THE FOOD AND MARKETS OF NORTH POINT, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 4

2 April, pt. 2: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

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After that unforgettable early morning experience, I went for a walk around this massive city block, which was about the size of 3 of our city blocks back home. I saw so many shops, restaurants, bakeries, all in various stages of preparing to open for the day. The morning light was growing, and I began to see more people in the street. Away from that beautiful square, I got more of a feeling of the city. The sights and smells left me wide awake, and my eyes and my nostrils attempted to take in every bit of information. One moment, it’s bread, than coffee and tea, then it’s meat coming from some restaurant’s exhaust port; the next, pungent fumes coming from the city’s sewer system, up through the manhole covers. Bad and good alike, it was exhilarating, like that first cup of morning coffee. It was bordering on sensory overload, so I headed back to the hotel.

Once my wife woke, we went down to the breakfast buffet, which was extravagant, but expensive. We only went there twice – it just wasn’t quite worth the price. We started to slowly explore our new neighborhood together. Over the next few days, I bravely jumped in, going out and exploring in a 500 meter radius from our hotel whenever I could. We explored the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood, going into the little malls around and beneath the streets. We went up to the nearest subway station and got familiar with Hong Kong’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit). It is a very efficient and inexpensive way of getting around the city, no matter where or how far you need to go. Later on in our stay, I was able to go from Sha Tin, in the New Territories, back to North Point in 45 minutes. That’s a about the same amount of time as it would be to take a taxi that same distance, but for about 1/10th the price.

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We went to several street markets, which were filled with vendors selling clothes, fruits and vegetables, meats of every kind, knock-off watches, handbags, jewelry, and touristy trinkets. The markets would take up streets of every size and width, and go on for several blocks.

We had breakfast at a McDonald’s, which was conveniently located right next to the subway station, but looked much nicer and had better food quality than the McDonald’s in America. There was also a KFC across the way, which again had better food. I tried a bucket there that had all white meat popcorn chicken, with a spicy country gravy that most Americans are familiar with, covering a steamy pile of sticky rice. Best food I’ve ever had at a KFC.

But going back to that first day, that evening we went to YUE, the Michelin starred restaurant located on the 2nd floor of the hotel. My wife had sweet and sour pork, which she liked, but didn’t think it was Michelin star worthy. I had roasted pork belly, only because they were out of roasted suckling pig, a theme you will see repeated later in our journey. It was okay, the presentation was nice, and it tasted good, but Michelin star? No. If Anthony Bourdain had film this, it would have wound up on the cutting room floor.

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So, the hotel had overrated, overpriced food. That was the last bad experience we’d have at this hotel. The rest of our stay there only increased my love for this neighborhood, its people, its food, and its feel. But that’s another story…
-For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

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HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 3

2 April, pt 1: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

On our way to Asia!
On our way to Asia!

After that long flight, and some problems at our new hotel that first night, we weren’t feeling very optimistic about our stay as we got ready for bed. I think we were asleep by 9pm; as a result, I woke up at about 5 or 5:30 the next morning, 2 April: my birthday. I took the elevator from our 15th floor room, down to the massive lobby, and out the front door into the warm, moist morning air. I wanted a cigarette, so I walked next door to the 7-11. Hong Kong has 7-11’s and Circle K’s everywhere. There’s no shortage of them, though I quickly found that cigarettes cost more here. I bought a pack of Winstons (sorry, no American Spirits here), some water, and walked back to the front of the hotel to smoke and take in early morning on the other side of the world. The air smelled different here. It wasn’t bad; it was warm, there was the hint of garbage, but above all of that it smelled – floral. Across the street was a square, filled with trees, bushes, a fountain, walking paths, and a children’s playground. Around the entire square in a half-square formation were six 25-story apartment buildings, filled with residents of Hong Kong, still sleeping or just getting up, getting ready for work, a warm morning fog partially obscuring the highest floors. Hardly anyone was out on the street, but nearly every car that was parked along the streets were high-end cars or Mini-Coopers. I saw a Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, and a Fiat. Only the public or city vehicles were Japanese or Korean (Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda, etc.). I was what I heard first, however, that caught my attention the most.

Before I came here, I had of course told my boss what we were going to be doing. He had been to Thailand once, and was struck by how different the BIRDS sound there, and suggested to me that I pay attention to that. I kind of thought he was overplaying this particular characteristic of an exotic Asian country…until I quieted my mind, looked across the street into that square and listened to the early morning calls of the birds in trees there, filling the air with a sweet, foreign sound. It was a beautiful isolation. Sure, there were a few people walking down the sidewalks as the night sky slowly filled with the morning light, but in that moment, I felt completely and exquisitely alone; it was just me and that symphony of birds, and I understood what my boss was talking about. It was a private moment, filled with contentment and bliss. It was only a moment, but it was all mine. Thus began my man-crush on Hong Kong, that over the next week would become love.
-For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

CANADA: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 2

Tuesday, 31 March – Wednesday, 1 April:

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Departure day. We left the hotel at about 9am to drop the car off and to get there early. Good thing we did. Our big suitcase turned out to be overweight by 8kg, by Air Canada’s regulations. Basically, we had to throw away 8kg of stuff that we needed less than everything else. We got rid of a lot of pills (vitamins, etc.) and clothes. My wife was NOT happy with me, to say the least, because I told her I knew the weight restrictions for the flight. Turned out that either I had it wrong or the information I had received about it had changed. Either way, the day was not starting out well.

Then the trip through airport security. Yippee!!!! Though not as stringent as the US and the Department of the Fatherland Security, it was still a bit of a pain to go through, especially considering what we’d already been through that morning. But, everything went fairly smoothly; they never found the kilo of Pineapple Express I had shoved up my ass! 🙂 After that, we sat down to put everything back where it needed to be, and took a breather in an area of the airport filled with duty-free shops. It had already been a difficult day, and we’d been there for less than an hour. After that, we went in to Air Canada’s private lounge, which I had arranged for us when I bought the tickets. We had WiFi for our laptops, some food at their buffet, and some complimentary beverages, though they were rather insulting to ME! They even had free Molson! Things were looking better!

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Just as we were getting ready to leave to head to the terminal for boarding, they announced in the lounge that boarding for our flight was about to begin. We headed over there, just around the corner from the lounge, boarded the plane (a Boeing 787), and took our seats in Premium Economy which had slightly larger seats and slightly more leg room. Almost instantly, an Air Canada stewardess, maybe in her early 50s but still attractive, came up to us and asked if we would like anything to drink. Neither of us can remember her name now, but she was awesome. She was there for us during the entire flight if we needed anything, talked to us, got to know us. She was so sweet and made an extremely long flight much more bearable. We even tipped her secretly before we left. She was that damn good.

So back to the start of the flight. After we took our seats and settled in about 30 minutes before takeoff, we looked around and found that the screen in front of us and the personal TV screens attached to our seats would track the flight’s progress, distance left to go, altitude, outside temperature, etc. It was really cool.

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After the pre-flight speeches, it was time for takeoff. I had the window seat, my wife was next to me in the aisle seat. We heard the engines rev up, and as we accelerated down the runway, we were pushed back into our seats. Mischa gripped my hand tightly as we picked up speed and lifted up off the ground. We banked slightly to the right and we headed up over the inlet between British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Pretty soon, we were flying over towering peaks over the coast of British Columbia and the panhandle of Alaska and then, above the clouds.

If you haven’t been on a flight across the Pacific Ocean (one of the longest non-stop flights out there), it’s really hard to convey how taxing it can be. Imagine you’re in an office cubicle that has enough room for your office chair and room to stand. If you step outside of your cubicle there’s just barely enough room to walk, and if someone else is walking down that “hallway”, there’s barely any room to get out of the way and at the very least you’ll always be brushing up against someone or something. If the “hallway” to the bathroom is free, when you make is to the bathroom, it’s the same size at your cubicle. Your seat, that hallway, and the bathroom; that’s the space you can occupy…for 12-14 hours. Still sound easy? Try it for yourself. Sit in your living room and watch TV for 12 hours straight. Need to go to the bathroom? Walk to your bathroom with your arms close together, do your business while only taking up a space a few inches wider than the width of your shoulders. See if you can do that, and not be exhausted. That’s what it’s like to be on a 787 for over 12 hours.

The remainder of the flight was simply an endurance test, made easier by the aforementioned stewardess, and the fact that we had unlimited access to movies through the airline and our laptop. She watched Wild, which she kind of liked, and I watched Interstellar, which I thought was overrated. The food on board was surprising; better than expected. Nevertheless, we were both continually having to get up and take little walks every hour or two, just to keep from getting stiff on this 12-plus hour flight. As we neared the end of the flight, we were zombies. The flight was landing at about 5:30pm Hong Kong time, but to us, it felt like 2:30am, so we were beat.

We finally landed a little after 5:30, had a long taxi to the terminal, followed by an equally long walk and subway trip to the main terminal to go through customs. After that, we found the company that was taking us to the hotel. By a little after 6pm, we were in the back of an air-conditioned Mercedes, being driven to our hotel, which was 45 minutes away, and on another island. Hong Kong’s airport is on Lantau Island, while our hotel was on Central Hong Kong Island, in the North Point district. Mischa slept most of the way there, and I was in the back seat, just taking everything in, since the driver didn’t say a word. It was getting dark when we got there, and the city would’ve had me awestruck had I not been so tired. The lights, the towering buildings…at over 7 million people this was by far the largest city I had ever been in, and it felt even bigger than that. But at that moment, I was just too tired to appreciate it.

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We got to the City Garden Hotel at 7pm. We check in and over here, the hotel staff takes your bags up, which for us was a godsend at that moment. We did have some initial problems after getting to our room. The beds in Asia are, for the most part, much harder than those in North America. On top of that, after a long, long day and a long, long flight, my wife wanted a bath. But the stopper in the tub wasn’t working, so we had to call the staff to come up and fix it before she could indulge. Not a great start to our first night in Asia; but that was about to change…

Diary of a Mad Expat…Entry 1

I guess I’ll start at the beginning. On Saturday, 28 March of this year, our closest friends picked us up at our home in Eugene, Oregon, and drove us to a Super 8 across I-5 in Springfield, about 10 miles away from the Eugene Airport. Eugene, Oregon, for those of you not familiar with this quiet little town of about 150,000 people, is the home of the University of Oregon. You probably know them better as the Oregon Ducks, the college football team that is perennially disappointing its fans by making them think they can win the national title, only to choke at or near the end of the season; part of the reason I stopped watching them 4 years ago. But I digress…Eugene is one of few cities I know of where there are NO decent hotels within 7 miles of the airport. There are hotels within 5 miles of the airport, but you wouldn’t want to stay in them because they have nightly and HOURLY rates. I personally wouldn’t come near one of them without a black-light and a giant tub of bleach. So we stayed at a Super 8, and a pretty nice one, by Super 8 standards. We got comfy, ordered Track Town Pizza for the last time, and went to bed.

Sunday, 29 March:

Our friends came back to pick us up at 8am. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure they’d show up. They had kept most of our luggage, except for our laptop bags, in their car overnight, so they had all our stuff. They could’ve kept us there and not let us leave, and I wouldn’t have put it past them! I could picture them conspiring in bed overnight. But being our best friends, they supported our dreams, arrived on time, and took us to the airport…to rent a car. Hell no, we weren’t FLYING out of Eugene! That would’ve cost $400 more per person. Instead, we went to Avis, and rented a car to drive to Vancouver, BC. We were supposed to get a standard full-size, but they didn’t have any that were ready. Instead, the agent at the desk offered to upgrade us for free to a 2014 Mustang!!! Reluctantly, I agreed. After saying some tearful and heartfelt goodbyes, especially between my wife and them, we set off…to Dari Mart to pick up some goodies for the drive, some cigarettes (I’m hearing all my friends back home yelling at me simultaneously), and just sat in the parking lot for about 15-20 minutes, while I figured out all the features in this car. After that, we headed north, driving through Portland, around Seattle, with me white-knuckling it through all the traffic, which I’m not used to back home. At every rest area, which are nicer looking in Washington by the way, someone would invariably comment on the car. Of course, I told them the truth: yes, it’s my car! North of Seattle (surprise), it started raining. I know! Raining. In northern Washington. In March. Wonders never cease. So I was white-knuckling it again as we approached the Canadian border. It took awhile to get through; apparently, some stupid American was trying to sneak a goat across the border…I don’t want to know why. After about 20 minutes, we were in Canada, and I was desperately trying to convert kilometers to miles accurately. We got to our hotel in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, just 2 miles from the airport. You see that, Eugene?!?!?! That’s how it’s done!

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We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Richmond for the next 2 nights. It was nice, not great, but nice. Their breakfast buffet was the best one so far, I thought. But that first night, we ordered in, and called it a night. It had been a long day.

Monday, March 30:

Woke up with my right forearm hurting bad. Apparently, gripping a steering wheel really hard for 8 hours can cause muscle strain for people like me who are in crappy shape!

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We explored the Richmond area on Monday. This town is mall-crazy! In just a two mile stretch along No. 3 Road, I counted 7 malls! I’m not talking about little strip mall shopping centers, no; I’m talking HUGE fucking indoor malls. With high-end stores in them. Gap, Gucci, Hugo Boss, Michael Kors, Aeropostale, Tommy Hilfiger, you name it. Richmond is basically Chinatown for Vancouver…how does anyone afford these places? My wife got a coat at one of the malls, and we tried some more authentic Chinese food. It was really good, but the portions were HUGE! We figured the portions would be smaller, but they weren’t…this would be a regular occurrence everywhere we went. Other than that, we spent a lot of the day online; my wife’s Facebook friends will know what I’m talking about. Watched Canadian TV, which is a lot like American TV, but with better news and more hockey and curling.

In the next entry we’ll be heading to the airport for my wife’s favorite part: FLYING!

The love and lessons of Vietnam.

My husband and I had the most intense culture shock when we arrived in Vietnam and it never really subsided. The noise and filth of the street, the fog of bugs, the dog spring rolls; everything seemed alien and uncomfortable. Now that we’re leaving for Taiwan, to hopefully teach English, we begin to see that the warmth was in the details and we will miss a great many things. We will miss the Vietnamese moped drivers with their ninja-like reflexes, our hotel manager Richie who lit up every time we clumsily attempted his language, the CoolArab shisha restaurant pumping mind numbing techno through our haze of negativity, the singing housekeeper who hid vodka behind the nearest planter, the ancient cigarette lady with her pirate grin selling us 50 cent packs and then out smoking us both, and a plethora of other little moments containing universal kindness and human beauty. Thank you for the love and the lessons Vietnam. We will never forget you.