Redefining “city” in Hong Kong

Those of you that know me well know that I am not much of a city girl. I grew up in the tiny town of Jamaica, Iowa (pop. 200), then moved to the thriving metropolis of Wodoward (pop. 1,200) at the age of 11. My favorite city in the whole wide wide world is Des Moines. So when the Keshkas invited us to go to Hong Kong, one of the largest cities in Asia, I was hesitant. It’s not really my cup of tea. I prefer the outdoorsy and cultural destinations, not the fast pace of a city. Still, I said this adventure in overseas life was all about pushing my boundaries and being open-minded, so off to Hong Kong we flew, not two days after returning from the States.

Danette’s friends, Joe and Tammy, have lived in Hong Kong for a few years and graciously offered to let us stay with them, which saved us a great deal of money, and I consider the two of them to be the difference between me loving and hating the city. Both are enthusiastic foodies, adventurous hikers, and familiar with their home.

Our journey from the airport into Hong Kong was like no trip I’d ever taken before. To use public transportation, we had to have Octopus Cards. They’re sort of like a debit card. You load them with Hong Kong dollars and scan them at the terminals in the subway stations and on the busses. The system is very convenient; I wish Manila would do this! We got into HK from the airport a lot quicker than we thought we would, so we had a little time to kill and decided to tour the city via a two-tiered bus. The sun was brutally hot, but the tour was interesting and gave us a much better idea of the layout of the city.

The tour was a great way to experience the hectic city pace without being immersed (drowned) in it. We gawked at expensive cars and fashionable pedestrians as we listened to the history of Hong Kong on our headsets – cheesy tourism at its finest! My favorite aspect of the bus ride was looking at all the buildings, seeing modern architecture mixed with worn neon signs and bamboo scaffolding. The juxtaposition of old and new made the city feel more authentic than I expected.

After our bus tour of the city, we met Joe for lunch. He led us on a winding trip through a vegetable market, a flower market, and under an overpass where several pop-up restaurants were located. We took a seat on plastic stools surrounding a flimsy card table and exchanged nervous glances while Joe ordered in Cantonese. One sip of the beef and noodle soup and all doubts were forgotten. I immediately began to appreciate having guides who knew their way around the city. We never would’ve found this place. Nor would we have been willing to try it without Joe’s reassurances. I was too enamored with our surroundings and flavors to even think about taking pictures.

After saying good-bye to Joe and dropping our bags off at the apartment, we set out to get some better views of the city from the top of Victoria Peak. This was where my definition of “city” was challenged. I’d always thought of cities as concrete jungles where people hurry by one another without acknowledging life outside their smart phones, and thus far Hong Kng had confirmed those thoughts. It was incredibly crowded and everything seemed hurried – even the escalators moved at warp speed and required serious focus to ride. But once we dumped our bags and could move more freely, I started to enjoy the city a lot more. Without the burden of luggage, I could people watch and gawk at the buildings. But the most surprising part of HK was what we saw from the peak: GREEN. Lots and lots of green. Hong Kong is a rarity. There are millions and millions of people occupying a very small space, while the rest of the surrounding area is dense greenery, perfect for hiking and very scenic. The views were breathtaking, and my impression of city life shifted ever so slightly, seeing so much room to run and play, right around a major city. Instead of the city destroying the greenery in pursuit of growth and commerce, it seemed the opposite; the green space was pushing back, confining the city.

That night we had dinner at a cafeteria-style restaurant. That atmosphere was reminiscent of a high school cafeteria… if high school cafeterias served copious amounts of alcohol and were frequented by well dressed businessmen.

Aside from sampling a wide array of dishes (everything from pig intestine soup to razor clams to pork knuckle), we were all challenged to open a bottle of beer with a chopstick. I failed miserably and ended up with a bruised palm, but Jeff, Brandon, and Danette were naturals! Caps popped loudly, flying across the room – one even hit a man in the cheek! No one seemed to care. This was not the kind of restaurant for manners and polite behavior. Our first dinner in Hong Kong was an experience more than a meal. In a way, it summarized what Hong Kong was to me: a city, of course, but not a city with the pretences and attitudes of other cities. So far, Hong Kong was breaking all the rules.

Our second day we woke up to heavy rain. We planned to go for a hike early but were delayed until the heavy downpour stopped. Well aware that we would probably get dumped on, we set out to hike Dragon’s Back, one of the highest ranked urban hikes in the world.

The landscapes were lush and hilly, but at each summit we were greeted by gorgeous views of far-reaching greenery and cityscapes. We passed numerous hikers and runners – city people who could easily access all the trails any time they wanted.

Not an hour into our hike, it started raining, but no one really minded; it was better than the brutal heat of the day before. We laughed through it and continued on. I was acting under the false assumption that any “urban” hike would be easy and short. Four hours later, we emerged from the path, exhausted and famished. Hong Kong had humbled me once again.

That night, Tammy and Joe took us to a restaurant known for dumplings. We had several varieties which were all delicious, but my favorite dish was glass noodles with a peanut butter sauce. Tammy and Joe ordered multiple dishes at every restaurant we ate at, and we would all sample each plate. This has changed my travel eating style for the better. Never again will I order a plate of food in a foreign country and keep it all to myself. Sharing so many dishes gave us a much better idea of the city’s cuisine. Plus, no one got stuck taking a risk and hating their meal. Not that there was any chance of hating food; it was all so good. Even if I’d hated everything else about HK, I’d still be forced to give it a 5-star ranking based on the food alone.

We slept well that night, our bellies full of dumpling goodness.

On our last day in the city, Joe took us to the Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world, on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton. Drinks were absurdly expensive, but we were mostly their for the views.

The rest of our day was spent walking around the city, taking in a few sites and visiting two markets where we bought a few souvenirs and gifts, and shopping.

Our feet were screaming by the time we made it back to Joe and Tammy’s. As we walked around, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky we were to have our local guides. While the four of us wouldn’t have hesitated to venture out on our own, without Joe and Tammy, we would’ve gotten lost and wasted tons of time trying to navigate. They were invaluable assets in our Hong Kong experience.

After our day of walking, we showered and headed down the street for a last Hong Kong meal at Joe’s favorite local noodle shop. I’d like to say that by this time I was a pro with the chopsticks (forks? In Hong Kong?! Forget about it.), but that would be a bold-faced lie. While I no longer stared at them like foreign objects, I still didn’t have the dexterity that most three year olds did. At least it was a fun challenge, and it kept me from over-eating… most of the time.

This restaurant served the same beef noodle dish as the first “restaurant” we had visited. To Joe’s astonishment, we all agreed that the hole-in-the-wall place under the overpass was better. Apparently we’ve got some work to do with our HK palates.

It’s safe to say that my negative assumptions about Hong Kong were all wrong. Sure, it’s a city and it’s crowded, but so many of the things I expected were inaccurate and unfair. I’m still not a city girl, but then, Hong Kong isn’t your average city. And maybe every city has a little personality when you see it the right way. I recommend a local guide and a longer trip. If there was one thing I regretted, it was not having enough time to see and do all that HK had to offer. Between now and the next trip I’ll have to work on my chopstick skills.

Year 2, here we come!

Jeff and I had an AMAZING time back in Iowa, putting over 4,000 miles on my car driving around to see everyone we could. Of course, it wasn’t enough time, so leaving was bittersweet. But we couldn’t wait to get back to our dog and see our new place! Our flights went well – on time and what not. We left Monday at noon and arrived Wednesday at 12:05 AM (13 hour time change). Losing half a day was pretty rough.

We arrived in Subic around 3 AM, dropped off our bags at our new home, and marched down the street to wake up the Keshkas and be reunited with Ringo. His reaction was about what we expected: a lot of whining/whimpering and about 10 minutes of going back and forth between Jeff and I, butting his head into our legs, as if to say, “Is it really you? Are you really back? I thought I’d never see you again!” We can’t thank the Keshkas enough for watching him all summer. My mind was at ease knowing he was with them, getting constant Facebook updates from Danette. These two should start their own dog-sitting business.

Our new place/neighborhood is pretty amazing. We now live about a 10-minute walk from the school in a Japanese retirement community called Tropical Paradise Village. A lot of other teachers live here as well. It’s nice because there is a large maintenance staff and they take care of everything very efficiently. We had a tree down in our tiny back yard after the typhoon, and they had it out in just a few days. We didn’t like the furniture provided, so they switched it pronto. Light bulbs are replaced within 5 minutes of making a request, and they came on Friday to convert several of our 220 outlets to 110. They have been AMAZING.

The house is better for us because it’s newer and our living area is on the ground floor – great for Ringo who has a bladder the size of a pea. We also have a lot more privacy here.

The house has 4 bathrooms, but only one full bath. There’s a 1/2 in the master, a 1/2 downstairs, and a 1/2 in the laundry room (maid’s quarters). There’s also tons of storage – closets everywhere!

But by far the best part is the master bedroom closet: not one, but TWO walk-in closets!!! I called dibs on this room right away.

We also have 3 bedrooms, so you’re all welcome to come visit! 🙂

Along with the new home comes a new neighborhood that has provided some interesting new experiences. While we were pretty used to seeing monkeys around town before we moved, we’d never seen them around our house. Now that we live just across the street from the dense jungle we’re getting used to them all over again. There is an enticing fruit tree in our front yard, and the monkeys come to visit almost daily. After taking two bites, they throw the fruit onto the metal roof of our carport. The first time this happened, we had no idea what was going on, and Ringo was pretty disturbed. On their second visit, Jeff thought it would be funny to throw the fruit back to the dozen or so monkeys perched on our roof. Unfazed, they caught the fruit off the bounce and scampered to the back side of the roof where there is a tree eye-level with the bedroom window. From upstairs, we could look out and see monkeys less than three feet from our house: the closest I’ve ever been and ever care to be to them again.

Ringo has taken to watching them from the sliding glass door. They stare at him curiously and chitter. He’s becoming used to them, which I don’t much like! I imagine leaving him outside and coming home to find him tied up on the patio, monkeys all over my kitchen.

We started back to work yesterday with a day of training in Manila. Traffic on the way back was the worst I’ve ever experienced; it took us 5 hours just to get out of Manila, and our friend’s car overheated from all the stopping and going, so we had to stop and let it cool down. We left at about 5 PM and got home a little after midnight. Brutal. Monday we start the year with teacher work time, meetings, and orientation. The kids come back on Thursday. We’re both really looking forward to seeing them again; they’re the best part of the job.

The weather has been pretty typical of wet season: intermittent showers every day. The sidewalks are patterned with brown slime that’s as slick as ice and everything in the house has a slightly damp feel to it. Fortunately, the temperatures are tolerable, so we just run fans during the day. We were lucky to miss the typhoon that blew through in mid-July, but the evidence is everywhere: trees down, debris piled on the sides of the roads. Word is there’s another one headed our way Monday.

We’re getting settled back in to our Subic routines and getting comfortable in our new house. We have so much to look forward to this year: visits from Jeff’s sister and the Rudds, trips to Vietnam and Indonesia, plans to swim with the whale sharks, and all the unexpected adventures and surprises that are sure to come our way in our second year abroad.