Category Archives: Semester at Sea

Crying Wolf

Once, on a first date, we had just finished covering all the things he was into – Asian politics, Marx brothers movies, gymnastics and whiskey – and he asked me what mine were, what were my things?

I thought about this for a while, trying to think of an interesting answer. I needed one that would make me sounds appropriately fascinating and beguiling and just a little unusual. I was two martinis in. I gave up.

“I like most things,” I told him.

*****


I think what makes me, in my own unjustifiably inflated self-image, a pretty good traveller is the exact thing that makes me a fairly wretched travel correspondent. It’s just that, you see, I like most things. My reputation on the ship is, already, that I am in – whatever it is, wherever you’re going, whatever you’re doing, I probably want to join. I have backed down so far only at chicken feet and I am, understandably, wracked with regret about that. But… have you seen cooked chicken feet?  They’re unexpectedly soggy looking. Bird foot I was down for, damp, squashy bird foot was a step too far.

But all this makes me a terrible travel writer. The thought process of the good reporter is discriminating. They have an active mind.  They sort things into categories, make connections, and decide what is interesting and what is not. They tell you what you really ought to do, sorting through the morass for gems.

I, on the other hand, have a mindset while traveling would best be put into writing as: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The inside of my head in every port is a slot machine, all bells and buzzers and bright flashing lights.

The good travel writer, I have noticed, also takes careful notes.

These are the sum total of my notes on Hong Kong, typed urgently into my iPhone:

“If I lived here, I’d have great thighs.”

That’s it.

In my journal I wrote one thing only: a two page description of a pork bun (that does not, incidentally, do that pork bun justice. A crackle of caramelized sugar, a pillowy bun that gets dense and thick in your mouth, savory, spicy pork in the middle. It’s a god damn revelation.)

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sorry guys. I’m sorry that I can’t be discriminate, and thoughtful. I fear, really, that I cried wolf on Tokyo, and then shouted it in Kyoto, and then sort of mumbled it in Shanghai, and now you just aren’t going to believe me anymore about Hong Kong.

But did you know in Hong Kong you can get Michelin starred pork buns for $3 in a train station? And that the parks have free wifi? And that at the protests last year, they set up homework stations where student protestors helped other protestors kids with their math? Do you have any idea how wonderful Hong Kong is? Do you? Do you really?

Here: let me tell you about it.

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In Hong Kong, there are parks filled with elderly men playing cards and children exercising and flamingoes standing around in clumps and aviaries and water features and free museums. In Hong Kong, there are markets full of fish and meat and nuts and spices and vegetables spilling down streets on the Kowloon side. In Hong Kong you can buy a rose latte and then a $.50 token and get on the top level of a ferry with rows of wooden seats that will take you across the bay, ringed by the spindly shoots of sky scrapers reaching up in clusters towards the sky, but none reaching higher than the blueish mountains behind them. With a gentle breeze on your face, you will watch the dusk settle over the valley and see all the buildings blink to life. Their moving lights depicting koi and clouds and New Years wishes printed ten stories high. In Hong Kong you can ride double decker trams, tall and impossibly thin, down busy shopping streets that change from Gucci to dried fish and back again. In Hong Kong you get a martini on the 60th floor and look down to see different nests of drinkers clustered out on precipices clinging to the side of buildings, invisible from the street. They are perched 30 and 40 stories up, and their laughter drifting up is just a little bit louder than the traffic.

In Hong Kong you can text a man you haven’t seen in seven years and have only spoken to twice to say: “a girl I have never met just invited me to a Ukranian art opening at an alternative arts gallery and she says you should join,” and his only response is, “that’s a very Hong Kong invitation.”

In Hong Kong, your old acquaintance becomes your new friend within an hour. Within two you are sitting in the Foreign Correspondents Club, the same club where characters from every spy novel you have ever read gather to swap stories in dark corners and gossip about diplomats and throw down challenges. Within three hours you are loudly telling anyone who will listen that you will be living in Hong Kong within two years. And you mean it. By God, you really, really mean it. 

On Sunday morning I went for a hike with a friend of a friend, up through the Hong Kong University campus, up winding paths filled with Filipino workers on their day off, Chinese families on pleasure strolls and white Hong Kongers and ex-pats jogging by in expensive trainers, showing off on the pull up bars. At the top, Victoria Peak, we got a coffee and then leaned on the stone walls flanked with guardian lions and peered over the lush foliage down at the valley. The Star Ferry was tiny, winding back and forth over the broad harbor, and on either side groves of sky scrapers grew wherever the surface was flat enough to support them. In every direction the outlying islands and the New Territories stretched out green and wild, Hong Kongers often charter junks for a few dollars to take them out on Sundays to the beaches for picnics.  We wound back down to the city, where i climbed up and down streets, bargaining (still poorly) for trinkets and sipping iced coffee. In the evening, when I finally got back on the ship, I immediately and googled “job postings, history, Hong Kong University.” 

*****

I’ve done none of it justice. Not even the pork bun. I can’t – it’s been two days and my thought process on Hong Kong is still, more or less, “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  I just don’t know what to do or where to begin.

The only thing I know is that I really should have spent more time on the pork bun.

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It tastes like bullfrog

“What does turtle taste like?” we asked Leo.

We were standing on a street in Zhu Jia Jiao, in front of a line of stores selling fish. I was holding a hand roll of sticky rice and roast pork, still half wrapped in leaves, oozing with fat. I felt I needed it to recover from the drive – an hour from Shanghai in stop and start traffic, diesel fumes pouring in through the windows. Even before that – the diesel, the jolting ride – I had been feeling a little sick. The first time I stepped outside in China I felt the air sting my eyes, and then scratch the back of my throat. The AQI in Shanghai was 75 that day, or “moderate.” LA and New York hover in the 30s and 40s – American cities tend to put out warnings at 50. Not too long ago, the air in Bejing spiked over 600. 

We were in Zhu Jia Jiao because of Jesse, the dependent children’s coordinator. His mother and a family friend met him in Shanghai and we had hopped along on this particular bit of their tour, to “the Venice of Asia,” a small city (one of many near Shanghai) built around canals, plied by flat bottomed boats with wooden canopies and red lanterns. I’m sure once upon a time they ferried fish. Now it’s mostly white people and Korean tourists. Leo, our tour guide, had just begun winding us through picturesque side streets, pointing out local architecture (much of the city is centuries old) and explaining Chinese farming practices, when we came across the bins of live fish and the bowl with the turtle in it.

Leo thought for a minute – “what does turtle taste like…”

“Chicken?” we offered. It always seems like everything tastes like chicken.

“No,” Leo experimentally kicked the purple plastic bowl covered in blue netting where one forlorn turtle swam, and the water quivered. The turtle looked up. Leo and the turtle regarded one another while he tried to think of an appropriate metaphor – one we’d understand.

“Oh!” Leo’s face brightened, he finally had it: “it tastes like, you know, bull frog!”

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We told the students that Japan was a tester port for them. Sure, the toilets were overwhelming and very few people speak English, but it is the toddler-proofed playroom of travel experiences. A girl left her passport on a train and had it hand delivered to her, at her hostel, by a Japanese police man. Every case of food poisoning a student had in Japan turned out to be, on inspection, a hang over.

And then we came to China.

Most of the students pulled what I have discovered is their standard practice: a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred attempt to see everything in one week. I heard a girl on the ship, the day before we landing, pondering how she’d be able to get to Tibet and the Great Wall, while still having two days in Hong Kong.

I decided instead to play it low key – two days in Shanghai, eighteen hours on a train, and three in Hong Kong. That is what SAS has done to me. I really, and truly, believed that was a laid back itinerary. 

********

I spend the first morning with friends – we walked down the Bund, the beautiful old British concession riverfront. The strip along the river is like a warmer London of stern, imposing late Victorian banks (they were, in fact, largely hotels. But British colonial architecture has a curious quality of always, anywhere in the world it is, appearing to be a bank.)  We saw a park sign that told us that “Ethical and moral codes should be duly honored, visitors are expected not to urinate or shit.” We took six pictures of it. We sat on plastic stools in the street and ate note noodles with lamb from a Mongolian man cooking on a camp stove.

We wandered into the YuYuan “old town” shopping area – a recreated faux-China full of jade stores and Starbucks. We ate soup dumplings, which have got to be the world’s greatest and most dangerous food – steamed dumplings filled not just with fragrant meats, but scalding hot broth. The trick is to hold them carefully in chop sticks and bite the top off, creating a little dumpling bowl, oozing with spicy red broth that can now cool. They’re unbelievable. They were all I wanted to ever eat again in my life until I had some pork buns in a train station in Hong Kong that may, in  the end, be the subject of their own post, since less than 1000 words could not do them justice.

After lunch I dove, alone, into the real old town: wandering down alleys, haggling poorly. (And, through a series of events I can’t quite trace, buying a Buddha head that I did not want. It sits on a shelf reproaching me now, reminding me that I’m an idiot.) I turned North and walked through streets full of men cooking BBQ and circulating smoke with bamboo fans, past lane communities with socks and dried chicken hanging side by side on laundry lines. I bought hot ginger and lemon and watched families shop for vegetables and fish. Finally I emerged onto Nanjing Rd, a huge, glitzy pedestrian mall, lined with Western brands at twice their European prices. I ate nut pastries and walked around People’s Square in the gathering dusk.   

At eight, I went to dinner with expats – I met my dear friend from high school’s little brother, who was wearing a well tailored suit from work and standing in front of a two-story Gucci store. We turned off a street in the French Concession to walk through a small alley lined with bamboo to a sparse, vast and very modern Japanese restaurant. I listened to Zach and colleague talk about jobs, travel, Mandarin tutors and tailoring.


After dinner, Zach and I walked for an hour through the French Concession. We bought ice cream and he told me about working in China, and about living there for 6 years, about making local friends and learning to translate business practices across cultural divides. He told me no one likes to fire anyone – things are too good, so much better than they were forty years ago, that companies feel like families, and no one wants to trouble the waters much. For people who survived the Cultural Revolution, he explained, stasis is a gift.

The streets were darker and quiet, with couples and groups of students strolling under the trees that line the broad avenues. If you could convince yourself that the smog was mist, we were in the most beautiful of cities, cosmopolitan and elegant. I fell in love with it. “Yeah,” Zach told me, looking around a quiet street that curved off to our left, lined with villas, “this pretty much never gets old.”

The next night after I returned from Zhu Jia Jiao I wandered the French Concession again. I dipped into stores full of Chinese antiques and Italian wines; second hand stores and organic cafes. In a rush, I dropped into the first take away joint I saw – what turned out to be a Korean place, where I at Bi Bim Bap looking at kitchy prints of 1950s American comics and listened to C-Pop. I darted across town, spending 30 cents on the most efficient metro system I have ever encountered, and met the theater professor for a Mandarin production of Romeo and Juliet – all stylized black and white punk with little pops of comedia del’arte. The audience was elegantly dressed, students in trendy glasses and women in heels. 

******


“It tastes like bull frog,” became the motto of many of my friends for China. An experience without metaphor, a place lost in translation. The tester port of Japan was over – this, they all said, this was real.

I recognize that I barely saw anything of China. I saw a tiny sliver of uber-wealth that hardly describes the whole of China, or even the whole of Shanghai, or even the whole of the French Concession – probably not the whole of the building I stayed in. On the other hand, we were there for a few days, so I’m pretty sure no one else saw much of China either.

But I’m not sure it’s just that I saw a China insulated by wealth and expats and Japanese restaurants and experimental theater that made me come away so much fonder of it than my friends. That’s may well me part – or even most – of it. And will I pretend that I didn’t struggle with some things. For an avowed lefty to discover her own unspeakably ethnocentric attitudes is off putting, and, yes, okay, fine, spitting is something I will have to come to understand better. Like really a whole lot better.

But I liked Shanghai. It may be I even loved it. And at least some part of that must be, I’m convinced, a determined desireIMG_2639 to imagine the smog is mist.

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Kyoto, well and unwell

Poor Kyoto, it didn’t really stand a chance, did it? Not for those first 24 hours. Not when I couldn’t hold food down, my shins and thigh bones ached, and every joint hurt. Not when I could feel the cold down to the pit of my stomach, when one foot never stopped being numb, and when all I wanted to do was sleep. None of that was Kyoto’s fault. Tokyo did that. Tokyo screwed over Kyoto. It ate me up and spat me out, dazed and miserable, and let Kyoto see what on earth it could make of me.

Most cities would fail the test.

But Kyoto’s not most cities. 

***

Things I remember from my first twenty four hours in Kyoto include the fact that it is the coldest place ever invented, it’s busses take a really extraordinarily long time to get anywhere, when they do get there they are the coldest places on earth, and my friends are all, universally, and without exception, complete jerks.

That those impressions might have been shaped by the fact that I could barely keep rice down was not a thought I was willing to entertain at the time. In retrospect, looking at pictures, I think the Golden Pavilion was actually shockingly beautiful. And even as my bones ached and my tedious friends did tiresome awful things like “looking at maps” and “finding out where we’re going” and “asking kindly if I was okay” Gion was gorgeous. It’s the oldest surviving quarter of Kyoto – the city was once essentially run by rival Geisha houses, who would control and police the quarters around them. Gion was the most powerful, and so has stayed while others developed – old wooden houses, silent lanes, sliding doors and slatted windows looking in on gorgeous feasts served to wealthy diners sitting on tatami mats. None of these restaurants were for the likes of us. We spent and hour in hopes of spotting a geisha, failed, and then went and got udon from a bright, steamy diner where it cost us $2.50.

But the second night, when we returned to our machiya, a traditional Japanese town house with paper thin walls, and futons laid out on tatami matt floors, we found a miracle: it was warm. The total lack of insulation in machiyas is a mystery I’m yet to understand. It is very hot in the summer, my friend Marty, who lived in a machiya while teaching English in rural Japan explained to me, so this kind of light weight breezy construction makes sense. But, I insisted, isn’t it also very cold in the winter? Yes, Marty admitted, it really is very cold in the winter. So…. wouldn’t insulation make sense? Marty sighed heavily, “when I lived here,” he told me forlornly, “my cooking oil froze and all my honey crystalized.” He reflected on the insulation situation for a bit, and then explained that there’s a kind of table that used to be filled with hot coals but is now electric, that you can sit near, or put your legs under at night. We thought about this set up for a little. “It really is,” Marty concluded, “totally miserable.”

So we did what Western jerks everywhere do: we ignored local custom and cranked the heat. For the first night it made no difference. I slept under four comforters and stumbled down the icy stairs five times to be sick. But even without my post-Tokyo withdrawal symptoms, everyone else was miserable too. Handily, futons are also really uncomfortable. Marty told us that after two weeks of sleeping on one, both his hips were bruised. It is worth noting here that Marty was in the room when we booked a machiya with futons.

******

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The second morning dawned cold and misty, but I had slept, our house was warm, and our fortunes were changed. I ate some rice. I didn’t throw it up. The day of miracles had begun.

I can’t write it all. I can’t begin to write it all. This is already long, and it’s mostly been whining. So I will give you this, instead, a few impressions of a city that, by the end of the day, had gone from The Worst Place Ever to Maybe Where I Need to Move.

Bright orange Torii gates marching up a mountain, one after another – they call them the thousand gates but there must be more. The forest around the gates is dark and misty, rain dripping through pine boughs and down to a mossy forest floor.  Against the dim woods, the gates look almost luminescent, winding into the wilderness. After the first kilometer or so the crowds thin out and Marty, Quynh and I are alone, in absolute silence. Every few hundred meters the gates break and there is a tumbling pile of shrines stretching up the mountain face, each mounded with tiny Torii gates covered in prayers. At the very top of the mountain a cat is standing on the shrine, drinking water from the offertory. As we climb back down a crumbling cement path, we see a cafe, with a single man inside. Outside, under a makeshift tent, a camp stove is boiling eggs. We duck in and sit on a low bench by a rotating portable heater. He brings the girls coffee from an espresso machine balanced on a folding table, and pours Marty green tea from a steaming pot balanced on a camp stove. We eat boiled eggs while the rain patters on the tin roof and streams down the windows. 

The part about the busses is true. They take forever. We give up on going to see an ancient zen rock garden of apparently outstanding beauty and unmatched historical and cultural importance and go to eat instead. This seems in line with my life priorities in general.

We walked through indoor malls of brightly lit shops selling animal onsies and bright paper stationary. We got lost, twice, and then found ourselves in the Nishiki Market, a long, covered street of stores – we bit into the heads of tiny octopuses, slick with teriyaki sauce and stuffed with hard boiled quails eggs, we touched spices to our tongues that lit our mouths on fire and ate balls of rice covered in minuscule dried fish. I went to get green tea icecream, then Marty did, then Quynh made us double back so she could, too. We had balls of steaming dough stuffed with fish, and dried black soybeans coated in candy. I drank a few cups of steaming green tea, feeling my hands thaw against the porcelain.

And then we dove back into side streets, dark alleys dotted with the picture windows of stores that arranged their wares just so – stark white interiors with architectural shards of fabric hanging from wires (I looked, I couldn’t even afford to look) used clothing stores up enticing stairways, porcelain stores and paper shops with hundreds of printed tapes and post cards. We went into a basement cafe full of french jazz and Japanese hipsters eating spaghetti and salads with chopsticks and drinking wine. We found a line of Japanese people, and hopped in. It turned out to be soba, served at a wooden bar by three chefs who worked in coordinated ballet to turn out huge steaming bowls of clear broth poured over a nest of noodles laced with strands of kelp, shreds of yuzu floating on the surface, and a half cooked egg whose dark orange yolk seeped into the soup.

We wandered the streets a bit more, past chic bars and dim restaurants, I made up a song called “everything is just amazing” and sang it, on a loop, for twenty minutes.  We finally caught a train back to our small machiya, crawled into our nests of comforters, and with full bellies, slept for our last night in Japan.

I left Tokyo exhausted, jittery, and sick. I had fallen head over heels and wasn’t particularly interested in finding a new love just yet. Not many places could bring me back – but I’ll say it again: Kyoto is not most places. 

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