Hong Kong - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 208 (18)

Fight to Hong Kong

Saturday 2nd October

We awoke this morning to our earliest start yet. In fact, I don’t think I really slept at all. The power kept going out for one thing. This is such a regular occurrence that we barely even acknowledge it any more. Losing power means losing the A/C unit, however, and this causes the room to rapidly heat up uncomfortably. To make matters worse, Sandy, bless her, decided to manually switch off the A/C unit a couple of times during the precious few hours off darkness. Sandy hates the cold and I hate the heat. We are constantly competing with each other over the environment in our hotel rooms. It’s an ongoing tug of war between us, for which both sides have developed various techniques and tactics to achieve our goal and stay ahead of the other. Sandy’s favourite tactic is to wait for me to doze off before sabotaging the A/C unit in some way. Sometimes I notice this and give it a couple of minutes, enough time for her to doze off, before reversing whatever damage she did. And so this cat and mouse game continues. Sometimes she wins and sometimes I win.

We had mostly already packed all our stuff away just before bed last night. After our insanely early wake-up call at shortly after four in the morning, we quickly got up and gathered the remaining bits and bobs from around the room. The plan was to get to the airport early enough to try to be one of the first standby passengers. This would give us at least the best possible chance of getting onto the already overbooked flight.

Our taxi was to pick us up at a quarter to five and we were told that it was just a fifteen-minute ride to the airport. The taxi was a little late and turned out not really to be a taxi at all. It was an extremely small minibus. To add insult to injury, we had to share the ride with another couple also trying to make the same flight. I had assumed that we had booked and paid for a taxi for just the two of us but there was little that could be done about it now, despite my protestations. Between the absence of seatbelts, dodgy seats, questionable breaks, a wet surface (I’m reluctant to call it a road) due to some overnight rain and a lunatic driver who knows only stop and flatfoot, this was going to be an interesting ride. After ten minutes of driving, I was already starting to get very nervous about getting to the airport late when the driver pulled into a petrol station and told us all to get out. Apparently, the miniature minibus was powered by LPG fuel and we needed to get out for our own safety whilst refuelling. Several more of my complaints about our ever-decreasing chances of making our intended flight to the driver were obviously not getting us anywhere and I’m not sure which of us, myself or the driver, was more agitated about the whole situation. The driver was apparently not informed of our deadline and had simply shown up when he was told to. He seemed quite upset about being blamed for our potential problem of missing our flight and seemed to want to convey his innocence and empathy. I think he was genuinely upset about having a passenger on board that was not entirely happy but I was unable to see through his pain with my very own morning mood in full swing. Under different circumstances, I might have actually felt sorry for the poor guy. I did give him rather a hard time.

With no sleep to speak of, I really wasn’t in the mood for all these problems and neither of us was keen on having to return to Delhi to check back into the hotel again. The stress levels were well and truly on the rise. When we did finally arrive at the airport, we then had to try to convince the armed security guards to let us into the terminal building even without a confirmed ticket. Why do things always have to take longer when you are in a rush? They spent what seemed like ages trying to scan through various bits of paper before eventually giving up on whatever it was they were looking for and reluctantly waving us through. With our heavy backpacks flung half way over our shoulders, we stormed (staggered or stumbled even might be a better description) towards the Cathay Pacific check-in desks and, with hardly any breath left to speak, immediately asked to see the duty manager. This was what we were told to do when I called the airport yesterday evening. Naturally, the duty manager was nowhere to be found at that moment but I was very encouraged by a comment made by one of the very helpful staff. They were apparently already expecting us. The duty manager appeared shortly thereafter and was very reassuring about our chances of making the flight. In the meantime, we had to get our luggage security checked and departure forms completed. We were then subjected to about an hour of agonising waiting to see just how many confirmed passengers would not turn up for today’s flight. With the plane being overbooked by ten seats, we needed more than eleven passengers to fail to show if we were to stand any chance at all of boarding. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there were also probably another six or seven other hopefuls waiting to board the plane, stand-by, just like us. They too stood around waiting for a sign from someone to let them know whether they would be one of the lucky ones. We waited, and waited and waited – all the while hoping that the duty manager would give us first consideration over these other nameless, faceless travellers with whom we have that one thing in common – to make this flight above all else.

When we look back at this trip in the years to come, we will no doubt remember all the wonderful places and fantastic things that we saw. We’ll remember all the good times we had and the new experiences. But in the here and now, travelling is first and foremost about logistics. It’s how are we going to get from A to B, where are we going to sleep tonight, how much money can we spend, which medication do we take, what are we going to eat and a whole host of other little details that we would otherwise take for granted in normal life. For us, however, these things are the constant problems to be solved and occupy the bulk of our time and thoughts. The good stuff is there but can sometimes feel buried under the mountain of logistical necessities that every traveller must face. This is the cost of travelling and the price you pay to see the world in the blink of an eye. This is now how we live and will live for the many months ahead of us. I hope we can survive.

With about thirty minutes or so before the flight was due to depart, the last remaining confirmed passengers were being given their boarding cards and the duty manager finally closed the check-in desks one by one. He then turned his attention to his handful of tickets from the dozen of us in the stand-by club and we each perked up and eyed him, hopefully and with baited breath. Which of us would be lucky and which of us would have to leave the airport again, to return another day? Standing several metres from the check-in desks, in the middle of no man’s land out in the rapidly emptying check-in area, we all wanted desperately to approach but none of us dared. I don’t think any of us wanted to get our hopes up too much. He tapped on one of the keyboards for a few moments, looked up, surveyed us all and finally caught my eye. “Come this way Mr. Morgan,” he said and we gingerly approached, daring to hope for the best. He looked at me and after a pregnant pause, he smiled and said, “You will make the flight sir.” I was so elated that I could almost feel a tear rolling down my cheek. Both our shoulders relaxed and dropped a few inches, we each looked at each other and signed a huge sign of relief. The waiting was over and this latest in the continuous string of logistical barriers that is travelling was now overcome. Another small victory was ours and we savoured the moment. We would not have to return to Delhi. We would not have to somehow try to procure more local currency and then figure out how to get back into town. We were heading to Hong Kong after all and the next story of this great saga can now begin.

I don’t know if it was the elation of making the flight but it certainly seemed like all of the Cathay Pacific crew were the nicest airline crew I’ve encountered. Even whilst dealing with difficult passengers and trying to figure out where to sit everyone, they are always very welcoming, polite and reassuring. They are all oriental and speak both English and, I assume, Cantonese. I asked one of the young attendants about the national holiday in China and he confirmed that the second week in October would be an easier time to travel through the mainland. Fortunately, the problem will not affect us in Hong Kong itself so we may just sit it out for a few days. That is, of course, if Hong Kong doesn’t break our bank. I’ve given us a maximum of five days to take in Hong Kong and in anticipation of a very much higher drain on our wallet, a budget of $200 per day.

Hong Kong is one of the very few places on our agenda for which I have very little idea about how much it will cost us to sustain ourselves. In fact, I have very little idea about what we are even going to be doing in Hong Kong. I view it as one of the must see places but also as a gateway to China itself. When in doubt like this, I tend to allow for a more generous daily allowance for food, lodging and surface transportation. If $200 per day is not enough, then we at least have the comfort of knowing that we will not be there for very many days.

Essentially, we are arriving in Hong Kong blind. Not only do we not know how much it will cost us but we also have absolutely no idea where we are going to go after landing. We’ve arrived in new towns and cities in India blink like this before but we at least knew how the infrastructure worked, how to move around and so on. In this case, it’s a completely new country, new culture and pretty much new everything. This will truly be travelling by the seat of our pants. Our only saving grace is our China guidebook. There is a section on Hong Kong with at least some accommodation options listed. Our plan is to arrive, obtain some local currency (preferably via an ATM but we also have some hard currency and traveller’s checks with us just in case) and then try to contact one of the hostels for further assistance. The hope is that we can find a hostel with rooms available and that they will help us figure out the best way to get out of the airport and to them In Hong Kong itself. Once we arrive at our accommodation option of choice, it should be plain sailing from there. Hostels are a great source of local information and we should be able to sort anything else out from there. Hong Kong is a very well developed place and there should be plenty of reliable transport options and other infrastructure. I guess we’ll see when we arrive.

Since yesterday, I’ve developed a bit of a sore throat and a little bit of a sniffle. Constant travelling, irregular diet the recent lack of sleep will have diminished our natural defences and left us susceptible to just this sort of minor malady. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about but we have to be on the guard for Malaria, which can have very similar symptoms to Influenza. When we get settled in Hong Kong, we will locate a travel health clinic to see about a quick screening for the disease. By all accounts, screening for Malaria is a relatively simple procedure of smearing a drop of blood onto a slide and examining it under a microscope for the presence of the offending parasite. The vast majority of Malaria deaths are attributed to misdiagnosis due to the similarity of the symptoms with Influenza. The disease can take weeks and even months to surface once infected and many travellers return back home long after leaving a Malaria zone only to develop the symptoms later when the worry of the disease is no longer on their minds. If uninformed, their own doctor may not suspect Malaria and this is where the danger of misdiagnosis can be a problem. This is why it is critically important to inform our doctor that we have been in a Malaria zone if we should ever need to visit him or her upon our return. Complacency is something that we will need to guard against long after this trip has completed – particularly since we will have eventually passed through several different Malaria zones with different strains of the disease

Well we’ve finally made it all the way to Hong Kong and are now sitting comfortably in our hostel high up in one of the many high-rise buildings. To say that the difference between India and Hong Kong is night and day is the most ridiculous understatement. It’s hard to image that these two places are even on the same planet. It is very expensive here but already we love the place to bits.

We landed at the ultra-modern Chek Lap international airport. This must be the most efficient, airy and well-ordered airport I’ve ever seen. It is clearly an international hub and is very large. All the staff wear very neat and colour coded uniforms and the place is absolutely spotless. No extraneous noises to speak of and no rubbish anywhere to be seen. The transit whisked us way to the immigration and baggage retrieval hall and we were through the entire process in less than twenty minutes from disembarkation.

Our first objective was to figure out where we were going to stay. We stopped briefly at the very helpful information desk to get our bearings and were directed to a courtesy phone where we dialled several numbers from the accommodation section of our guidebook. This weekend has seen something of a brief influx of people into the city and many of the hostels and guidebook recommendations that we tried were fully booked for the night. Our first choice of hostel were not answering the phone and our second had no double rooms but the nice woman did tell us to call back if we had no luck elsewhere and she would see what could be arranged. In fact we did end up calling her back after a while and she gave us directions on how to get here by bus. The public buses from the airport into town are all orange double-deckers. We had a comfortable ride sitting at the front on the top deck and had some magnificent views of both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the way in. The driver was friendly and helpful even if the tickets did cost of HK$40 ($5,40) each. He also spoke pretty good English. Indeed almost everyone we’ve come into contact with so far speaks either perfect or near perfect English.

Something else that became apparent to us at the airport was that there are shops here such as supermarkets and other places where you can buy almost anything. This is noteworthy only because shops really didn’t exist as such in India. There were traders operating from small shop like premises and there were carts on the streets with fruit and the like but not once, for example, did we see a supermarket or any other regular shop anywhere in India. If India was a third world country, then we are most definitely back in the developed first world here in Hong Kong.

Our hostel is located on the elevenths floor (although it doesn’t seem to be actually much higher than about the seventh floor, we have quite figured this out yet) in a very busy part of town that is very reminiscent of New York’s Time Square. Lots of neon lights toting western goods and services light up the night’s sky and thousands of people are coming and going down on the street below. The one big advantage of our room being so high up is that we can hear no noise from the street.

Our hostel room is one of a half dozen or more that occupy this entire floor. There is another series of rooms a few floors above us where we actually checked in. The conditions are very close and cramped but spotlessly clean and we have little to complain about. It almost feels like a cubicle in our room, which is a tad more than two metres wide and about five metres in length. About a quarter of the floor space has been walled off behind which is a very petite bathroom with a half bath, toilet and vanity basin. We do have a very quiet A/C unit, which is nice, even if it does seem like it’s struggling to generate cool air, and there is a small TV also. The two small beds are separated in the middle by a small bedside unit. All in all, it’s a very comfortable room but probably not to the liking of anyone who might be even just a little bit claustrophobic.

After spending the past few weeks living off a very limit variety in our diet, we decided that we should take immediate advantage of the wide variety of food outlets in this part of town. The cow is not so holy here and so a nice, big, juicy stake was somewhere to be found, looking to be utterly devoured. We found it at an Outback Steakhouse just opposite our building. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted such a beautiful piece of meat before – certainly I’ve never longed for one quite as much. We will do our best to sample some of the local cuisine but this prolonged absence of beef just begged to be put and end to and we were not going to wait any longer. We reckon that we must have chosen a particularly expensive restaurant, as the total bill for the meal came to HK$440 ($60) after the mandatory ten percent service charge. That made this meal more expensive than it probably would have cost in America but we really didn’t care. Our budget for Hong Kong is $200 per day. After spending HK$320 ($43,25) for the room, HK$80 ($10,80) for the bus ride into town, HK$100 ($13,50) for a new Hong Kong SIM card for the mobile phone, HK$125 ($16,90) for some sundries at the airport and HK$440 ($60) for a really nice meal, our total for today has come to HK$1065 ($144). That puts us ahead of the game already.