In the five hours we were incarcerated in the Lhasa airport, for unknown and certainly undisclosed reasons by Szechuan Air, who gave us a boxed lunch to keep us from licking the flies off the windows or gnawing on the rigorously uncomfortable plastic seats, I further developed my fanatic hatred of Chinese airlines. Did they keep us there in hopes that they would finally sell the moldering souvenirs in glass cases that adorned the waiting room? I did catch up on my journal in between watching Chinese Army fighter jets explode the silence with their take offs.
The one happy spot was an Israeli family of four small children who played and napped as though they had spent their short lives in airport waiting rooms and knew no other life. When we did take off we passed a line of 20 Army helicopters. Tibet is an occupied country. On the plane there was an atmosphere of suppressed chaos augmented by the lugubrious unhappiness on the faces of the stewardesses. This did nothing to improve my attitude, nor did the on- plane lunch of rice with miniscule unidentifiable bits of meat. How do you chop up meat that small?
In contrast to my attitude Sarosh was relaxed and smiling, eating his as well as my lunch in the waiting room and trying to site Everest as we flew over the Himalayas. His time of crankiness, although one could hardly call his barely ruffled feathers by that harsh a name, came when we exited the airport and spent half an hour trying to find our car and driver. Either Sarosh’s phone battery was low or our greeter’s phone, our greeter was a young woman, the first to hold that office, wasn’t functioning. But we did finally get together and, although the whole day had been lost, I finally was at the Kathmandu Guest House.
Before going up stairs I went to the baggage room desk. The large cheery man who tends the desk took me into one of the damp cave like rooms where bags are thrown all hugger-mugger. The tenants of the KGH, since most of them come to trek, store mounds and mounds of bags. He miraculously extricated mine instantly from a heap to my joyous amazement. When I gave him a tip to express that joy, if not the amazement, he gave me an unhappy, disappointed, reproachful look. Amazing how much can be crammed into a glance. It hadn’t occurred to me that he was an admirer. But I very carefully did not tip him when he carried all three of my bags up four flights of stairs for me. This restored his good humor and he left me obviously happy.
The next morning at breakfast there was an odd incident. A group of Australians, included a family with older girls and a little boy of eight or nine, cute, animated, with bright pink jug ears. He walked across the garden where I could see on the other side a small brown dog with a plumy tail. In a minute he tore across the lawn, with crimson, contorted, tear-streaked face erupting into a scream of raw terror before us. I thought at first he had been bitten; that in this country would be serious. But I concluded no. His mother and sisters comforted him but with such an air of condescension in their manner, leading him away, that I concluded what I had seen was a recurrent incident. What do you do when your child has such a phobia? Dogs are everywhere.
That night I tried to call my broker to pay my Nepali agent—I had done my entire trip to Tibet on credit and was feeling great pangs of guilt. But he was not in. However, while making the call I got to know the woman in charge of such attempts at international communication and her American friend who has been coming to Nepal for more than thirty years working for various charities that help women and children. She had recently been widowed and had come over this time to work and try to find her way through the difficulties of psychological amputation. What a sensible way to deal with one’s mourning.
As Shirish and I sat about talking in Yasmine’s shop, Shirish mentioned that her daughter had complained about her skin color, that she wanted to be lighter in color, that her color was not pretty. I was horrified that Western mainstream idiot prejudices should have infected this child’s life on the other side of the planet with such a vicious virus. I know that Shirish’s daughter is a devoted reader of Harry Potter and we have discussed how wonderful Rowling is. I suggested that she might want to ask her daughter what Rowling would think about her judgment of herself and her skin. What more awful thing can we do to a child than to teach her to feel she is intrinsically, physically ugly and unacceptable?
I took a taxi to Patan to see if the leaves for my lamp were ready. They were not and the cross-eyed little man who was supposed to have them looked astonished to see me. Mr. promised that they would be delivered before I left. Since I had paid nothing, I had nothing to lose except the leaf I had given him as an example. But I trusted Mr. .
Indeed, late in the afternoon, the day before I left, the cross-eyed man arrived, accompanied by another man who spoke English, with the leaves. I was ecstatic at receiving them and therefore, did not examine them carefully. The cross-eyed man, sweating lightly, resembled something that had crawled out from under a particularly nasty Dickensian rock. All shifty eyed he slipped into an unappealing whine about how much labor the leaves had required, how difficult it was to make them. I was interested to see that the translator, I could tell by eye contact and body language, was on my side. I ignored this speech, pulling out my money, which abruptly brought down the curtain on the scene he was developing. The translator grinned and we parted company.
In my room I looked at the leaves more carefully and discovered that they were made of steel when they were supposed to have been made of brass. Luckily, on the receipt that Mr. had written out for me it said that they were to be made of brass. In the meantime, the only person likely to realize that the leaves are steel not brass is me. Ah well, I shall be coming back to Nepal in a year or two and we can reopen the problem.
I had one day in Bangkok, now a blur, before flying off to the capital city of Samsara, Hong Kong. One thing I do remember, however, is that I went to Boots in the Paragon to ask for my eye medicine, which was at long last down to its last drop. My heart did a rock in water plummet when the young woman said they used to stock it but had stopped. I must have looked forlorn because she then added that she thought the pharmacy behind the Gourmet Market had it. They did. The drops had outlasted my prognostications by a couple of weeks. So much for obsessing.
Coming into Hong Kong on the airport express to the Financial Centre I got on the inevitably long line for a taxi but was exhilarated when I was able to direct my driver not just to Cotton Tree Drive but to show him the underpass that plunges you into the parking lot behind St. Joseph’s Church. This is important because only very experienced drivers know the difference between St. Joseph’s and St. John’s. To them a church is a church is a church. This parking lot is crammed to its last bitumen inch with cars whose drivers play cards, gossip and talk on their phones while waiting to be summoned. We came out the other side at the parish house, went around it, and found ourselves, as I knew we would, with our nose on Garden Road. I walked down the steep incline to the Helena May braking constantly so as to prevent my big, wheeled-suitcase from hurling us both down the sidewalk to crash into the sign for the Peak tram.
Having explained to Phoebe, the ever patient manager of the Helena May, that I had no credit card, I paid part of my bill with the cash I had in hand and then went to my lovely room, cream and pistachio, with windows onto the verandah encircling the building, where I unpacked the dainty white orchid my friend Sue had sent to make the room a home, along with the phones and the coffee maker she provides for her visiting friends.
The Helena May is a club and women’s hotel that was created from Governor Sir Henry May’s old mansion and named for his wife. It is a lovely, gracious place with apartments around a garden as well as rooms with shared bath for more transient visitors.
I walked down to Pacific Place, a ramble that takes me down past the entrance to the Peak tram, then down an escalator in front of a shiny glass office building that houses the gym I use in HK, the ICBC Tower, I think. But then I cross a lozenge shaped planted island between two roads to my favorite building in HK, the Bank of China Tower designed by IM Pei that looks like a glass and steel abstraction of a length of bamboo. There are steps to go down here but they are beside pools and Chinese scholar’s rocks that yield up a moment of peace before one comes into the full-throated traffic of Queensway.
Then it is a short walk to the door of Pacific Place in the basement of which resides a supermarket called grEAT food that has been characterized by a HK friend as a fast food outlet for the rich. This is not an inaccurate description. The population pushing dainty little carts about could certainly be described as international Yuppies. However, there are counters from which you can buy prepared Japanese, Thai, and Indian food and it is the one place I know of in HK where I can buy European cheese. I huffed and puffed my way back up the hill, stuffed the refrigerator in my room, had some yogurt and went to bed lulled by the traffic on Garden Road.
While in HK I was able to replace my credit card since the head office of HSBC is in HK in a building which like the Pompidou in Paris wears its intestines on its outside.
Sue and I had set ourselves a busy calendar early in my stay that included hearing Bruckner’s 8th Symphony conducted by Jaap van Sweden, at the Kowloon Cultural Centre, and, with some mutual friends, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, definitely opposite ends of the cultural pendulum swing.
I don’t know Bruckner and found it interesting that, at least in this symphony, he often used the sections of the orchestra–horns, strings–as separate units rather than melding them. This in turn startled me into awareness that there is a cultural divide in the world I had not been aware of. Chinese mothers apparently do not usually urge their little boys or girls to practice their oboes or trombones. No, they may say, “Liu it is time to practice your new cello piece,” but that eight out of ten mothers say “violin” is obvious from the racial makeup of the orchestra—no western faces in any of the violin sections, half the cellos and bases were western and all, every blessed one, of the horns had a western face above it. I found that fascinating.
The next night, Saturday, we went to “Priscilla” where we all cheered, stomped occasionally and almost always sang along with great enthusiasm. We, being an enormously varied, international and racially diverse crowd. There were two, just pre-teen children with us. I suspect exposure to things like “Priscilla” will keep them from blinking at their own or other people’s sexual choices in a few years.
Sunday we had a mild typhoon but stayed in, because it did get up to level 8, eating the usual peanut butter sandwiches or scrambled eggs. What was worrying was that Sunday is the day on which all the Philippine maids, and there are thousands of them, are off. They generally have no sheltered place to go, hanging out along the walkways, pedestrian bridges and small parks in HK in chattering groups like brown sparrows. I did go out to look about and they seemed to have found all kinds or nooks and crannies to spend their Sabbath in without getting drenched. St. Josephs had opened up spaces for them to sit in safety.
Sue and I went out to visit our friend J who lives on Cheng Chao. Sue had found an excellent Indian restaurant, not something you would expect to find on this little island that used to be fishing center and is now one of the places you go for a weekend away from HK. We lunched before going on to see J. He has an inherited disease that has bent him double for which there is no cure. We spent the afternoon talking to him about a huge range of things. He is an expert translator of Provençal poetry. However, his latest adventure is on the web where he has found he can watch the daily life at a mid-western railway station.
One day I went over to Kowloon and spent an hour or two trying to find out when, if ever, the old museum, that used to be in the Culture Centre housing the auditorium where Sue and I had heard the Bruckner, will reopen. Its dusty doors are closed and no sign tells of a reopening. The museum used to include a floor telling the history of HK with paintings, etchings, and prints. Another floor had modern Chinese paintings. Here I discovered a painter named Wucius Wong whose work I admire hugely, enough to have bought one of his paintings some years ago when I was flush. He is now sold by Sothebys. But I could find out nothing about the old museum although I was handed all sorts of pamphlets and brochures about other museums all over HK and Kowloon.
Another day I met my friends from BKK for brunch on Stanley Street at a Michelin one star restaurant, Yat Lok. It was difficult to locate because the name is not obvious on the storefront. It is a typical hole in the wall restaurant but its speciality is goose, roasted, deep fried and served moist on the inside, crisp on the outside, heavenly. I met W’s mother who is in my age group, a smartly dressed, lively woman. She is from HK but married a Thai. Her son and daughter-in-law bring her here so that she can speak her own language again and eat the food of her youth.
The rest of my stay in HK was pure Samsara, looking at clothes, buying a pair of amber earrings, and enjoying Sue’s company. I will stand hesitant and over awed before a very expensive jeweler’s window and Sue will say, “Come let’s go in and try those on,” or “Let’s just find out how much that ring is.” It is always more than I can afford, and it is rarely something I would really like, despite my admiration for its beauty, but it is wonderful the way she urges me through the wall of my timidity before what I think is above me. I have tried on a pair of extraordinary quarter of a million dollar emerald earrings because of her, earrings that, while of great beauty, belong to some other life. But it’s a good adventure into a land I don’t and never will inhabit.
Back in Bangkok the preparations for the cremation of the King were in their final days. Very rarely did I see any one, even a tourist, who was not in black. Television showed the preparations, particularly of the building in which the cremation would happen and the vehicle, a wonderfully fantastically carved and painted “cart” that would carry the body to the crematorium. It seemed as though every public space was filled with pictures or photographs of the King at all ages. One exhibit in the atrium of the Paragon included a picture of which I took a picture of the parade of the royal white elephants in the funeral cortege of the King. The massive white beasts dressed in black and gold ridden by their mahouts exemplified for me both the all-embracing gravity of this death and the grandeur that the Thais have as part of their heritage. One of the mahouts is a young woman. When I pointed this out to W he said proudly, “In Thailand a woman can do anything she wants to.”
I spent the entire day of the funeral watching the ceremonies on the television in the guesthouse with the girls who were on duty as desk clerks. It was a slow paced ritual of immense depth of feeling, the crowds, huge, silent, black, tear stained. I don’t ever expect to see another funeral as impressive. We will see what the English do for Elizabeth.
Seeing the funeral helped to release me for my trip home. I had been much entwined with the Thais and their sorrow. Now I could leave them. But I took the picture of the white elephants on parade with me.