Monday, June 27, 2011

A Journey

I have a one month holiday, and what better way to spend it than to return to the homeland, an annual event that most foreign teachers in China participate in since the schools pay for it. The first leg of our journey is a 9 to 10 hour bus ride to Hong Kong. This is in a nice express bus with decent leg room, cold air conditioning, and a pit stop every two or three hours. The countryside is lush due to the heavy rains and when that gets boring there is "True Blood" on the laptop.
There are various bus way stations along the highway, and all serve a complimentary lunch that consists of a Styrofoam container of rice with a little vegetable and dubious meat on top. The Hong Kong bus stops at a real restaurant where the passenger sit down for a ten course meal for 25 RMB. We had chicken, white fish, squid, pork, baked yams, several vegetables, rice and tea. There is a guy from Japan in the group. He works for a seafood company and lives in Zhanjiang. I wonder what life is like for a foreigner who is not as obvious as me---until he opens his mouth.
I manage a nap and sleep through the mountains. I wake up in the Pearl River Delta area. We are on a big bridge going over a big toxic river that has gone through the manufacturing heart of China, and nearing Shenzhen and the border into Hong Kong.
Even though Hong Kong is now a part of China, it is still its own entity and you have to go through customs. Customs for the buses is basically a very nice, modern and air conditioned barn. You take all your belongings and wait in line to get departed by a Chinese official, then you wait in line to be welcomed by a Hong Kong official. The whole thing is about 45 minutes of quality line time. You then get back on your bus. It took another 45 minutes to get to our stopping place. Space is at such a premium in Hong Kong that they would never squander it on a bus station, so there is a side street that buses use that is near a subway station. We got off into a hot, late afternoon and humped our luggage down the stairs into marvelous and very busy subway system.
Our hotel, chosen online due to its proximity to the subway, is only a few stops away in Kowloon. I'd never stayed at this particular place, the Comfort Lodge, but my preferred accommodations were booked, and this one had the right price. Using my Google map, we find the right street, a narrow, one block affair, but there is no sign for the hotel. I find the address on a gateway, and a friendly dude came out and leads us in.
While we were being schmoozed by this guy, his underlings are working to cover their asses. They somehow missed the reservation that was made through an online booking company called Agoda. They get us a room at a place next door, that was OK except for the fact that there was only one bed, albeit a big one. Saturday evening during the summer is not a time to be trying to find a hotel in Hong Kong so I reluctantly accept. (I swear never to use Agoda or the Comfort Lodge ever again.)
This hotel has a door locking system that I had never experienced before. You don't get a key. Your room door locks electronically when you close it. When you return to the hotel, you push a button at the front door, they get a visual fix on you through a TV camera, buzz you in, then arrive at your room door with a key to open it. I forget the name of this place, and don't want to remember.
After this fun filled epic fail of the Hong Kong hospitality industry, we head out for dinner. Eating is always a sure thing in Hong Kong. We find a Thai restaurant a block away and have a great meal of pork satay, chicken curry and seafood and rice baked in a coconut. The last dish is a particularly yummy concoction with coconut flavor permeating the rice. A couple of large icy cold Singha beers and the days adventure becomes a bit more tolerable.
Mr. Schmooze from the hotel suggested we try taking the city bus that goes to the airport since it's the cheapest transport. It's only about 5 bucks, so after a crappy night's sleep, we are standing at the bus stop waiting. Sure enough, here it is. The bus has Wifi, and I'm able to diddle online while more passengers pile in at different stops.
The Hong Kong airport is very cool. It has the biggest shopping mall I've ever seen in an airport, but we don't have time to dawdle. It's Delta airlines to Tokyo and we get upgraded to business class. I take advantage of the great seat and legroom and try to regain some of the sleep I didn't get in the Discomfort Lodge.
Oh boy, Tokyo! I haven't been through Narita airport in a few years, but one of the things I remember is spending most of the layover waiting to go through security. Apparently the Japanese don't think that the security in any other airport matches theirs so everyone gets to wait in half a dozen looooong queues just to prove that their airport of origin detected all the cell phones and coins in their pockets, and large tubes of hand cream and Purel in their carry ons. (Nobody in Hong Kong or Tokyo has to take off their shoes! How can I feel safe on these flights?!?)
Surprise, there are virtually no lines at security! Well, not exactly surprise, since I had read that travel to Japan has dropped dramatically since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. We get through with plenty of time for lunch and a beer. We find a little cafe and get a couple of bowls of noodles and two beers. Japanese noodles are good, and the beer is icy cold Sapporo.
Narita airport also boasts the best toilet in the world. It has a heated seats, and a bidet that has electronic temperature and pressure adjustments. Unfortunately, I am unable to produce any action that would necessitate the use of this high tech wonder. I do ponder how a nation that could produce such a fine comfort device could allow such a nuclear fiasco to happen. I guess they got their priorities mixed up.
The Delta flight to Seattle is pleasant enough, and only 8 hours long. The personal movie systems stops working though, and the flight attendant announces that the hard drive has crashed. I'm just grateful that it isn't the plane's flight control system. I have a good book, my mini laptop loaded with True Blood episodes and enough fatigue to sleep a good 3 hours, so I don't mind about the movies. However, the airline feels so bad that they hand out hundred dollar vouchers good toward the next ticket with Delta. I'm a bit shocked, since it was only some movies, but they seem pretty intent on making everyone happy.
Customs in Seattle is a cinch, and after 10 months we are back in the US! There is one last leg on the journey though. My son and his family are out of town, and their home is over half an hour by car from the airport. I took a cab there one time and it was a $50 fare. The last thing I wanted to do was give fifty bucks to a rude Sikh again, so I hopped on Seattle's light rail which took me to the downtown transit tunnel where I transferred to a bus that took to within a block of their home. Woo hoo! I've arrived!
I stroll down to the local market and pick up some local whole grain bread, salami, chips, salsa, IPA, and Tillamook cheddar and have myself some quality time before the family arrives that evening.
Some post arrival reflections:
I check my bank statement and find that the noodles and beer in Tokyo cost thirty seven dollars. Note to self, know the yen to dollar exchange rate before spending any more money in Japan.
Delta is an OK airline, and is smart enough to have an attendant who is 6 feet tall, has silver blonde hair and ice blue eyes on their Tokyo to Seattle flight.
Why does Hong Kong, after being returned to China still drive on the wrong side of the road?

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