"My name is Dragon. You're so cute."
It was on this particular day, in an Airbnb near to the Johannesburg airport, it occurred to me that I might be a strong contender for the title of world's preeminent dumbass. I woke up, bags packed, ready to head out when I was struck by a realization: I had failed to secure a visa for Vietnam, my intended destination. Without that visa, I wouldn't be able to enter the country.
As an American, I'm somewhat accustomed to presenting myself at the gates of a country and announcing, "I'm ready to come in now." A boy is then sent to collect my baggage, and I'm received in celebration as a hero of capitalist tourist bucks. I can show up pretty much anywhere on the globe and expect this sort of treatment. Vietnam is not one of those places. And while some countries will process an online visa application in a matter of minutes -- I once obtained an Australian visa between the time of my arrival at my airport of embarkation, having only then discovered one would be required, and the departure of my plane -- the one for Vietnam takes a least a couple days to process. Between the breathtaking heights of my smugness and my profound inability to accomplish even very simple tasks, I think my girlfriend, Haily, was pretty impressed.
Working within the available parameters, a plan was formulated posthaste. I would go to the airport, as originally intended, and smile real big at the airport attendant checking my papers. Perhaps I'd be able to pull off the subterfuge of slipping onto the plane without proper documentation. If I made it that far, I'd be able to deviate from my stated itinerary by stealing away during my layover into a country that would allow me in sans visa.
Owing both to the ingenuity of the strategy as well as my aptitude for covert action, the plan worked. I was on my way to Hong Kong.
And what a truly delightful thing it was to find myself on a flight to Asia. For in performance of my usual ritual at the outset of a flight of any significant length -- to scroll though every available in-flight movie, consider the potential merits of each at length, and mark the ones with promise for potential viewing over the next twelve hours -- I discovered a cinematic work that aroused in me a great deal of interest. It was a Chinese movie -- clearly a rip off of the lucrative Todd Phillips flick, the Hangover -- called "Girls versus Gangsters."
The film details the initiatives of three protagonists -- Xiwen, Jialan, and Kimmy -- young women from northern China of approximately marrying age, whom, having between intimates of long-standing though not always amicable relation, set off together to celebrate the impending nuptials of their friend, Jinjin. As is the standard motif in the genre, the action begins when, after a night of especially vigorous carousing, the trio awaken to discover that they have failed to maintain an account of the whereabouts of their compatriot. This sets (as they say in the script-writing business) a clock. For their misplaced friend is to be married in a matter of hours. The objective of the trio is to set off into the Vietnamese jungle -- the treacherous environs in which our heroes now find themselves -- in order to locate Jinjin and ensure her safe and timely return for the ceremony.
In the scene of crucial plot-thickening, the trio wake up on a beach. They are naked, though they remain semi-modestly buried under the sand. "Semi-modestly" because the sand around each of them has been sculpted to resemble a nude and voluptuous female form. Jialan and Kimmy -- whom we've learned are, if not quite full-on nemeses then engaged in rivalry -- are hand-cuffed to a heavy box, one on each handle. A familiar train of dialogue (though with the novelty of transpiring in Mandarin Chinese) follows.
"What happened last night?" asks Jialan.
"Where's Jinjin?" asks Xiwen. Having failed to provide an answer, she exclaims, "I lost Jinjin!"
"Xiwen," says Kimmys, "When did you get a tattoo?"
Covering themselves in banana leaves, à la Adam and Eve, the trio teeter through the jungle. At length, they come upon what is evidently a Korean café. Why there is a Korean café in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle is a question no one poses.
"Maybe there's a handsome Korean guy inside," says Kimmy, optimistically.
Then the audience is treated to a moment of pure movie magic. The girls hear a series of thunderous stomps. The camera pans from the ground up in slow motion. There are Jurassic Park style rumbles with each step. A nearby glass of water trembles. Eventually the camera reveals who has emerged in such dramatic flair from the Korean café. It's Mike Tyson. Shirtless.
Romantic music plays. Jialan stares at Mike, mouth agape. Mike bites his finger provocatively. He bites his lower lip. The jungle gets even steamier.
Abruptly, Kimmy interrupts the fantasy. In English, she says, "Excuse me, do you have any clothes you can lend?" In a clever turn of conversational redirection, Mike Tyson responds, "What happened to you?"
"We just woke up on the beach like this," says Kimmy.
"Listen," Mike relates sagely, "trust me. Shit Happens. And I know too well. Man, alcohol's hard to resist, right?"
"Hey, just come to my room with me," he offers. "I'll see what I can find for you girls to wear."
They enter Mike's room-slash-hut-slash-café. On the wall are pictures of Mike slugging people in the face. Also his belts.
Jialan: "You have got so many championships."
MT: "You like watching boxing? I'm half American, half Korean, and I won most of my fights in the US and Korea."
Jialan: "You are mixed?!"
MT: "Yes." (He isn't.)
"Do you speak Korean?" Jialan asks.
Mike replies, in Korean, "My name is Dragon. You're so cute."
"Thank you Dragon oppa," says Jialan, also in Korean.
Mike goes to peruse what sartorial options he might be able to offer the girls. There is, of course, a tiger in Mike Tyson's closet. The tiger's name, also of course, is Tony. MT dismisses Tony and the jungle cat never makes a reappearance.
As it turns out, Mike Tyson only stocks boxing trunks. No tops of any kind. Which he elucidates in the deft line "Nowhere. There's no top. I'm the topless king." The girls, having no other recourse, each hike up a pair of trunks to their chest, in a kind of MMA-fantasy romper.
"Wow, good looking ladies," remarks Mike, conveying a sentiment that is semantically, if not syntactically, clear. "Looking really good."
Then Mike turns to the problem of the box and chain. He can't break the chains, because his hands are weak after so much fighting. He mentions a friend who is a locksmith. We never meet this friend.
Remembering their mission, the girls take leave of Mike Tyson.
Jialan: "I'll be back soon."
MT: "Please. Please come back. Come back. I love you so."
At this point the movie begins to lose the thread of the plot. Or at least I didn't have the exegetic tools to keep up with what was going on. What I can tell you is, at length, and for reasons I failed to ascertain, Mike reenters the plot. While Jialan is otherwise occupied, he engages in a heartfelt conversation with Xiwen.
"You find your friend yet?" asks Mike. The answer is obviously no, as she isn't with them. Xiwen points this out. "Ah," he offers in consolation, "don't worry she'll be fine."
Mike hands her a bottle of green tea.
"Want a soda?" he asks. Mike evidently doesn't know what green tea is, despite being the proprietor of a Korean café in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. Xiwen nods assent.
Mike tries to open it. He can't. Weak hands.
Then in a bid of romantic endeavor, Mike asks Xiwen about Jialan's interests. The main thing is Korean dramas. A show called "Descendants of the Sun," in particular.
"She watched it four times," says Xiwen.
"I watched it five times," he says.
"Wow," says Xiwen. "Why?"
Then Mike Tyson spots Xiwen's tattoo and on that basis makes a diagnosis: "Vietnamese fiancé?" Xiwen is surprised at Mike's powers of inference, to have derived this fact on the basis of such scant evidence. He indicates toward the tattoo. "Now, though I'm not that good at my Vietnamese" -- why in Vietnam then, Mike? -- "it does appear to be Vietnamese."
Later on, the climax of the film begins when the girls find themselves critically imperiled, yet on the verge of reuniting with Jinjin. Heroically, MT emerges onto the scene. He is wearing military fatigues, in what is evidently an homage to a Korean drama, probably, I imagine, Descendants. There is a car chase scene. Then a Mike-Tyson-bursts-out-of-his-clothes-like-the-Hulk scene. Then a boat chase scene. Ultimately, Mike proves victorious over the nefarious forces that be (the "Gangsters" of the title, as it were). He sees the girls off as they make their way back for Jinjin's ceremony.
"Oh!" calls Mike to Jialan at the last second. "Can I have your WeChat number?"
In the denouement, we learn that (spoiler alert) Jialan breaks up with her boyfriend -- whom no one really liked anyway -- and ends up with Mike Tyson. It was with this perplexing and strangely enticing series of images seared into my mind that I found myself arriving on a new continent.
I would soon be landing in glorious, glorious Asia.
To arrive somewhere with fresh eyes is a special thing. It is enthralling to find oneself in a place one has never been. A sort of virginity, it is a moment that cannot be reclaimed. But there is also something about having been somewhere, left it, and finding oneself returning to the place one has been. It is to be received as an old friend. A recognition that, yes, some things are just as I left them. Yet some have changed, and I am unlikely to encounter them restored to their previous state in any medium save for memory. To return is to have an established relationship with a place, and to feel that relationship -- as is the nature of every relationship -- evolve with time's restless shifting.
It was this sense of returning that I felt upon landing in Hong Kong. It is a place I have found myself drawn back to over the years. The city -- the island, the culture, the harbor, the Chinese Special Administrative Region, whatever it may most accurately be called -- holds special meaning for me. In my first trip as a solo traveler to Asia, as a fresh college graduate, this was my first port of call. To me it will always symbolize a sort of gateway to this continent, which for the rest of my life will call me back to savor experiences new and old, to unexpected enlightenments and familiar joys. Not entirely unlike Istanbul on the opposite end, it is a juncture of East and West. It is a place I knew. It is also a place that, impressed somewhere deep within its eternal memory, knew me.
My first call was at my hostel. I had booked a single night there, confirming the transaction and shutting my laptop just as I was about to hop on the plane. Hostels in Hong Kong aren't as appealing as they tend to be elsewhere in Asia. In most Asian cities, hostels are a kind of minor resort for tourists, with ample room for beer pong, late night dance parties, and then, for the professionals, another round of beer pong. In Hong Kong, they are essentially just apartments with decently large square footage. A couple barracks rooms and a couple bathrooms. Several stories up. A check in counter maybe.
I had gotten into the airport around seven in the morning. I arrived at my hostel well before check-in. I made it nonetheless into my building, and when I finagled my way into the apartment door of the hostel I spied on the desk a number provided for early or late arrivals. I texted it, and a few minutes later a sleepy figure emerged through the doorway and reluctantly but mercifully set me up with a bed. The place seemed good enough, spare though it was. I liked the location, in the heart of Kowloon. Most crucially of all, it had solid air conditioning. I booked a spot there for my remaining nights.
Coated in the grime of long distance travel, I was eager to take a shower. This provided another reminder that I was now in Asia, though a slightly less welcomed one. Germane to these tightly packed Hong Kong hostels are the cramped showers. They are undifferentiated from the bathroom area as a whole. In space of about three skinny Chinese chaps, there is a toilet, a shower head, and a sink. Whatever business you intended to do, it can be done here -- though not always with an overabundance of grace. Almost immediately, I succeeded in getting myself wet, along with everything else in the restroom. I tried to spare the toilet paper, but to no avail.
Freshly laundered and eager to engage the city, I took leave of the hostel. It had been winter when I left Africa, having come from the southern hemisphere. Now I found myself in the sweltering Asian summer. It took me all of about thirty seconds after leaving the hostel to become comprehensively sticky in a coat of sweat. It took me another thirty seconds to become thoroughly confused by the sights and sounds of Hong Kong. (Actually not even that: a delivery guy had to help me negotiate the building's exit, as it required I pressed a button before leaving; it'd been a while since I'd been confronted with that technology.) Kowloon is intensely Chinese, in the overwhelming way that all Chinese things are intense to one unaccustomed to encountering them. Many of the city's façades are covered in bamboo labyrinths, which act as scaffolding for the not insignificant number of buildings under construction. Piled high, story upon story, are signs, banners, and advertisements, contending for attention. The mass of them are so aggressively seeking one's notice as to be almost indecipherable -- presumably, even if you speak the language -- like so many beggars hassling tourists in an urban corridor. I had become acclimated to the mellow pace of Africa. Being in Asia made me feel like Will Ferrell's elf in Time Square.
Time to get down to business. 10:30 in the morning. Five different breakfast establishments on my street. Each one of them full of patrons. All with pictures in the window of dishes I wouldn't normally associate with breakfast. The furthest one had a small queue, only one couple, and I took the wait to be a good sign. I saw they had pineapple buns, which is what I'd been hoping for. Then I spied an attractive dim sum stall across the street, where I could get my food for takeaway. I took a moment to contemplate the tantalizing prospect of dim sum. But then when I took another look at the queue for the other place I saw it had grown to a half dozen parties of Hong Kongers. I wasn't about to give up my spot.
At length I earned a seat in the restaurant. With Hong Kongers always having one eye on efficiency, I was seated at an otherwise full table top with three other mostly silent eaters. My first round was a p-bun and a cup of coffee. Contrary to its name, the traditional Hong Konger pineapple bun has no pineapple in it, but is basically just crusty white bread sprinkled with sugar. The top is dimpled in a manner resembling a pineapple, if one is willing to look at it with a certain level of generous imagination. It comes with a pat of butter, several times overgenerous. The coffee is what we typically think of in the West as Vietnamese coffee, which is basically coffee-flavored condensed milk. My serving was delivered to me approximately three and a half seconds after I ordered it. Promptly, I drank my coffee -- which proceeds from the cup at the rate of molasses -- and distributed p-bun detritus on my lap and the table before me. I ordered another round, and enjoyed my bun and coffee as the morning transitioned to midday. The restaurant was a flurry of constant activity. People waving over waiters. Parties coming and going. The bussing of plates. Even the lobsters seemed industrious. My colleagues-in-consumption stared fixedly at their phones. I stared at them. I was officially in Hong Kong.
As I had only really ingested sugar so far, I did go across the street for dim sum. I looked up at the cashier and contemplated my options. The cashier gave me a look that said, "For fuck's actual sake, please order something so we can get on with it." I picked something, then handed the cashier a fifty. I reached down to jingle around in my pocket for coins, but she had already produced my change before I could even retrieve the currency from my pocket. I took a seat on a nearby stoop to dive into my steam-emitting box of treats. It was only while biting into the first pan-friend dumpling of scalding broth and meaty goodness that I seriously injured myself. I consumed the second one unharmed, which I think implies that I'm something of a quick learner. As I enjoyed my dim sum, several questions occurred to me. How, for instance, did I manage to cover myself in sticky dumpling residue so quickly? The observation that I had somehow contrived to spread it all the way down to my ankle aroused in me a certain scientific curiosity. And why put the soup in the dumpling? Why not just put it in the bottom of the box where it invariably ends up anyway? Biting into one of those little suckers is like biting into an over-inflated balloon: it requires a level of pressure slightly beyond what you'd like to give, which you must achieve experimentally. Eventually, and always unexpectedly, it explodes in your face in dramatic fashion. It's lack gnawing on a frag grenade, but tastier.
I sat on the steps of a bank on Kowloon's main drag, Nathan Street, and watched Hong Kong go by. It occurred to me that I was the only person in the city who didn't have an urgent need to be somewhere. So when I finished my dumplings, I strided off, pretending that an important person in a high-up office somewhere was tapping their watch and expecting to receive the quarterly Wellington financials from me, like, yesterday. My striding, blessedly, took me to that beloved old haunt of mine. Nowhere in particular.
One of the enigmatic thrills of Hong Kong is that is one is dripped on by innumerable urban waterfalls fed by unseen tributaries. In a city of high rises rarely outfitted with central air conditioning, there are a practically infinite number of AC units to rain condensation on the heads of passersby. Chinese banyans line the urban thoroughfare of Nathan Street. These trees consist of many constituent tines, which seem to vie democratically for the direction in which the tree as a whole will grow. Further down past the banyans, the sidewalk is dotted with Indian gentlemen, who, upon identifying a white guy in their midst, thrust a business card in his direction, promising bespoke suits and shirts at a "very good price for you, my friend." An industrious segment of them quietly offer intelligence about where to purchase weed -- more likely oregano -- from undisclosed suppliers. The jewelry shops are innumerable. Every single person seems to be wheeling around a suitcase. Where they're all going, I have no idea. I thought about making my way down to the waterfront to the harbor, which is the best part of urban Hong Kong, maybe the best part of the urban world. But I decided to wait to savor it until sundown. It is after nightfall that one see's the true glory of the fragrant harbor from which Hong Kong takes its name.
Given that my circadian rhythm was still on Africa time, I was ready for a respite in the AC. Maybe also to grab my suitcase before I head out again. I retired to my hostel and settled in for a world class Africa-Asia nap.
3. In the evening, I entered the metro station at Tsim Sha Tsui. Of a sudden, I was engulfed in a squall of Hong Kongers, more being pushed and pulled by human current than coherently moving in any direction. (One doesn't necessarily walk the streets of Hong Kong so much as negotiate them.) I was fortunate to find a break in the current long enough to swim my way over to an "Add Value Machine," so I could re-up on transport funds. Experimentally, I put my Octopus card in the slot and began to work my way through the labyrinth of available options. Though I had been the only one at the machine moments ago, I was now the lead of a queue. Then a voice came from behind me.
"What are you doing?" said the woman.
Oh, I wondered, am I not doing it right? I retrieved my card from the machine and inquired as to what course of action I might otherwise take. She grabbed my card, shoved it back in the slot, and tapped away on the screen.
"See?" she said.
Having elucidated this gambit, she proceeded to snatch a fifty from my money clip and feed it into the machine. That wasn't necessarily what I had intended to do. It wasn't necessarily against my wishes either. I just hadn't planned that far ahead yet. I withdrew my money clip before she could donate more of my cash to my Octopus fund.
"That's great," I said. "Thanks." She handed me my card back, and I immersed myself once again in the convective swirl of human activity, praying that it swept me toward the appropriate subway line. Whereas Kowloon is a world built on the capital of traditional China, Hong Kong Island is devoted to the monetary capital of the Chinese nouveau riche. On opposite sides of the harbor, these are the two main hustle-and-bustle areas of Hong Kong. They provide a compelling juxtaposition. It's not that one is devoid of tradition and the other is not. But while Kowloon holds up its aging buildings with massive latticeworks of bamboo, the Island side's central district has no need for such erections, with its rows of Gucci, Patek, Hublot, and their ilk. This is the part of the city designed to satisfy the seemingly infinite capacity for Chinese consumption of the gaudiest and most expensive trimmings of Western culture.
My first call of the night was at a cocktail venue, The Quinary, notable for a drink they call the Earl Grey caviar martini. On the menu, it's described as vodka, elderflower, "Earl Grey caviar and air." What the "air" refers to is essentially Earl Grey bubble bath piled high atop the martini glass. It's a non-standard ingredient, and so it wasn't immediately apparent to me how such an ingredient was intended to be consumed. I sucked in a breath-full (as one is wont to do with air), which was so aggressively flavorful as to inspire a brief but enthusiastic coughing fit that all but blew off the top of my martini in the manner of the Big Bad Wolf. The "caviar," I was delighted to find, consisted in a small deposit of Earl Grey mini popping boba at the bottom of the glass. Popping boba -- which are marbled-sized saccharine capsules of flavor that can usually be ordered as accoutrement in one's bubble tea -- are, in my opinion, a most underutilized cocktail ingredient. Taking a look through the rest of the menu, I inquired about the nature of their wasabi-infused vodka. The barkeep embarked on a lengthy discourse on its origins and constitution, then offered me a taste. I believe she was under the impression that I was a cocktail critic of some note, because I was there early in the evening, making technical inquiries, sitting on my own, and jotting down my reflections. I was then treated to a sample of their marshmallow vodka. It came in a miniature Coke bottle, filled with what is pretty much an alcoholic version of the marshmallow fluff that one can buy in a jar. It was delightful. The good news for The Quinary is that my review is two thumbs up; the bad news is that I'm not actually a cocktail critic.
The bartender who had offered me the gratis drinks introduced herself as Shao Li. It being too early in the evening for the crowds to roll in, she occupied her time by chatting with me and engaging in the repetitive activity of relocating a tincture from a large glass to a smaller one with an eye dropper. She performed this activity for about thirty minutes, conveniently located at a station adjacent to where I sat. In my mind, I knew it was a ploy to be in my presence in order to drum up conversation with me. Not to mention that it was a thinly veiled metaphor for coitus. Alas, I was too poor to afford another drink at this bar, even a free one. Our dialogue winding down, I agreed to come see her when I next visited HK. She waved as I walked out. As soon as I did I realized I was still wearing the jeans I had changed into so as not to look like a schmuck at a cool bar. I considered whether I should go back in, change in the restroom, and reveal myself to be not only a schmuck but an absent minded one at that. Not at chance. I chose to remain sticky and uncomfortable. Sometimes the moral victories are the hardest to endure. Fortified by the heady assurance that a sizable number of our planet's women have an undisclosed desire to sleep with me, I made my way to a spot of familiar joy. An alleyway carved into the crowded hillside of the Island's commercial zone. There one can find kind all the artifacts necessary for happiness. Steaming woks of amalgamated flavors and spices. Tiny red plastic stools. Sweating bottles of cold everyman's lager. Making my way through, I inspected the dishes of each patron until I found one I liked, and put in an order for "that one" at the appropriate stall. The lady indicated that it was "pork rib in salt and pepper." Which wasn't my interpretation of what I saw, but I was willing to go with it. Much to my chagrin, I could not afford a Tsingtao ("Ching Bao") beer to go with it since I only had enough cash for the meal. Soon enough, the dish came, which presented me with an occasion to consider the conventions for anglicization of Chinese cuisine. "Pork rib in salt and pepper" neglects to disclose, at the very least, the presence of chilis. At any rate, I was happy. Next I called at 7/11 for reunion with my old friend, Pocari Sweat. Pocari Sweat is a glorious beverage, a milky white electrolyte drink with a crisp, Columbia blue label. The stated marketing pitch of the company is that it "resembles" the body's "natural fluids." I don't know if the company's executive board has ever seen sweat before, but it isn't the bodily fluid that is most directly imitated by a milky white solution. Setting aside any discussion of its actual merits, the drink reminds me of my first time in Asia.
At this point in the evening, I was overcome with a desire to go back to the Quinary to see if Shao Li was still there. It was nice evening. I wished I had someone to share it with. Perhaps she was about to get off from work and wanted to go out for a beer. Alas, just because one is inclined toward creepy and deranged thoughts does not mean one is required to act on them. So I didn't. Instead I took the Central-Mid-Levels -- which has the distinction of being the world's longest outdoor escalator promenade -- up until the hillside of Hong Kong Island becomes residential and sleepy rather than bustling and studded with hip restaurants. Then I descended further until it was again commercial and posh. I was quite lonely by the time I got to the bottom of the hill. I thought of the insight Chris McCandless jotted down before perishing, alone and unkempt, in the Alaskan wilderness. "Happiness only real when shared." Hoping to inspire a rebound in my spirits, I headed toward the Hong Kong harbor ferry. This is what I'd most been looking forward to since stepping foot in Hong Kong. The harbor is truly a magnificent sight. Viewed from the Kowloon side looking toward Hong Kong Island, the commercial high rises put on an epic display of urban lights against the backdrop of the world's most delicious hillside. Beholding this sight is like conducting an orchestra. It is the feeling of watching something so splendid and so tremendous unfold before your eyes. Each section performs its own part, while inexplicably remaining concerted with the rest. Taking the ferry across, I squished into a corner of the boat, on the upper deck with about 100,000 Hong Kongers. They were all carrying on in conversation and not, I couldn't help but feel, at a whisper, either. Disembarking from the ship, I covered the waterfront. My hope at this point was to repair to a dreary pub where I'd sit alone at the bar and the man behind the counter would tersely serve me an ice cold Tsingtao. I searched for a while in the streets of Kowloon. No dice. So I settled for a bubble tea and retired for the evening. Before doing so I was presented with the evening's final joy. I went to the ATM to withdraw some currency. The transaction ended with the directive, "Please take advice." It means 'receipt.'
As our double-decker bus made the bend, the top of it seemed to lean into the oncoming lane. It put me in mind of the bus scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which darts through the road with such belligerent haste as to imperil the story's hero. Or at least it would have, if I wasn't scared for my life. Sitting on the upper deck, I was confident in my assessment that the bus was actually tipping across the other lane of traffic and over the sheer cliff on the other side. I swear I could see down to the bottom of the gulley below. It was a hot day. The air was solid with humidity. Not entirely unlike trying to breathe Earl Grey air, actually. It was the kind of hot that would be of interest to scientists hoping to induce a chemical reaction or a breakfast-enthusiast attempting to fry an egg. I was going hiking. That is, if I didn't succumb to the driver's psychopathology first.
Hong Kong is actually famous for having some of the world's greatest hiking trails. Or at least they're good ones. I'd heard they were world-class. But it's not immediately clear to me what would so distinguish one hiking trial from another in any objective sense like that. At any rate, I was to tackle the fabled trail known as the Dragon's Back.
That was my plan. It was also the plan of a non-negligible number of Chinese tourists. The bus screeched to a halt at a nondescript location where there appeared to be an opening in the otherwise impenetrable thicket of brush lining the roadside. The driver called for Dragon's Back. I alighted along with a good deal of the rest of the bus. I was eager to get out ahead of them, so as not to be caught in a traffic jam. Mercifully the open stretches of the trail were partially covered. I followed the rascally meandering dirt road lined with brush. Slight uphill. Even with a healthy shade, I was drenched in sweat by minute fifteen.
Shortly, I came to the kind of staircase one climbs in a movie to reach an ancient master of an esoteric martial art. Thin wooden steps, rising approximately forever into a thin cloud cover. The top of the hill became apparent only at the culmination of the steps. Or at least the local maximum. The ridge fell and rose with a consistent periodicity, rather like a dragon's back, as it were, or at least the scrawny, undulatory Chinese conception of the creature. I emerged into a cleared hill top, which became a punishing landscape without recourse to the cover of flora. It did, however, unveil a spectacular view. Before me was a glittering sea of Hong Kong's islands. Situated on a peninsula was a scattering of urban settlements. My sweat was thick and dense. I took a polaroid.
As a consequence of my dillydallying, I became intermingled with pack of young Asian women. One had on a miniature Marc Jacobs backpack and a flannel, like it was the first day of 8th grade and not a death march through HK jungle mountains. I felt that demonstrated a lack of respect. From the apex of the ridge I felt that I could reach up and touch the sun, hot as it was. I was perspiring about a liter per minute by now. In the distance the sea continued to sparkle and the ridge to undulate. The islands gave the appearance of an old Chinese painting, depicted in geometric rather than linear projection. The lot of them proceed towards heaven rather than into the distance. I jetted past the Asian girls. Reaching the crest of another notch in the dragon's back, I could see freight headed for Hong Kong harbor. Azure water. Gum-drop islands. Glimpses of far-off settlements. Other islands could never be so verdant, or have such perfectly sculpted mounds or sit in such a blessed, glittering sea, or periodically expose the brilliant high-rises off in the distance. I was in a watercolor painting. It was unfairly beautiful.
Taking creative measures to deal with the heat situation, I took off my synthetic shirt and put it under my baseball cap so it draped over the back of my neck. I put on a tank top in order to retain a semblance of decency. I looked like an asshole. But I didn't care. The shirt was cool and damp and protected my delicate skin from the sun. Relinquishing into mercy, the trail dove into a cover of eucalyptus trees. Using this respite into coolness to reapply my eighteenth round of sunscreen for the morning, I was overtaken by a white man forty years my senior. I heard him pass the Western couple behind me. He greeted them, "Pretty warm, eh?" The man was tan and spry, obviously a retiree. Also obviously a hiking enthusiast, the kind that having a job doesn't allow for. As he zoomed past me he gave me his signature "Pretty warm, eh?" I nodded. I looked like a sea monster, one who required constant moisture or will otherwise shrivel and expire. He looked prepared to take the trail. He didn't have a shirt draped over shoulders like a jackass.
Dragon's Back Log, 11:00 AM. Supplies check: Water, two-thirds gone. Sunscreen, running on empty. Position, maybe a third of the way through the trail. Only one party member remains alive.
I passed a couple going the other way. I greeted them with a "Pretty warm, eh?" They agreed, then shot one another a look to suggest that they may have missed a key memo on standard greetings while hiking in Hong Kong.
Soon enough I came upon a creek, which ran through the trail. A Chinese couple had stopped to dip towels in the water for placement under their hats. They didn't look like dumbasses. They looked like geniuses. It occurred to me that this was probably an obvious thing to do for anyone who had ever been on a hike before. I scurried by, not wanting them to think that it was their ingenuity which gave me the idea. Fortunately, I soon came to another creek. I removed my head dress to douse it. I wanted to remove all of my clothes and submerse myself in the fresh, clear water. But I thought better of it, given that my retiree friend was also refreshing himself in the running water.
I decided not to linger, so I could get a head start on him. Alarmed by my sudden progress, he put his cap back on and gave chase. To his credit, I doubt he had come all the way to Hong Kong to be bested by some punk kid with a shirt on his head. He soon overtook me without a word. There was nothing I could do about it. It was evident that he had no intention of taking names. He was only here to kick ass.
The trail swung onto the backside of the mountain, under the merciful cover of foliage, safe from the sizzle of the open sky. I was happy to trade temporarily the glories of the sea and islands for protection from being broiled alive by what at this point seemed the unnecessarily proximal star at the center of our solar system. Now rather acquainted with the trail's flora, I started the notice the fauna. There was a spider the size of Papua New Guinea. Its legs were longer than mine. It looked like it could snatch a bird from the sky, like a baseball player straining to catch a ball at the top of an outfield fence. Only instead of a baseball, it would be a robin or a small eagle. Eminently creeped out, I scuttled onward. I added this spider to my list of concerns, which at that point contained looking like a foolishly novice hiker, sunburn, dehydration, and tigers. If you were on this trial, I think you'd be concerned with each of these as well.
At length, I reached a juncture at the bottom of a slope. I saw the retired man inspecting a map. When he noticed my approach he took off. I followed his course. There were signs for "big wave beach." Periodically, he checked behind him to make sure I was in his wake. We were on a paved road now. I dodged back and forth in the lane to remain under shade cast by surrounding foliage. I stopped at another look-out point. I could see several communities of high-rises, erected in uniform pylons. They were so tightly packed and similarly constructed that they looked like the spiky erections of iron dust when a magnet coaxes it skyward. As we made our way closer to the beach, I saw the retiree split off on a more direct route. Neither wanting to deliver the blow of whooping his ass in the final stretch nor to let him have the satisfaction of whooping mine, I continued on my present path which would descend with unhurried leisure toward the bottom.
Then the beach came into sight. In a flash of sudden insight, I understood the objective measure of a world-class hiking trail. To have all that previous wandering be rewarded with this? Just perfect. The hill from which I was descending swaddled the beach in a lush wrapping of vegetation. In some mirror image of the circles of hell, it formed a concentric ring of utopian vision. At the heart was the bay, ensconced in the Platonic ideal of white-sand beach, opening up into the luxuriant hillside. The name "big wave" less described the largeness of the surf at this particular beach as much as the smallness of surf in these parts generally. I took off my hood so as not to gave myself away as a schlub, in case I ran into Shao Li on the beach. Only having breached noon, the beach was still uncrowded. Maybe a dozen or so families. It felt like my own little share of real estate in Hong Kong heaven. When I turned the corner from path to beach, the sea was spread out before me as it faded from cloudy and sandy to idyllic cerulean. It was spangled with the same intensity as the view above, though now I could reach out and touch it. The water was warm, like a tepid bath. I waded in and immersed myself in the the strip of infinite blue. As the beach began to fill up, I noticed there were, in my estimation, entirely too many families and not enough bikini-clad women. I did not, for the record, encounter Shao Li.
In the water I roamed like a wild animal, with no pattern to govern my behavior. Sometimes floating, sometimes swimming; sometimes shallow, sometimes deep. Never with any particular destination in mind. The only sounds were those of the happy children and the waves languishing along the shore. Intermittently, there was the gentle awk and splonk of the neophyte standup paddle boarder capsizing.
After about an hour of grazing in knee deep water, I reemerged from the water and repaired, still wet, to the beach café where I acquired a well-earned Dragon's Back pale ale. While enjoying my beer I spotted a couple long-sought bikini girls from afar. I finished my beer and reequipped myself to go back in the water. Upon entering I realized it was a false alarm -- a mirage of sorts -- and dripped out of the water, this time to enjoy a Big Wave IPA. As soon as I did, the girls came back. I swear.
Satisfied with my experience in the out-of-doors, I headed toward the nearby lot where a van waited to take beach patrons back to civilization. On my way I acquired a mango popsicle. Then I spotted a sign that promised "Ancient rock carvings - 330 m." I debated momentarily whether this was worth extending my time in nature. I decided to go back home. Who gives a shit about rock carvings anyway? I boarded the van to take me back. Waiting for the vehicle to fill up, I saw another sign. "Ancient rock carving - 500 m." I pretended not to notice, failing to fool anyone involved in the situation. It was then I remembered who gives a shit about rock carvings. I do. Fuck it. I got off the bus, put on my headdress, and went back toward the beach in search of rock carvings.
Eventually, I found them. Doubling back on my previous recollection, I now remembered why no one else gives a shit about rock carvings. The delta between rocks and rocks with ancient carvings in them is not, as it turns out, that great. The saving grace of the endeavor was that I did, on my way back to the van, acquire another mango popsicle.
Taxi hour. The time in the middle of the night when the streets are devoid of all vehicles save for a trickle of black and yellow cabs. Some zip by on their way to the airport. Some return a pair of lovers to wherever it is they plan to spend the remaining hours of the night. Some just idle on the side of the road, killing time until called into action. One night I couldn't sleep and so found myself on the streets of Hong Kong, the lone soul wandering the streets in human form.
My time in Hong Kong was coming to a close. Visa issues sorted, I would soon be reunited with Haily. I had loved my excursion to Hong Kong. But I had also missed Haily. In case you couldn't tell, a part of me longed for a companion to enjoy it with. Happiness only real when shared.
And so we would be together again soon -- elsewhere in Asia. We continued as we had before, in our summer devoted to going places and seeing things. Her family in Vietnam. Taking the train though Java. Bali. Friends and family in Singapore. There are stories to tell from those adventures, too. But I will leave them out of this collection, to allow them to remain as stories that belong only to us.
The final episodes in the season take place at another time, in another season of the year and another season of life. They skip sideways along the Asian continent, to a portion of South East Asia on the same latitude as Hong Kong. The Buddhist stronghold of dark political history, still processing its own militant reaction to a colonial past. South East Asia's largest country by land area, but one of its smallest in terms of tourist figures. A place that I fell in love with from the moment I first stepped a dusty sandal on its soil. The final destination of the first season of Notes from the Field: Myanmar.