There was a tap on my left shoulder. “Don’t carry anyone’s bags” was the hissed message in my left ear. I was 1 hour and 43 minutes into The Dressmaker and I reluctantly removed my earbuds, pausing Liam Hemsworth’s beautiful Australian drawl, to address my neighbor’s inaugural words of advice.
“The bags. Luggage. Don’t carry anyone’s. They could be a drug smuggler. You can get hanged in Malaysia if you’re caught.” Talk about 0 to 60. I stared at my neighbor dumbly. “Ok” I agreed, unsure of what else to say. “BE CAREFUL!” she looked at me with round, scared eyes and then leaned closer, as if confiding a secret- “but also... don’t worry!” Her face relaxed into a happy network of wrinkles. Luckily, I was halfway through my 14 hour flight to Hong Kong, so I only had 7 to imagine myself turning up on an episode of “Locked Up Abroad” for trying to be a good samaritan. At least she thought I looked nice. Nice and probably dumb.
We touched down at 5 am. She grabbed my sleeve again, “I live in Boston. Maybe I’ll see you there one day- say hi if you do!” I agreed. This woman could very well be some sort of fairy godmother. Then, I grabbed my carry-on and hurdled out of the plane before anyone could solicit me as their drug sherpa and have me thrown in airport jail.
I had to wait for an hour before the airport shuttle left for central Hong Kong. I had about 10 hours in the city before my final flight to Thailand. Having never been past Eastern Europe before, I found the city - or at least the airport at this stage- to be a good transition zone. There was familiarity enough due to the wide use of English (HK was established as British Dependent Territory in 1981), but also an abundance of Chinese lettering, which made me really feel like I was far from home (or at least in Chinatown, NYC). As soon as the train pulled up, I heard a couple loudly explaining that they were from FREEHOLD, NJ! Imagine that. Hong Kong: a great international destination where you can meet your neighbors.
We whizzed into the downtown area, arriving just as the sun rose. It was dead silent, save for the soft slap of the waves in the harbor and the excited morning sounds of the birds. I walked out of the train station, and my hair deployed immediately around me in the thick humidity. It was amazingly peaceful- Victoria Harbor was the color of a blue eggshell, the trees rustled from their bird occupants, and I could hear the soft shuffles of Tai Chi groups practicing in the many little public squares. I made my conclusion quickly: Hong Kong is a beautiful city.
My approach to the next few hours was to wander. I walked through the unexpected lushness of the business district, craning my neck to look at one mirror plated skyscraper after another. Everything was reflective and shiny there, muted by the deep green of ubiquitous gardens. Strolling is difficult, though. There are lots of ‘super roads’ that are not crossable if you want to continue living your life, so I spent time discovering little overpasses and taking the back roads.
Hong Kong is also not for the feeble legged. The city slices into the side of a pseudo cliff, and I felt that climbing up and down the hill qualified me for at least an olympic bronze. I quickly stumbled upon a free nature conservatory and animal sanctuary that was open at 7 am (?!). There, I met family of orangutans and a family of humans who were eagerly sticking their hands through the bars of the cage (they clearly missed all of those monkey horror stories on the news). Their caretaker eagerly related the monkeys' (somewhat tragic) backstory to me while dodging apple cores lobbed by one of the babies who was “jealous” of the diverted attention, thus permanently cementing my fear of caged monkeys. I left soon after, with the well wishes of the caretaker and an indisputable stink-eye from the apple thrower.
As I pushed further, the buildings became more pastel colored, dotted with hundreds of windows, balconies, and clothes lines. Signs popped up, covered in bright colors and Chinese characters and neighborhoods got denser and louder. Cafes, noodle stores, art galleries, pharmacies, and bookstores were plentiful, but I [disappointingly] didn’t come across a single steamed bun shop- which may or may not have been the driving motivation in choosing a flight with a layover in HK.
As the sun rose fully and settled mid-sky, I wilted completely from the heat, humidity and incline. I eventually decided to throw in the towel and go back to the enormous and nicely chilled airport where I blotted myself down in the privacy of the bathroom. There, I sat with my pulsing feet up, waiting for my flight and reflecting on how I would absolutely move to HK in a heartbeat- buns or no buns, and that's saying something.