Working up to the last minute, packing and preparing. Daniel, coaching us on how to make the web pages and maintain our computer connections. It seemed we were putting the last touches right up to the last minute agonizing over what we might forget. Fortunately, Tina had been thinking and planning for months. Packing for 6 months is a vastly different project than packing for 3 weeks. Our Medical First Aid kit alone took up a large portion of our bags. The additional complication was that on Sep 11 Osama Bin Laden decided to launch his Holy War against the US, and suddenly, facing potential Armageddon, our psychological focus was drawn to the Middle East rather than the Far East. We found ourselves watching a lot more of CNN and keeping up on what were the latest developments in the "War against Terrorism." Fortunately, we had done enough reading and thinking in the weeks before 9-11 to have a pretty good plan already scoped out. Amazingly, the only thing that was left behind was my snorkel and mask. But our packs were definitely packed full. One entire back-pack was full of 20 lbs. of books (mostly travel guides). Daniel and Meredith took us to the airport for our mid-night flight to Hong Kong. It was probably equally exciting and something of an adventure for Daniel to have us out of the house for 6 months--but a lot of work, too, and we were glad he was there. In fact, it's hard to conceive how we could have done this without him there to take care of all the plants, animals, and bills. After leaving, we hardly had to worry.
Our flight was a long 14 hours to Hong Kong but it went by mercifully fast. We were sitting in the bulkhead with extra leg room and our flight attendant sat in a jump seat immediately opposite us at take-off and landing. She was a vivacious exuberant, friendly and attractive young girl from Indonesia, living in Hong Kong and just returning from her monthly visit with her Hong Kong boy-friend who lived in San Francisco. In short order, we managed to know a lot about her life including her reticence to accept his marriage proposal because they had never lived together and she didn't know how well it would work if they spent a lot of time together . Her favorite pastime was clearly SHOPPING and she had numerous suggestions for our stay in Hong Kong. She emphasized that the months of July and August were the times to get the best sales (80% off). She gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to her shopping recommendations. We chatted throughout the flight when she wasn't working and, as fate would have it, kept running into her after landing while we were still getting our bags and negotiating the bus to our hotel.
Now I ask you, is this the face of someone who's experienced a mercifully "short" trans-pacific flight? I don't think so! However it was much more bearable because of our wonderful flight attendant. She was a very sweet, energetic, and enthusiastic person who kept us entertained and distracted while we were awake. It's too bad she couldn't work her magic for the numerous infants on the flight. They did suffer with the altitude changes! Speaking of the other passengers, it was notable, though hardly surprising, that there were very few other Americans on the flight. Most people seemed to be from Asia or India. I also think there was a certain level of anxiety about flying. The passengers were rather quiet and somber. I know I was a little nervous at first.
Feelings about our trip were mixed, to be sure. The first reaction was that we should consider canceling everything, and stay home to somehow support our country and protect the family. The reality was that Sarah was already gone, and was booked to meet us at the end of her term at the University of Queensland. So, with some apprehension, we made the decision to go. Our promise to all was to be cautious, and we were.
After landing and going through customs we caught the shuttle bus directly to our hotel--the YMCA. As soon as we unpacked we were out on the streets exploring since it was still early in the morning. We wanted to make our way to the bird market. A common practice throughout Asia we soon found out was to concentrate the merchants of a particular product in one street or section of town. Whatever the product: birds, fish, produce, furniture, books, clothing--you would find store after store next to each other for a block or two--frequently selling almost the same products. Because our bags were packed so full there was really little space to put in new purchases. It was all eye candy to us. Looking lost , we were immediately helped out by a young man on his was to a soccer match. Mobin, his name, and he gave us a guided tour of the area between the hotel and our destination. He showed us the street where they set up the street market each and every night and they were hard at work at around 11 am erecting their booths and putting out their merchandise. He also showed the signage for prostitutes--yellow neon signs with prices quoted and signs pointing up the stairs from the street. Obviously quite legal and plentiful. Prices were in the range of 40-50 US dollars if you were interested.
One is struck immediately by the number of people on the streets. Vast hordes of humanity (17 million in Hong Kong). Though Hong Kong was an expensive place to stay and we had committed ourselves to a low budget trip, mindful this was a very long trip and there would be no income during this protracted period. Of course, we didn't want to be uncomfortable either so we were well supplied with guidebooks to give us the best tips on places to stay in the modest budget. It was not until we got to Vietnam that we realized how expensive the $100 rooms at the YMCA were. One of the amazing things we saw was the way they use bamboo in all kinds of construction. Neon signs are hung by bamboo skeletons and even skyscrapers have bamboo supporting framework on the outside while it is under construction.
Besides the city lights on a street very near our hotel this picture shows in the upper left corner the bamboo scaffolding used in the construction of a neon sign on the other side of the street. This neighborhood had an amazing number of young people ages 16-30 milling about at all hours of the night. Virtually all the vehicles on the streets are taxis and buses. At one point I saw 8 double decker busses in a row on this street and it was truly phenomenal to imagine the number of people commuting to and fro using bus transportation. Virtually every person on the street, kids included, also seemed to have cell phones. Shop after shop had salespersons on the sidewalk inviting you in to purchase a cell phone and a service package.
One day we decided to follow up on a recommendation from the flight magazine and visit Kadoorie Farms. Our hotel concierge didn't know anything about it, and after some phone calls, gave us a rough idea on which trains and busses to take. It is located in the New Territories area, and not on the usual tourist path. It took our combined mental abilities to maneuver through the subway lines and bus terminals, and frequent consultation with the locals to get there. When we did arrive, the girl selling tickets looked shocked and asked how we got there! We gathered that the usual visitors were local school children. The farm was originally developed by Lord Kadoorie and his brother as an agricultural aid project to assist refugees in the area after World War II. It has now moved towards conservation and education.
The Kadoorie Farm contains botanical gardens, sustainable organic farming exhibits, and examples of some of the unique local reptiles, amphibians and insects. The salamander seen here was about two feet long! Quite a charming fellow he was, along with his mate. It was a special treat for us to wander through farm, having it almost all to ourselves. Another project at the Farm is the rehabilitation of native species of raptors, mammal and reptiles. We found a beautiful koi pond to rest near, and discovered that the fish were apparently responsive to a person's presence. When they saw our shadows, they circled, as if ready to be fed? They were lovely to see, in any case.
Over all, Hong Kong was a good introduction to Asia for us. We learned how to adapt to congestion and noise and how to enjoy the friendly people and culture. The
down side was the cost of living there. Our hotel was $100 a night, and that was one
of the least expensive there. At that rate, our trip would have to end in short order, so we said good-by to Hong Kong and headed for Hanoi, Vietnam.