and brimstone, before Tony set off alone in search of a hotel. He returned with a key, having found a hotel “For Tourists Only” that was staffed entirely by angry, ancient women who spoke only Cantonese and looked upon us with deep suspicion every time we entered or exited the premises. There was a tiny sliver of a bed, a slightly larger “double” bed, and something resembling an airplane bathroom. Whatever mistrust they held for us and what me might be doing, there just wasn’t much room to be smuggling or doing drugs or running back-room gambling, as white foreigners tend to do.
As the day wore on, the heat sapped every bit of energy I had remaining. I had not slept or eaten for hours, and the feeling of my shirt being constantly soaked by my own sweat was growing tiresome. I kept dipping into supermarkets to cool down and dry off, but grew dismayed with how quickly the drying process was defeated by the sweaty re-wettening. The summer smog made it difficult to breathe, and as we walked around the coast of Peng Chau, I realized that I was woozy enough that going up or down an incline would likely make me pass out.
I soon retreated to the shade and began to feel bad about myself: I couldn’t take a little heat? Some poor air quality? Mild to moderate exercise? What kind of world traveller was I? All of the ego I had painstakingly built over the years began to shake under the weight of my failure and discomfort, and I decided to head back to Kowloon and our hotel in defeat.
I purchased a ticket and waited for the ferry, and upon arriving at Hong Kong Island, took to the subways. Buried beneath the earth in a swarm of tens of thousands, navigating a trembling, vibrating mob, I grew strangely comfortable. It was familiar. It was comfortable. It was what I do. I knew cities, at least. I had that.
I rode up to Jordan station, and was confronted by the fact that none of us really knew where our hotel was. The early morning jaunt Tony had taken to find it had been circuitous and soaked with frustration and perspiration, so we were left a little befuddled on how to get back there. I stood before a map, and looked for the streets that I had memorized from earlier in the day, and from my previous trip to Hong Kong. I spent two minutes in a travel fugue, re-wandering streets in my mind, connecting traffic lights and crossings and familiar convenience stores, rotating and orienteering before I picked my route and easily found our hotel. Despite the heat, I practically had a skip in my step, such was my re-inflated pride. As a reward, I wandered around and treated myself to mighty Odin’s own beverage, malted Vitasoy.
Sometimes your confidence drops. And sometimes it’s pretty easy to pick back up.
I recognized the name Din Tai Fung, but couldn’t really place it. Our hostel in Taipei had told us that we must absolutely eat there, and the crowd assembled before its steamy gates certainly spoke well of the meal to come.
A woman bounded up to us, as we looked around. “You guys look hungry. What would you like to eat?”
We were soon in this charming waitress’s web as she spilled out a flurry of recommendations, marking down in careful Chinese counters on her menu every time we agreed to something delicious sounding. At her mention of xiaolongbao, I suddenly recognized the restaurant as soup dumpling joint I had visited in Shanghai, and she praised me for my worldliness while telling us that we were in the progenitor of the chain.
In a few minutes we were rushed to one of the upper tiers of the food complex, as dish after dish was deployed at our table with calculated efficiency. Soon there was little room, and waiters grew consternated as they looked at our array and tried to find ways to Tetris in new plates or bamboo steamers. We supped until we were full, and continued eating some more.
On the wall nearby was a placard, ranking which of the staff had the “best manner.” Our charming siren from before was ranked at a piddling second place, a fact with which we took a great deal of personal umbrage. She had been so pleasant, so bubbly, and so capable of English that our own handle of the language had seemed pitiful in comparison. When she came to visit us later to inquire about our meal, we asked what was up.
“Oh,” she said, shame playing across her features. “Yes. Another waitress was voted higher manner.” Could we, the satisfied customer, perhaps remedy this injustice? “Sure!” she perked. “When you pay your bill, tell the cashier you want to vote for Leilei.” And vote for Leilei we did.
Here’s hoping you’re number one, Leilei. Wherever you are. At the restaurant, one assumes.
It is our last night of vacation, and when we spy another restaurant with significant crowding, we decide to try our luck. Despite being warned of a thirty minute wait, we are ushered in almost instantaneously, and order our hot pot. In one side rests an enormous slab of ginger, gnarled and anthropomorphic, like the mandrake from Pan’s Labyrinth. We dump duck and Chinese cabbage and mushrooms and noodles and dumplings into our broiling cauldrons.
Periodically, a woman wanders through the booths pushing a cart arrayed with a number of pots, each filled with indistinct lumps of miscellaneous organ meat. She looks into our soups and is dismayed by the lack of guts, and dumps new offal into our soup every single time she passes. She bows and smiles with each liver delivery.
We spend the rest of the night walking the night markets, buying misprint T-shirts and eating enormous chunks of discount dragonfruit. Around us, people play some sort of gambling pinball, and thousands of food carts blast wafts of both the delicious and the mad rotten.
While in the airport in Bali at 1 in the morning, unsure of where we might end up and thinking of dozens of different scenarios we might face and how each of them would involve us losing a lot of money, we spent a moment or two thinking about traveling, in general. How it can be frustrating. How it can be terrifying. How it can be expensive, and draining, and obnoxious. How it can be difficult and make you question your own sanity, your own capability, your own maturity. And how, just when you think it’s knocked you down, the fruit stand lady hands you a few extra slices of watermelon, and just around the corner you find that jade market you were looking for.
Travel. It’s not always easy, but the best things in life rarely are.