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Chapter 6: Hong Kong and China

Land of Many Dragons


 Having arrived six and a half hours late into Hong Kong, we were very glad we had not booked ahead for flights to Beijing. There was a whole lot of commotion for those who had: changed flights, rushing for buses, etc. Instead of all this, we went with friends to explore an area near the port and hopefully find a sculpture park in Kowloon Park. Find it we did and it was a very good display of some impressive pieces. The whole park was a treat and full of families dressed up and having picnics. We liked all but a few of the twenty or so sculptures, remarkable in these days of junk passing as art.

 We found a restaurant (tip: in Hong Kong, look upstairs for restaurants) and had to deal with a real Chinese menu. I passed on “wings and web” (duck wings and feet) and eel, slugs, sea cucumbers and welk. Instead we ordered sweet/sour chicken, crabmeat “balls,” and scallops and taro. The latter was deep fried and strange to our Western tastes; it was rather like wallpaper paste. Dessert had the taro in a sweet bread form (not much better) and we sampled “sweet white fungus.” This is very hard to describe. The fungus is crinkley and white and floats in a sweet soup. There was very little taste, but it did have texture.

 Food is such an important part of a culture. In China I enjoyed the rice, vegetables and meats, but had a hard time knowing what it was I was eating . . . just knew a general category. It is probably a good thing that I didn’t know and that we generally kept pretty close to the tourists areas. Like most foreigners I enjoyed the dim sum very much; it was both interesting and tasty. When I went to the markets I was slack-jawed at the creepies, crawlies, and slimies. The experience made me wonder what would lead someone from this part of the world to say “Yuck.” One object I thought was a lizard fan turned out to be not for fanning but a dried lizard “for eating, madam” and produced the special quality of longevity. I for one would prefer to live a little shorter life.

 When we came outside from our dinner we found all the streets closed off and throngs of people moving towards the port to see the fireworks display in honor of the Communist holiday. How lucky it was that we were docked right next to the place where the fireworks boats anchored. In fact all we had to do was step out of our cabin and onto the deck and had the best seats for the show. And what a show it was! The Chinese invented and continue to develop fireworks. My favorite display consisted of a huge burst that changed into little lanterns that floated down from the sky and were extinguished in the water. It was loud, noisy, breathtakingly expensive, and a little intimidating. But it was all that fireworks should be.

 The next day was a rather typical tourist day in Hong Kong. With another senior passenger and friend, Geraldine, we first took a taxi to Hong Kong Island looking for groups of people doing T’ai Chi, since I practice a form of it (Tai Chi Chih). We had no luck in this since Pat could not be understood saying “Hong Kong University” and I could not be understood saying “T’ai Chi.” I didn’t expect my Chinese to be understood, but was surprised that we couldn’t get these few words in an intelligible form to the taxi driver. Next we rode the famous tram up Victoria Peak and walked around. I think because of all the pesticides used there were not many insects, hence very few birds along the paved paths. Pat went looking for an Internet Cafe and I went shopping at Stanley Market. I bought silk pajamas for our daughters and myself.  What a luxurious treat! It turns out that these were the best bargains of the whole trip around the world. And the quality was very good and the sales people very helpful and courteous. When we were in the People’s Republic of China in high tourist areas, this was not the case, at least not in stall or street buying. There we found very aggressive merchants and felt unable to think about a purchase; consequently we didn’t buy. I don’t know if this is a cultural difference, or the result of being a tourist mark. But I do know that I don’t like being what I could only call cheated and harassed. We experienced this in many of the countries we visited. How we looked (“Western”) meant dollar signs. To sellers in developing countries, we were rich. And by their standards we surely were. But this intellectual understanding didn’t go very far in making us feel comfortable with this “don’t take your time” behavior. It was especially difficult to deal with when the sellers were children.

Chapter 24: Afterthoughts

 Missing Our Floating Village

csr & pjr

Our first thought about this voyage is “How lucky we are to have seen and experienced so much of this watery planet.” On this voyage, we had sailed all but two of the traditional Seven Seas (North and South Pacific, Indian, Antarctic, Arctic, Atlantic and Mediterranean) and many so-called minor seas and gulfs. In our lives, we now have been on all but one of the seven continents (North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and Antarctica) and we visited four on this voyage. All this has changed us and we think it has changed us for the better. Books, television documentaries, movies, conversations with people from other countries can only go so far in educating us about what is “out there.” Travel, especially ship travel, brought to us an experience for all our senses, at once. We smelled the “perfumes of Araby”, we tasted the spices of the East, we heard the rhythms of the Gamelon and the strains of the dan bau, we felt the hands of children, we saw more than “The Seven Wonders of the World.” We had a chance to draw and film what we saw, talk about it, listen to other’s experiences. For one hundred days, we shared pleasures, annoyances, waiting lines, meals, fears, hopes, dreams, amazements, wisdoms, purchases, and stories. We all passed the time of day and enjoyed each other’s wisdoms and talents.

 All this resulted in, for us, a unique and complete sense of community with our Semester At Sea shipmates which was unlike a village or city community back home, or a church community, or a special interest community such as cycling, politics, or art. Catharine had experienced a powerful sense of community when being involved in the Women’s Ordination Conference, but it was a group formed around a particular focus. Pat also had experienced a tight knit group on a two week raft trip down the Colorado River. But never before had either of us been so bound to a thousand people. By the time Brett played The Star Spangled Banner on his saxophone in Miami, we were a unique shipboard community. We were dependent upon each other in striking ways. All were dependent on the captain and crew as they set our course, provided food, established safety, and insured comfort to the best of their abilities. They too were dependent on us to provide their jobs, practice those life drills, obey warnings, proceed with caution and obedience. Semester At Sea went beyond the limits of a common interest, or passion, and included the ordinary, the extraordinary, life and death, beliefs and goals, and destinies. It was a large experience.

 The faculty and staff provided structure and education. The students were sources of inspiration, amazement, puzzlement, and because of their ages, provided a time line for those of us who were old (or very old) by comparison. What had happened to us before they were born, and what our assumptions were, were a part of daily reflection. The smallest sub-group on the ship were the forty-two senior passengers. Having us aboard with all those young people was a very good idea, and excellent policy of the Institute for Shipboard Education. Our presence gave them other viewpoints, other physical types, other backgrounds to consider. We were surprised at how many signed up to be an “adopted” grandchild. This did much to span generation gaps. Taking classes together, becoming ill, exercising, watching sunrises and sunsets, and dolphins and rainbows and ships at sea . . . all these things, day by day, wove us together. We miss being with so many people who thrived on moonrises, sunrises and sunsets. We remember time spent one night just staring at the sea as it rolled and splashed along; another passenger was with us, in silence and awe. It is rare in our day-to-day living to be able to share such moments.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the journey was our impression of the students. When we bicycled the west coast from Canada to Mexico ten years earlier, an unanticipated reward was our improved opinion of America. Like non-US residents, much of our own impression of America is formed by motion picture and television images which focus on big cities and low life. Bicycling is a great means of meeting people, real people, and exploring small towns. We completed that trip very upbeat about America. The same thing happened on Semester At Sea in regard to the present college generation. Sure, we tease about their language and food fads, and there certainly were more serious problems with some of the students. But we also met fine young people, surprisingly many good young men and women whom we feel privileged to have known. We participated in serious discussions on serious issues, in classes and out. We laughed together, played games, shared travel stories, dined together, gossiped, worried and planned. We celebrated and even mourned together. This was not superficial contact, and we left the ship in Miami feeling more positive about these young adults and the future of our country. We are indebted to the Semester At Sea program and the Institute for Shipboard Education for providing us the opportunity to know these people.

 After leaving the ship we found that we were “seeing” shipmates in our home town. We imagined we saw those who we had been seeing for three and a half months. Their images were in our heads, and were hard to let go. It was a strange phenomenon. We missed our shipmates. We missed being at sea and watching and smelling, and wondering about all of that wet world.

 Back home in New Mexico, we savored being able to have green chile whenever we wanted; seeing roadrunners on their morning jaunts, sandhill cranes flying in clear blue skies, mountains reflecting pink sunsets, and family and friends welcoming us home. We enjoyed shopping without bargaining, obeying traffic lights and stop signs. We were glad to hear Spanish spoken, and to not be hustled.

 Would we do it again? We don’t think “it” could be repeated, even if we had the same itinerary, time, and money. From this journey we know that there are parts of the world we want to revisit, like Turkey, and others we have not seen, like Greece, Egypt and other parts of Africa which we hope to explore. We learned that we are tourists, whether we like this title or not. It is inescapable. We trust we will always be informed and sensitive ones. Right now we think the term “traveler” is being used to drum up business for the travel industry, which sees a new market in people who don’t want package deals in hotels with North American standards and food. We do like some independent travel options; we like to try new foods, hear new sounds, see local art and connect with other folks who have grown up with different ideas, religions, and attitudes. But we know we are still tourists to local folks who see us as “American” and “rich.” We can’t change that anymore than we can change our gender or color or age.

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