Wednesday, 21 November 2012

From One Island to Another

"Ten dollars on number six," I slur, smacking a bill on the bookie's counter. Weaving back through the crowd with a beer in hand, I have finally, for the first time in three days, forgotten about The Beach.

I’ve written and then immediately deleted three different introductions to a post about our month working at The Beach. But I'm done. I give up. I simply can’t find a way to explain our time there and how the experience affected us without sounding cheesy and cliché. To give you an idea in as few words as possible: I cried when we said goodbye to the people we worked with on the island, and cried a second time when we reached the mainland.

And now, on another island, the completely- and I do mean completely- different island of Hong Kong, I'm drowning my sorrows about leaving our beautiful, tranquil, intimate paradise with a combination of German beer and gambling.

Only a three hour flight from The Beach, yet a world away: Hong Kong was a blast. A luxurious, expensive blast, which we loved for the exact opposite reasons we loved the beach. We adored its craziness, its anonymity, its worldliness. Adored its cosmopolitan mix of cultures and people, the way it was at once totally international, yet undeniably Asian.

In order to be able to afford a couple of days in the notoriously expensive city, we used a hotel voucher that my ex-coworkers generously gave me when I left my job in Switzerland. As a result, we were able to stay, for nearly free, at a very nice hotel, complete with complimentary slippers. Fancy stuff indeed.

We were so proud to be living the high life while staying within our backpackers’ budget. That is, until we celebrated our cleverness by going to Happy Valley, Hong Kong’s famous horse racing track, and blowing two days-worth of expenses on beer and betting.

You know, because we are such responsible adults.

But you can’t blame us. We were enjoying our first day in Hong Kong when we saw an advertisement for “Oktoberfest at the Races.” How could we resist? Within a few hours, we were eating German sausages, drinking ridiculous amounts of Hefeweizen and betting on "lucky" horses. 

Of course we didn’t win anything. Of course we spent way too much money. Of course we got drunk and celebrated our losses with complete strangers, staggering home at 2:00am, a grease-soaked bag of McDonald's in hand. 

But we had fun. And really, isn’t that the point of this whole trip?

We definitely don't know these people

When we weren’t drinking and gambling, we were exploring Hong Kong’s diverse neighborhoods, mostly by way of their restaurants. To get a taste of the local flavor- literally- we stopped into one of the city’s typical old-school dim sum restaurants, where customers squeeze around communal tables and order mystery dumplings and buns from women pushing carts of steaming bamboo baskets through the crowded room.

It was chaos. When a cart with a more popular item- like BBQ pork buns or shrimp dumplings- would emerge from the kitchen, people would jump up from their seats and run across the dining room, pushing each other aside to be first in line to order from the cart. We had no idea what was going on, no idea what we were ordering and even less of an idea of whether or not we were doing any of it correctly. But did we care? Hell no. A little confusion is a small price to pay for a plateful of pork products. 

Confused and amused at dim sum

We also made sure to indulge in Hong Kong’s famous international dining scene. One day, we had an incredible pizza in the neighborhood of SoHo, which wouldn’t have been out of place in any big Western city, and that night, we ate a mind-blowing bowl of Japanese ramen noodles with pork neck, the broth thick and glistening with fat from the meat. Hong Kong is one of the most international cities in the world, and we took full advantage of that fact with our stomachs.

This is Asia?
On our last day in the city, before an evening flight to Nepal, we took a cable car up to The Peak, one of the steep hills that overlooks the city and the rest of Hong Kong Island. From high up, we could see the expansive cityscape on one side of the hill, and, even more impressively, the undeveloped, forested hills and sandy beaches of the south side of the island. We had always thought of HK as just a city when in fact, a vast part of it is wooded countryside and long stretches of peaceful beach. We were only fifteen minutes from the center of one of the world’s most populous cities, but up here on the peak, we were able to stroll along a wooded path in complete solitude, with nothing but the sound of the birds for company.

To top off our afternoon high above the craziness of the city, we had a romantic little picnic of paté, French cheese, fresh bread and red wine- products that we hadn’t been able to easily find for the four months we had been in Asia, but that were readily available in the local grocery store next to our hotel.

Dim sum one day, cheese and wine the next- all within a three-hour flight of our favorite place in the world?

This might just be our new city.

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