Our plan was to go around Southeast Asia by land, but you know what they say about plans. We ended up taking a couple of hops on Vietnam Airlines. The number one reason was that a friend of ours lives in Hong Kong, and invited us to stay. I’ve always wanted to visit Hong Kong, particularly as we know someone living there, and it seemed unlikely that we would ever be “passing by” nearer than north Vietnam.
Hong Kong represented a stepping back. From our travels in southeast Asia and into a world that was more familiar. As strange as it sounds, Hong Kong seems as British as it is Chinese, not least because we were visiting Watty, whom we’ve met up with when she lived in London. There were English place names, English stores, and English prices!
So while we were traveling to Hong Kong and back, I thought a lot about the contrasts with what we’ve been doing for the past six months. It’s too early for me to write about Vietnam, because I haven’t made up my mind about the country yet. In fact, part of this stepping back has been me examining my reactions to certain things, feelings that have sometimes surprised me.
Did you ever spend months at a time not seeing a single familiar place or anyone you knew, not even a passing acquaintance, except for one other person? It isn’t natural. T. and I adore each other, but come on. There have been plenty of challenging days and I haven’t really written about that, which is fine. We have gotten better about handling this particular kind of stress. But I want to acknowledge it at least, because otherwise, it might sound as if we’ve been on one endless vacation.
Having a “holiday” in Hong Kong, seeing a familiar face, just emphasized this for me. Our local friend showed us around and took all the work out of it. I know how ridiculous it sounds to call traveling “work,” but there are aspects of other countries that I don’t like, or that clash with my values. Of course, no one wants to see pictures of litter, disregard for animal welfare, social control, or corruption! So I’m balancing the picture I paint here with photographs of Hong Kong, a place I loved.
|Watty's map of where we went to in Hong Kong|
When you’re in a culture, you have to understand the reasons things are the way they are, and whether you can affect the system or not. A mild example from my own culture is tipping. In North America, unlike in the rest of the world, tipping wait staff is mandatory. They are taxed on the basis that they receive a standard percentage tip, whether customers give them those tips or not; and as I understand it, their employers don't even have to pay minimum wage. This changes the meaning of “tips,” which people around the world understand to mean a voluntary extra payment to reward especially good service. The problem is that if you visit North America, it’s not fair to register your protest at this system—ridiculous though it is—by failing to tip individual servers properly, because it is not their fault.
|Cantonese restaurant full of locals. Thanks for ordering, Watty!|
So I think back to the occasion in Tanzania when we were stopped and searched at gunpoint by military personnel. I still feel detached from that experience, even though it is over and I should be feeling outrage—having done nothing wrong and not being given any explanation. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really feel that I was in danger, or felt that my behavior would ensure I wasn’t in danger. But I think it’s really because I am not a citizen of Tanzania and for all I know, Tanzanians are stopped and searched like this all the time. Certainly, constant police checkpoints are a fact of life there. Mostly they don’t affect visitors; they affect drivers, who have to pay a “tax.” I think I’m not outraged because I was just visiting the way Tanzanians live.
|Victoria Harbour from "the Peak" viewpoint. The depth of the harbor contributed to Hong Kong's importance in international trade, when it was a British colony and still today.|
It is much less dramatic when, driving near the U.S. border with Mexico, we’re required to stop and asked questions about our citizenship. But that I find outrageous! Why? Because I am a U.S. citizen driving near—but not crossing—an international border, and damned if I’m going to carry my “papers” around in my own country. I have never actually had to produce proof of my citizenship, but isn’t that likely to be a privilege of how I look, or sound, or what my name is?
|I'd had no idea there were so many walking trails in Hong Kong. 3/4 of it is countryside!|
My being stopped and searched in Tanzania was a one-time thing (I hope). There are young African-American men who are repeatedly stopped, and even endangered, perhaps because some other young black man has been reported to have done something, or for even less of a reason. And I know that during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland many ordinary citizens were hassled in this way, by police or the armed forces. I know what they were looking for; the fact remains that for these ordinary citizens, not wrongdoers, it’s not only unjust, but it affects the community’s relationship with the force, which becomes antagonistic rather than there to help people.
|Northern Chinese for lunch today. Yum!|
So the fact that the Tanzanian soldiers might have been conducting an exercise, or might really have been looking for something or someone, does not excuse them. They were treating ordinary people unfairly, and we let them, because they could. If I’m stopped and searched, or asked for a bribe, it’s a one-off for me, just an annoyance in a country I will soon leave. But for whole populations, and citizens in our own countries, this type of unfairness is an everyday hassle, not a novelty at all.
|Cruising the harbor over to the Kowloon side. The Kowloon peninsula is still part of the "Special Administrative Region" of Hong Kong, but we can now say we went to the mainland of China.|
Another thing that is significantly different in other countries is the expectation of safety. In Laos, for instance, nearly everyone rides motorbikes, sometimes with their whole family aboard, and rarely with anyone wearing a helmet. We constantly saw children, babies, and adults in all sorts of combinations zooming through traffic, where one slip or bump in the road could wipe out an entire family. Probably the most outrageous of countless examples was the mom who had a baby strapped to her back, facing backwards, and a child facing forwards behind the baby. While she drove, they were playing pat-a-cake!
I understand that mopeds are what Laotians can afford and that this is their culture, but that doesn't make it any safer. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the safety of these children. All we can do for our own is walk very carefully, and avoid ever getting on a motorcycle ourselves.
|Dragon boats, village of Sai Kung, New Territories. The "New Territories" are the parts of Hong Kong that were built, or rather occupied, later.|
It was such a relief to walk around Hong Kong, because we had just flown from Hanoi. I have really never seen anything like driving in Vietnam, especially its capital. Traffic is mostly motorbikes and they go wherever they want to. I mean as many abreast as is physically possible; I mean the wrong way down a one-way street or a “lane”; I mean on the sidewalk if they feel like it. Might means right. The smaller vehicle yields to the bigger, and pedestrians have no rights. In fact, we have no sidewalks, because if they’re not actually being driven on, they’re full of parked motorbikes.
|Yet another delicious meal--family-style restaurant that hasn't changed in our friend's memory|
Of course, there is a system, another one I can do nothing about. As much as I hate it, the system is that you just keep walking. They all seem to be driving straight at you, but they aren’t. They’re driving around you, and if you just keep walking, around you they will go. There’s also zero margin for error, so heaven forbid you should slip, trip, or lose your balance. On one occasion T. actually had to help a motorcyclist up who’d lost his!
Here again, I don’t like this and I don’t think it’s safe, but I’m just visiting the way Vietnamese people live. I didn’t want to stay in Hanoi, nor did I have to. That’s another of my many privileges.
|The cable car that goes on forever, Lantau Island|
At the end of the day, though, I think that travel makes me realize how much people have in common. As T. said back in Hungary: “People all over the world hold a baby the same.” At least for me, I'm more idealistic the more I see of the world, not less. Sitting at home with the TV (fun as I remember that being) can make you worry about all the bad things that happen in the world. Traveling among so many people makes me aware of how many of them are nice, and how things go right most of the time.
|Triple Lanterns Cafe, Tai O. Photo by Watty|