Low-Voltage Shock

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam … via Hong Kong

[I’ve arrived safely in Saigon — a city with a neverending symphony of car horns and motorbike motors. Tomorrow, we head into the Mekong Delta, and I’m guessing our traditional Vietnamese homestay does not include WiFi. So it may be a few days before I get to blogging about Vietnam. In the meantime, here are a couple of random anecdotes from the last couple of days in Hong Kong.]

Hong Kong: Day 1
I’ve experienced culture shock enough times to know the first few hours in a totally new part of the world can feel intimidating. Jet lag and travel fatigue add to the jolt. Warning myself to expect it helps soften the blow.

“Brace yourself,” I told myself as I landed in Hong Kong, late at night, after 28 hours of travel. “This could be intense.”

I stood in line to get my passport stamped. “Okay, here it comes,” I thought as I passed through customs. Then, as I emerged into the airport, the first thing I saw was… Starbucks.

Hong Kong: Day 2
The next day, we set out in search of some real culture shock. It was hard to find at first. The language barrier is thicker in parts of New York City. But we finally made it to Kowloon – a neighborhood clogged with pedestrians and neon.

At night, we managed to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with no white people in it. Not that there’s anything wrong with white people. Some of my best friends are white people. But hey, we were on a mission to escape Hong Kong’s “international” culture, into a neighborhood free of Starbucks. We wanted a place that wasn’t crawling with foreigners such as ourselves.

At this particular restaurant, nobody spoke English. Perfect! Until it came time to order a beer. The lady waiting on us understood what I wanted. She pointed.

Oh. So I needed to order my beer at a different counter?

The restaurant was packed with people. I squeezed my way between the tables and made my way in the general direction the waitress had pointed. There was no beer to be seen.

I made my way back to the table. Kattina looked up at me. She wanted beer too.

“I dunno,” I said. “I couldn’t find it.”

I felt deflated. Plenty of other people in the restaurant were drinking beer.

Twenty minutes later, I figured it out. The restaurant sold no drinks whatsoever. All it had to offer, beverage-wise, was plastic pitchers of tea, served free with food. If you wanted beer, you had to go outside, down the street, to a kiosk where they would sell you one to go.

I ran down the street and bought a large, sharable bottle of Tsing Tao. I felt like I was doing something illegal as I carried the open bottle into the restaurant. But the owner smiled when he saw it.

“Toto,” I thought, “I don’t think we’re in….”

Hong Kong Day 3
The Tian Tan Buddha statue is one of the largest in the world. It’s located on Lantau Island, the same part of Hong Kong where I am staying. Kattina and I caught a bus across the island today in search of said Buddha.

We had to take a gondola to get there. (The suspended cable car kind, not the kind they have in Venice.) At the gondola line, we were greeted with a warning sign:

“The weather today is windy. Cabins may experience oscillations during the journey. Please feel at ease.”

Ummm… yeah. Just how big were these so-called “oscillations” going to be?

“You know it is very windy up there,” said a woman named Yoyo, who sat behind the ticket counter.

“But it is safe, right?” I asked.

She laughed. “Of course!”

We boarded a gondola car with six other people and began the 30-minute ascent. At first there was little wind, but as we approached the hillside on the first incline, the updraft caught us. The sound mimicked that wind sound you hear whenever there’s a hurricane somewhere in the US, and some idiot TV news reporter is running around outside in the storm, telling everybody else to stay inside.

But the wind didn’t scare me. We didn’t sway that badly. The real danger, I realized, was that if someone else in the gondola car freaked out, there was no way for them to get relief, no panic button, no intercom to the ground, no way out.

Fortunately, nobody panicked. Not even me.

After a long journey, hanging from a steel cable and swaying in the wind over Hong Kong’s steep landscape, we reached the top of the mountain. We arrived at this site, created to honor Buddha. The first thing I saw was… another Starbucks.

The second thing I saw was… a 7-Eleven.

“Apparently the path to enlightenment includes a Slurpee,” Kattina said.

There were plenty of shops and snack bars catering to American and Japanese tourists, but Buddha was nowhere in sight. He was sitting at the top of one final, steep hill – a hill with no gondola – a hill with 9,863,212 steps to climb. (I counted.)

Well, we had come this far. Could I manage the final stair climb?

“Do it for Buddha,” I thought.

We made the final trek. At the top we saw… not much of anything. The mountain was shrouded in fog.

I could see only a silhouette of something. I’m pretty sure it was the Buddha statue, but I don’t know for sure. It might have been another Starbucks.

Published on Wednesday, April 9, 2008

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