2019, BLOG XXIII: HK, BKK, BCN
Sunday in HK and, demonstrations or not, the Philippine maids were out occupying discrete areas of sidewalk, churchyards, underpasses and overpasses. It is sad that their working life allows them no real home but I love their presence; I love passing through them, their alien chatter rising around me an evening cloud of gossipy starlings descending to roost in a tree.
At Sunday dim sum brunch I was introduced to M, with an American accent. We had a long conversation about the Karakorum Highway, aka the Friendship Highway, a conversation I never, ever expected to have. This is one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It’s in Pakistan. I took it from Gilgit to Sust the Pakistani-Chinese border town just after 9/11, still in shock from the incomprehensible news, to go to Kashgar for the Sunday market. I have told many people about those days around the news but I have rarely been able to talk to anyone about that landscape, a harsh, empty, land between cultures with Bactrian camels.
He had made the journey by bicycle for which he gets deep respect from me. I did it by bus with three Czechs I’d met earlier in the trip, a young French woman who hated having another woman about, even though that woman was forty years her senior, and some decidedly dubious Pakistani male companions. We also discussed other mutually known esoteric places. I don’t get to meet, often, someone who has traveled what I egotistically think of as “my” roads.
Monday I went with a friend who was frantically trying to pay the necessary fees to sign up for a race in November. No one wanted to take her money at one bank and we had to go on to the next. It did work and she is set to run.
After lunch we went to one of our favorite shops, small, crammed, and over priced in the Prince’s Building. It used to be run by the father who is gentlemanly and adamant about his prices. Now it is run by his son and daughter-in-law who hold his line about prices but have none of his grace. They are, however, usually knowledgeable. I wanted to show them the bracelet I had bought in Yangshuo whose components baffled me. I recognized the faceted rectangular pieces as rock crystal and thought the orange bead was probably glass but I wasn’t sure about the tiny brown beads or the blue and white ones.
The son was not there but his wife was. She is teeth- grittingly unpleasant, disparaging and condescending by turns. She thought the most valuable part of the bracelet was the rock crystal; that seemed probable. She didn’t think the blue and white beads were Chinese. I was sure she was wrong. The orangey bead she confirmed was glass and she said the little beads were wood. I thought this also wasn’t true.
The real problem with this shop, Tse Antiques and Collectables, is that they have uniquely interesting pieces, which you are not going to find anywhere else. That’s why they can be immovable about price. They had a pair of ceramic toads, covered in turquoise warts that made me laugh every time I looked at them because of their nose-in-the-air hauteur, however, their price did not raise a chuckle. Maybe they will be there next year.
We went on to Miranda’s little store in the Melbourne Plaza building. She looked at the bracelet, said the tiny beads were coconut, the orange was glass, and the turquoise and white were Beijing Glass made in the late 19th, early 20th century.
The next day we went to see J who has been transferred to an elder home in Kowloon. We brought him food from Marks and Spencer as well as artery-blocking pastries from Deli France. There were six people to a room. It was clean and medium dreadful, meaning depressing. When you are going to die they put you in the bed next to the door so they can whisk you out surreptitiously when you transform into a corpse.
J is in pretty good shape, although he cannot walk, but his brain is fine. He told me how he got his nickname, Gem.
He was living in Paris, hanging out at a zinc bar in the mornings. One day the owner asked his name. When he told him the man said, “Non. Gem.” J explained that in English gem meant bijou. The owner said, “Oui, Monsieur Bijoux.”
A friend and I later in the day were putting away groceries when she felt something on the back of her neck, reached around and found herself with a tiny gecko in her hand. She brought him to show me. He sat in her hand quietly, whether in terror or ignorance, bright-eyed and still but electrically alert.
Lunch at the old Luk Yu Tea House was delicious but limited by what my friend can say in Cantonese. Neither of us can read the menu so we order on the basis of her vocabulary. We had shumai, har gaw and a huge platter of baby bok choy. It is a noisy but loveable old place with excellent food.
At Mountain Folk Craft I bought two meters of hand block printed red and white cotton for trousers. We drove to Michael’s, on Square Street. His store has a grandiose name, which I can’t remember but is something like Gorgeous Antiquities. I bought my son his annual lock. This one isn’t very old but I found it amusing and since he reads the blog I can’t say what it is.
But I felt bad because it was not very expensive and I like supporting Michael’s shop. However my friend took up the slack magnificently by buying four elegant tile panels of the seasons with birds appropriate there to. She’s going to take them to a niece in England. Lucky niece.
The next day we said good-bye as I left for the airport. The best part of the transit from HK to BKK was the young woman in charge of baggage in the BKK airport who followed me into the lady’s room because she had told me the wrong carousel number at which to pick up my luggage.
Saturday I went to the gym and while working out on the elliptical I, and the Thai man next to me, watched a toad, not covered in turquoise warts, but bulbous, pale and frantic in a furious monsoon rain trying to get through the glass. His burrow must have been flooded. My elliptical neighbor was worried the toad would die. I assured him it would be okay once the rain was over and the toad’s hole had had a chance to drain. But I was made happy by his worrying.
Next to the A One Inn there has been for years a Nissan repair garage, against whose fence leans with spreading gnarled roots, an old banyan tree that is given offerings of jasmine leis, candles, food, opened soda cans and ribbons. Nissan has moved to larger quarters and someone has bought the land where they intend to build that commercial entity so lacking in Bangkok, a shopping mall. I have been worrying about the fate of the banyan. When I came home I found that someone had sawn off two large branches that intruded over the wall of the old Nissan garage. May that be all the damage done.
Another day I bought a pair of gold snake sandals. Arriving at the A One I found the landlady with her granddaughter. I showed the sandals to the grandchild who is about 6. She was definitely intrigued but mildly alarmed at so much attention from a foreigner. I was hoping the sandals would keep her mind off me but it didn’t quite work.
The next morning a group, Indonesian or Malaysian I think, wanted to have their picture taken with me over breakfast. Sometimes I can do this but I definitely could not that morning. I said to the six or eight of them, “But we don’t know each other. Why would you want a picture of me? No.”
One of my rituals in BKK is to go for lunch, once during my stay, at the Oriental Hotel. They have moved their Thai restaurant across the river. This means you must walk through the hotel, down to the little pier, get on their boat and cross the river, a pleasant exercise.
The restaurant is in a building with enormous windows looking onto the Chao Phraya River. They had a buffet. I started with small things—spicy chicken wings, peas, corn and carrots in crisp, tiny pastry cups with tamarind sauce, a fire breathing mushroom salad, small rice crackers with sweet-hot dipping sauce. Among the main courses were, my absolute favorite, green chicken curry, as well as shrimp and crab curry, and duck curry. I am writing this in Barcelona and may burst into tears at what I am not able to eat here. These were all in small portions. The waiter would dish out the rice onto a plate—brown or white—and spoon the curry into a small bowl while I watched. Then he would carry it to my table. The crab and shrimp curry was superb.
I had arrived around 2:30 so they were now interested in closing and I was the only remaining customer. They brought me a cappuccino and an array of desserts. The mango and sticky rice was the only one I ate. Good, but I have had better. Out the ceiling to floor windows I could watch the river traffic—tiger boats with monstrous V-8 engines, various cross-river vehicles, boat buses going up and down, big, lumbering empty rice barges, empty and high in the water in a train of three or four pulled by a tiny, shiningly enameled tug, fierce as a terrier at its task. It was my private good-bye.
I had made a reservation for N, T, W and N’s daughter, also a T, and me at El Mercado. I was going to get to take them out to lunch for a change. As I had expected, they were delighted with the venue with its variety of places to sit—the wine room, the patio, the tables near the refrigerated fish room which edge the cheese and ham counter. There is also upstairs seating but we wanted to be down.
They had me order; that was fine except but I was unsure about quantity. I know how many Thai dishes we can consume but Western plates and platters come in different capacities. I ordered a shellfish platter, huge, varied and superb. I now cannot remember everything that was on it. Some of it was: a large brown crab, oysters, shrimp, mussels, clams, cockles, razor clams piled on a three-tiered platter. Then we had a half a chicken roasted with potatoes and steamed mussels with pomme frit. There was something else but I cannot remember it.
The chicken was a huge success with W since he complains that chicken is often tasteless now in Bangkok restaurants. It turned out his wife, T, is a mussel-pomme-frit-fan. I was elated when W said he was going to bring his mother A to have the chicken.
When there was nothing left but empty shells and bare bones I sent the two Ts off to choose dessert. They returned with one huge slice of blue berry cheesecake that was heaven.
I was leaving in two days so this was good-bye. There were lots of hugs from my hugging Thai friends.
Before I sign off from this long series of blogs I would like to look back for a moment.
I turned 83 as I crossed the International Date Line. As I had suspected, my fears about Japan were fraudulent. People were kind and helpful, although I find having to have everything arranged months before I arrive too rigid for my temperament. But the answer to the question of being alone on the road at this age is an affirmative. It is also affirmative about being able to adapt to and be open to previously unknown cultures.
On the physical side I now know that Dr. F’s pills work well but of equal importance to successful travel at my age is flying with a good airline particularly on long flights. Finn Air and New Zealand Air are fine but Air China and Air Asia are not since they do not recirculate air with sufficient frequency. It is important to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible, again this has to do with getting enough oxygen. I should also bluntly state that if I could not afford Business Class I doubt very much that I would be traveling.
Although the pneumonia has had a lasting impact on my health and travel abilities—I have to go in a few weeks for yet another test about malingering bacteria in my bronchial tubes—I was able to, with Dr. F’s pills and good airlines, overcome these.
And that shadow in the background, the condescending attitude toward older women, which is hardly restricted to travel? I’ve decided to use it. If stating, “I’m 83,” focuses the attention of the stewardess on a flight, so be it. I will use my age card to my advantage.
I think of standing above Kyoto on the path up Mount Hiei to the Enryaku-ji temple, alone under the pillars of trees listening to the wind. I think of the couple with whom I walked Kobe searching for the Kobe City Museum. I think of A and her big wooden, handmade house on the North Island of New Zealand, the view of mountains and sea from the Dolphin Hostel. I think of the over grown path E and I walked among the green thumbs of mountains beyond Yangshuo. I think of Cooks Bay with its steep mountainsides and fish swarming waters. But most frequently I revisit a green, sun-filtered glade on Hiva Oa where a small figure grins up at me out of earth and fallen leaves.