Monday, January 10, 2011

The country day and the city day

A breathtakingly great day.  My decompression last night seems to have given me a very robust second wind.

I could see the escalator from my hotel room.
I met my colleague (now friend), Tom, at the lobby of Nomura in IFC (because we know all the bank lobbies!) for a trip to Lantau Island.  I got to take the Mid-Levels Escalator down, a direction in which it only runs from 6:00 to 10:00 AM.  Since I am actually in Central already, it was a very short ride.  I was in IFC in four minutes.  What an amazing location my hotel is in. 

Grabbed a Greek yogurt (full fat, oops and yum) and a hot croissant at a cafe, then found Starbucks with comfy chairs and had my tea and breakfast.  The stores of IFC were closed.  It is a beautiful mall, and it was delightfully peaceful.


MTR to Lantau Island and then gondola to the top of the mountain to see the largest outdoor seated Buddha in the world.  Because it was hazy, the views of the South China Sea were not terrific.  At the top, we stopped into a souvenir store, one that was not typical of the souvenir stores we'd seen, and we spent a while there asking a very nice young woman about the music and the paraphernalia.  I bought a CD of someone who is apparently famous singing the Heart Sutra, which is the only CD they had that was in Chinese and not Sanskrit.  I fell in love with the "wooden fish," which, she explained, is just the word for "wooden," but it is also the word for "fish" or something, although it doesn't look like a fish.  It's a percussion instrument that you tap to focus your meditation.

At this store, they had the lots that I drew for my fortune yesterday.  The young woman was impressed that I knew how to shake the jar.  The lots come with a book that tells you your fortune based on the lot you draw.  My fortune was good.  The young woman said that you can do the lots once per day and that my fortune could be good today even if it wasn't yesterday.  Yes, I hear that and feel optimistic -- what is that?  I spent a long time thinking about buying a jar of lots, and I didn't, and I should have, but maybe I can find them (and the wooden fish) in San Francisco.

I appreciate that Tom is an endurance shopper.  We both spent a long time at that store.

We ate at the vegetarian restaurant at the Po Lin Monastery.  We paid a little extra to sit in the "VIP Room" and theoretically had better food.  The food was abundant and delicious.

This was the experience that I did not have at the Wong Tai Sin temple yesterday, only without urban crowds.  Lots of incense (of various sizes, to say the least), lots of places to burn them, people davening.  For the big Buddha, the davening happens on a plaza well below it because it's so big that when you get close you can't take it all in.  It was beautiful.

Tom seems to dither on decisions as much as I do.  So after the Buddha we debated hiking back down the mountain.  We tried to gather information, which is my style of dithering, too.  We looked at maps.  We followed signs.  We decided to visit the Wisdom Path and before making a decision.

The Wisdom Path is a magnificent infinity-symbol of wooden pillars with the Heart Sutra written on them.  Beautiful and peaceful.

Then we looked at more maps, decided to hike in a little circle and then take the bus down.  Halfway through the hike, dithering at a new map (and they reoriented the map at every hiking point, which was incredibly confusing), we chatted with two French guys, who asserted that this particular road would take us back to the subway.  We followed their decisiveness and began walking down the path together.

They went on ahead; luckily, my guidebook had instructions about where to turn, and I believe they are still wandering the hills of Lantau right now, because there are some really obscure turns on that walk.  We got to the bottom and discovered we were not near the subway station (because we could see the gondolas waaaayyyy in the distance) and kept walking.  Near a massive apartment block structure, we saw creatures of some sort.  Urban Tom and I weren't sure what they were.  He said bulls (no udders; but also no bull anatomy); I said yaks.  Either way, they were grazing by the side of a busy road with a bus stop nearby.  We were afraid, and then a local woman just marched right between them, so I got close and took pictures.  I am not sure I've ever been that close to horns.

Much more walking and wandering, and Tom asked for directions, and we found a group of local hikers who were walking back to the MTR station.  All in all, several hours of walking.

Back in Hong Kong, we met Tom's friend, Susannah, and we went to the Manchurian restaurant the rabbi had recommended, the one I had tried to go to last night but found that it was fully reserved.  Another fantastic meal!  Then I found that they were partiers, and we walked around Soho, stopped in a bar called Lotus for a drink (a black pepper-infused vodka pineapple martini -- the best drink I've ever had).  It was 10:00 PM, and they were beginning their night of bar-hopping, and Tom knows some fairly well-hidden late night clubs.  I had committed to myself to get a Shanghai pedicure, which I had googled that morning, so I took my leave of them.

Tom emailed me at 2 AM, when I was also still awake, to say that Hong Kong is dead on a Sunday night.

I went to a reputable place for the Shanghai pedicure, Happy Foot.  There is some strict accreditation around doing this kind of pedicure.  The dead skin was very finely shaved off my feet with a scalpel.  The guy even cut my toenails with a scalpel.  The Mandarin Oriental Hotel here apparently offers this kind of pedicure, which is considered the best in the world.

Since my neck and shoulders had been spasming all week, giving me horrific headaches, I asked for a neck and shoulder massage.  "Full body massage," the pedicurist said.  Neck and shoulders, I gestured.  He directed me to a room.  "Full body massage," he indicated.

A full-body acupressure massage.  What was I thinking?  After hours of hiking in the cold, why wouldn't I want a full-body massage?  At 10:30 at night.  Fantastic.

I walked the three blocks back to my hotel and celebrated my day.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why my brain is fried

I am trying to have a peaceful, understimulating evening.  I do love Hong Kong.  I love the incredible variety of street activities, building ages, cultures, views, possibilities.  And I love looking at Chinese characters.

I am fried because I can't stop trying to read the characters.  My brain does pattern-matching.  It just does, compulsively.  I'm one of those people who kicks butt on the tests where you have to identify which shape is the same as another but at a different angle.  I can find visual sameness.  But I also can't stop doing it.

I know enough about Chinese characters that I can perceive them -- they aren't just a bunch of lines: they are a bunch of meanings.  I am proud that I can break them down into their sections; I know a fair amount about stroke order (the system for writing them); I know some of the fundamental symbols.  (For example, coming to this blog website I landed on the usual blogspot page but in Chinese rather than English.  I knew which word was "sign in" because it had the character for "person.")  I can glance at a character and know it refers to water: I did that this afternoon and then read in the English that is so always handy here as subtitles that it was the character for "lake."  (Water characters, like lake and river, have three dots on the left.  There, I've ruined your life, too.)

The character for "lake"
I look at the character for "lake," right, and I can see "water," "month," and "place" (more precisely, but I am not precise, "entrance").  I missed "ten," but it's there.  I don't know why they are all there or what it means.

So when my eyes hit a character I break it down into its components; I consider stroke order; I match what I see to what I know of fundamentals; and I note things I don't know but that seem striking in case I come across it again.  I prioritize: What do I know?  What looks familiar?  What looks new?  Does it match any other sets nearby, such as elsewhere on the sign? 

I love doing this.  And because I compulsively do this whenever I see a characther I have overdone it, and now I have to hide in my hotel room and decompress.

There is no escape from reading.

Missed fortune

At the suggestion of the rabbi, I went out to Wong Tai Sin temple. 

My first problem was that I couldn't find the temple.  It was supposed to be packed with people, and the streets were supposed to be packed with religious paraphernalia vendors.  But it was kind of empty for Hong Kong.  I followed a sign that said "to the temple," and I passed a bit of a creche with a few people doing what looked like davening; then I kept going through the fenced path; a woman handed me a new year's gold coin in a red envelope; and I found myself back at the subway station.  So I did another loop, this time not following the sign to the temple.  Not surprisingly, I got myself lost.  I am really good at that.

I started to suspect that the temple was closed.  Where were all the people?

I asked a woman who did not speak English where the temple was.  That wasn't productive.  Then I showed her my octopus card so she would at least direct me back to the subway.  And back I went.  I did another loop, this this time entering the soothsayer mall, and on the other side of it was the temple.  Which was closed for the weekend. 

Trying to scrape out a Chinese experience, I stopped at the soothsayer mall.  Row after row of fortune tellers in little closets.  Some napping, some on their laptops, most absent.  I picked out an old man at the end of the hallway who claimed to speak English. 

Lesson #1: Old guys who are sitting in soothsayer booths do not speak English very well.

I drew lots for my fortune.  The process was interesting: think of a question, shake a cup of sticks until one pops out (and one does -- I want to think about the physics of that), and the number on that stick is the number of the slip of pink paper he pulls out of a rack.  The slip was covered in a matrix of characters.  Then he asked me what my question was (finding the man, blah blah blah -- he wrote down "love," and I realized I had taken myself to the land of the unoriginal).  He asked me my age, counted rows and columns, and said something about a man dreaming of a butterfly and flowers but it is just a dream.  I managed to figure out that the answer meant: the love I am looking for is not coming this year. 

Then I had him read my palm and my face.  This is where things truly really went awry.  I'd like to believe that I will have a long and healthy life, as he reported.  But pretty much everything else was so far from accurate about me that I felt like he was the worst fortune-teller ever.  Either that or that he got everything backwards and he was really good and just needed to say "not" in front of his comments.

He said that I have a strong mind and that when I make a decision I stick to it.  Strong mind, yes; decisive, no.  As I write this, I am going into a full hour of being paralized about where to go for dinner. 

In reading my face, he told me the major phases of my life.  Like:

  • Before I was 28, things were rocky.  
  • When I was 28, things got better (OK, those two are right, except I was 27.  But isn't life like that for everyone?).
  • When I was 34, I became happy (no: became very unhappy at 33).
  • When I was 41, I became unhappy (no: I started the happy phase).

The level of sophistication of his English was pretty much that. 

Lesson #2: If you want to feel like you've had a meaningful experience getting your fortune read, find someone who can communicate not just in unaccented English but with a large vocabulary.

I think he said I should be careful driving when I'm 51.  And, looking at my palm rather than at the pink slip, he said I'd find love within two years from today and that I would have three children, two boys and then a girl. 

I then discovered I didn't have enough money to pay him fully and that there was no ATM nearby.  I felt like I would be cursed by him.  He let me pay what I had, though, which was almost enough. 

So I left feeling entirely misunderstood and like I was a schmuck for not paying for it.  I couldn't shake being bought into this whole thing even though I know it's crap.  I spent the morning worshiping with my own faith: why am I caught up in this?  Fortune-telling exploits something about our hopefulness.

Now my decisive mind has to figure out what to do for dinner.  The rabbi suggested a Manchurian place nearby.  Do I follow another suggestion, or will it lead me toward disaster?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Vacation and Shabbat

The reason I am so bad at planning vacations is that I second guess myself.  Maybe I should fly out this day ... what if my plans change ... what if the hotel isn't good....  One of my vacation days back home -- the entire day -- was spent researching Hong Kong hotels.  It's not like I didn't already have hotel reservations.  But just in case I was unhappy with the fact that I had to pay for wireless or didn't like the neighborhood, I had to research it all.

The hotel I stayed at this week, the Metropark in Wan Chai, was great.  My second hotel, for the vacation phase of the trip, the Jia, was in Causeway Bay, and while I was excited to stay in a Philip Starck hotel (because design is cool), I realized I really don't want to stay in Causeway Bay, which is where I stayed last time.  It's crowded, confusing, and too far from what I planned to do.  I went to visit and found the hotel to be snooty and not homey. 

So two days ago I opened my spreadsheet (generated from all that other research), started googling, and found a place that was not on my original list.

I canceled the Jia (and had to negotiate away the penalty) and made a reservation here.  The Lang Kwai Fong Hotel (not to be confused with the Hotel at Lang Kwai Fong).  A boutique hotel in SoHo (not in LKF, luckily, which is like North Beach).  Walking distance from everything I want to do.

And it's so wonderful!  The room is the size of a postage stamp and beautifully crafted to feel luxurious and cozy at the same time.  I did have to spend 15 minutes figuring out where to put my suitcase once I unpacked it so I wouldn't have to step around it. (It wouldn't fit: behind the bathroom door; under the desk; next to the refrigerator.  I figured out to put it in the closet on top of the safe.  It just fits.)

The service is so gracious.  And after puttering in my room, there was a knock at the door -- a plate of welcome fruit.  More fruit than I eat in a week: a banana, grapes, an apple, a persimmon, and strawberries.

My view from this inexpensive, well-located, high touch service postage stamp is of Victoria Peak, many of the city's skyscrapers, and the harbor.  I am on the 29th floor, which is quite high because we are partway up the mountain.  The skyscrapers' lights are coming on now, and it's glittering outside my window.  It's been cold and foggy, so there have been no good photo opportunities either from here or from the banks' offices.

And then I think, "Thank God for Jews" and, of course, laugh.  I'm going to go to Shabbat services, as I sometimes do when I travel -- it's perfect for meeting people when traveling alone.  I googled the UJC (United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong), the shul I'm going to, and the rabbi is from San Francisco via Baton Rouge.

To get there, I get to take my favorite form of public transportation here, the Mid-Levels Escalator.  Actually, I don't have to take it because the shul is two exits away -- and that means two blocks.  With having to navigate to and from the escalator, it's probably four blocks away.  But I'll take the escalator anyway with all the commuters.  Since the escalator is one-way, I will walk home afterwards.

The walk will send me through LKF itself, which will make it particularly fun.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fraud police strike again

(Is it jet lag if I am awake in the middle of the night at exactly the same time I'd be up in my own time zone?)

Looking at my email, as I do, and should not do, in the middle of the night, I see that Zappos is thanking me for my order.  However, I did not place an order for $398 worth of random fragrances.  (Tommy Bahama, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Missoni, Carolina Herrera.  Not my style, although they aren't disastrous fragrances.)

Continuing to look at my email, I see all these fragrances weren't charged to me.  They were charged to an address in Kansas ... and shipped to "me" c/o someone else in Washington state.  I called Zappos, and they are canceling the order and taking it off my account.

Then, through the creepiness of the internet, I reverse looked up the billing address in Kansas to find who might have been defrauded to let them know of it.  I found a name and a phone number but no email address.  The name belongs to someone who is 97.

I just gave her a call, as it's afternoon in Kansas at the moment.  As would be someone of any age, she was very confused by my call.  She had never heard of Zappos and is not expecting to receive her credit card information in the mail for another 10 days.  I suggested she call her credit card company right away.  I feel bad -- I gave her my home number, and I explained that I am traveling ... but I won't be home for a week if she tries to reach me because she doesn't understand what I meant.  Maybe I will call her back tomorrow.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Anchored down in Anchorage … happy in Hong Kong

You’d think that taking “No Jet Lag” plus flying to Hong Kong, where I don’t get jet lag, would mean I don’t have jet lag. And you’re right. However, arriving at a hotel at midnight with a first meeting at 8:45 AM means I’m going to be yawning all day not matter what time zone I’m in. And I’m awake before my alarm because I’m so excited to be here.

Unlike last time I flew to Hong Kong, I had enough to entertain me.

  • 15 movies
  • Three books (two novels, one nonfiction)
  • Sudoku
  • Knitting
  • Laptop
  • iPhone stocked with games (but I am still Freecell free!), Hebrew flash cards, and the Tanakh.
I had enough food for two days.

I even slept a little, on purpose, early in the flight when it was technically the middle of the night in Hong Kong.

But then we heard moaning, which sounded like someone having sex, and the attendants kept asking if there were any doctors on this full 747, and then nurses, and then EMTs, and no one spoke up (I thought about offering to help – I’ve seen a doctor – they seemed desperate), and then the captain said we’re landing in Anchorage to take a sick passenger off the plane.

They did a good job in Anchorage, setting and meeting the expectation that we would be there for under an hour, but the detour added three hours to the 15-hour flight (with 10 of those hours after Anchorage). Shockingly, when I checked my email when I arrived here, I received a letter of apology from a named person in customer service referring to this specific incident.

Halfway through that second leg of the flight, jaw and neck started spasming, my right hip started spasming. I watched the wonderful “About a Boy,” and halfway through “The 25th Hour” (how aptly named) my laptop battery died. I switched to watching the airplane movies and saw (can’t remember name; will insert later) and then started playing Plants vs. Aliens on the iPhone, which I could do standing up to keep my legs stretched ... until that battery died, too.

Despite Hong Kong’s efficiency, I had to wait a half hour for my bag as they trickled onto the conveyor belt. Labor is so cheap here that customer service is excellent, but I kept thinking that they just had a lot of cheap labor carrying each bag one by one from the plane.

And then I ran into a student, and things turned around. An extrovert, my energy picked up. It was his first time to HK, so I showed him the ropes of ATM, Octopus Card, and train to central. I watched him become awed by the train; he helped me with my bleary eyes see that the taxi stand to the hotel was right in front of me. The warm, balmy air of midnight smelled like a nice urban vacation.

The hotel is great. I might change my mind and stay here the whole trip. The room is huge for HK standards (or for any major city). I have a bathtub, which is unusual in dense city. Everything seems brand new. I was so excited I couldn’t get into bed.

And then I cracked up. I’m observant, sure, but it had hit my blind spot. In this room that I think is so beautiful, all the accents are fuchsia. The soap is fuchsia. The water glasses have little flower petals floating within the edges. The shower curtain is bright pink. The hangers are pink. The phone is a set of big red plastic lips! They put me on the “SHE” floor! Targeted and limited to women travelers. (I think many a guy would have commented immediately on the feminine touches and said, “huh?”) I love it – I’d wanted one of these newly-renovated rooms, but I didn’t want to pay the higher room rate. I bet they don’t have fresh flowers on the “THEY” floor.

The sun is not yet up, and I’m awake before my alarm. No jet lag. I’m glad I’m near the source of the world's tea – this is going to be a heavy tea drinking day.