Costa Rica – 2015

The new year finds me assigned to a new market, Latin America, a world region to which I, despite speaking fluent Spanish since college, have never traveled–unless one counts Houston.  And so, at 6:00 AM on a blustery, 12 F, January morning, I and my faithful 1.5 bags of luggage board a flight to San Jose, Costa Rica and prepare for the always illuminating first impressions of a new country.

If an eerie cleanliness characterizes the airports of Hong Kong and Singapore and a breezy urbanity that of Melbourne, then a jovial mayhem is the mark of San Jose International.  After clearing customs and immigration services, where bilingual signs proudly welcome tourists to the “Happiest Country in the World,” I proceed to the arrivals bay, a dingy and clamorous hall where hundreds of locals–or ticos, as native Costa Ricans are known–gather to await loved ones; many hold up name placards, some wave flags, all vociferate, and I even hear an air horn at one point.  The bored faces of nearby police officers suggest that the scene is neither unusual nor disruptive; and indeed, though the noise of the place is deafening, the prevailing mood is not intimidating but, consistent with the earlier signage, buoyant and cheerful.  I wend my way through the lively throngs to the outside street, where I am met by swaying palm trees, cerulean sky, a rush of balmy 75ºF wind, and no fewer than sixty-five excited, gesticulating cabbies speaking in friendly but incomprehensibly rapid Spanish.

My appeals for the cabbies to speak more slowly–más despacio, por favor–go unheeded, yet I remain confident as I turn to survey the taxi queue.  According to the US State Department website, which I dutifully consulted prior to my arrival, official city cabs are red with yellow triangles on the doors but are not permitted to pick up at the airport; instead, travelers should utilize only official airport transport, which will be a uniform “orange.”  Upon my first glance at the three-lanes-wide horde of waiting curbside vehicles, I realize immediately that no one from the State Department has ever actually obtained a cab at the San Jose airport.  The scene bursts with more varieties of orange than a Halloween-edition Crayola box.  Plain; bright; dull; burnt; tawny; bronze; fluorescent; copper; ocher; tangerine; some sort of stark yellow that clearly is fooling no one; and a jaundiced shade that reminds me of the skin of a psych patient I encountered in med school who had eaten nothing but carrots for two weeks.  “You need a damn color wheel for this,” I mutter as I continue to fend off the unstinting, ever-smiling swarm of drivers.

Rather than guessing at which citrus cab represents the official hue, the prudent course seems to me to hail one of the easily recognizable city cabs and bribe the driver for a ride.  I surreptitiously flag down one of the red, triangle-spangled chariots that has just finished dropping off passengers in the departures lane.  In my not-as-fluent-as-I-had-imagined Spanish, I attempt to explain my request and to give my hotel address to the driver–a squatty, middle-aged, tico male who listens patiently as I emit unintelligible sentence fragments.  After several minutes, he interjects softly in flawless, Ohioan English, “Sir, pardon my interruption, but if you would prefer, you may proceed in what I imagine is your native tongue of English.”  Upon saying this, he glances up into the rearview mirror, and wry crinkles appear around his eyes as he observes my shocked expression.  Laughing, he explains, “I lived in Cleveland for nine years, my surprised friend.  Now, let’s take you downtown.”

The airport lies a considerable distance from the urban core, and the consequently lengthy taxi ride gives me ample opportunity to study the surroundings.  San Jose and its sprawling metropolitan penumbra fill a large fertile basin known as the “Central Valley.” Coffee and pineapple plantations abound in the hinterlands through which we pass.  In the distance, the encompassing ring of lush, mountainous terrain reminds me faintly of Hong Kong, except that the hills here are taller with more diverse vegetation and that I’m riding in a circa-1980s Honda Accord with no seat belts and a missing hubcap instead of a pristine futuristic bullet train.  In addition, dilapidation, filth, and poverty are rampant and overt.  The same triad exists in HK, but one must look to sketchy back alleyways on the Kowloon Peninsula to find it.  On the road into San Jose, it lies exposed and raw.  Thin, dusty, poorly clad children play with tree branches in dirt lawns outside of tin-roofed huts that have corrugated, sheet metal walls.  Rough, pockmarked roads–including the major highway my cabbie takes–lack pavement stripes and shoulders; we pass several traffic accidents, which remind me uncomfortably of the sans seat belt status of my own conveyance.  At remote bus stops, long queues of locals wait to board overloaded buses that, evidenced by all of the open windows, must lack A/C.  In spite of these conditions, the ticos remain amiable.  The dusty children in the dirt yards grin and laugh hysterically at some ineffable, youthful game; the owners of the wrecked cars converse civilly with the on-site police; and, the passengers in the bus smile warmly at the gringo in his taxi.

As we enter into the city proper, the natural beauty of the landscape gives way to stately colonial architecture, cobblestone avenues, and tasteful public parks, and the poverty changes from the genial squalor of the countryside to the cramped, embittered, and crime-riddled despair of urban ghettos.  Which is exactly where my downtown hotel is located.  Though the building itself is luxurious, a white monolithic highrise with blue-paned windows, the surrounding neighborhood has some rough edges.  E.g., the hotel concierge, in response to my query about a restaurant for supper, kindly gives me some suggestions and then ends the dialogue by saying, loosely translated, “Enjoy dinner, there are many good options; just don’t stay out after dark.  They’ll never find your body.”  A local doctor with whom I speak on the phone the next day corroborates this message, saying, “Eh, Señor T, that area is, how do you say, no bueno for you.”

Later, after moving to a hotel located in the upscale San Jose suburb of Escazú, I learn that the inner-city is not quite as dangerous as portrayed, although tourists certainly should not tarry there alone after nightfall.  Ensconced among modern shopping malls, Moe’s Southwestern Grill, Outback Steakhouse, and Starbucks of Escazú, I find myself missing the gritty authenticity of the urban heart.  During my short two days there, I encountered true San Jose: narrow streets built for oxcarts; cheap, spicy food; exquisite local coffee; historic buildings; uncovered drainage ditches into which I lost a shoe at one point; knife fights; and of course, kind-hearted ticos.  As my first week in Costa Rica comes to its end, I vow to return downtown during the upcoming weekend, just not at night.


Costa Rica’s particularly stout national rum, guaro, and an equally stout car door, puerta del auto, combine to make my first weekend in San Jose a memorable–or, rather, difficult to remember–experience.

As I had vowed earlier in the week, after vacating the gritty urban center for the sterile, drab suburb of Escazú, I join a city tour on Saturday in order to return to downtown San Jose.  Mid-morning, a stark white minibus, henceforward referred to as “Moby,” pulls up to my hotel, and I join my fellow tourists: a pair of elderly couples from San Antonio who are on a three-month trek through Central America; a middle-aged Seattle man and his twenty-something Nicaraguan wife; a lively group of five gay Colombian college students on holiday; an obese Latino man from L.A. whose T-shirt reads simply “U.S.A.;” and a European family with two children, a polite five-year-old boy and his incessantly screaming infant brother.  Together with our guide, a bilingual tico named Oliver, we set off in Moby towards the metropolitan core.

We spend the afternoon variably driving and walking around the city and visiting important landmarks.  The National Theater: an ornate neoclassical structure built in 1890 during the height of Costa Rica’s coffee boom.  The National Cathedral: a small but tastefully designed temple adjacent to a central plaza; Mass is in session when we visit, but Oliver assures me it is okay to take photos of the worshipers as they sing “Jesus, nuestro Padre.”  The ecclesiastic moment apparently moves to spiritual action the anal sphincter of the European infant, who defecates in and around his diaper shortly after we reboard Moby.  An unpleasant few minutes thus ensue until we reach the next stop: various civic offices and the National Gold Museum, which houses much of the central bank’s hard gold reserves and a baby-changing station.  Overall, the buildings and parks are lovely and are a testament to the country’s relative wealth and governmental stability, but they fail to leave visitors breathless.  The infant’s bowel output does, however.

Possibly as recompense for the miasmatic diaper experience, Oliver ends the tour by taking us to a jewelry shop / pub.  An odd combination of enterprises elsewhere in the world; unremarkable in San Jose.  In a laughably stereotypical segregation of the sexes, the women of the group congregate by the shelves of shiny objects, the men by the shelves of shiny bottles.  I begin to order my usual, a menacing club soda, when Oliver recommends that we all try the national rum, known as guaro.  The LA man gives a resoundingly American “hell yeah,” and even the two codgers from San Antonio order glasses of the stuff.  “My liver’s shot anyway,” croaks the older of the two.  Not to be outdone by a couple of centenarians, I try a small sample of the poison, which tastes terrible.

As we return to our hotels, I am the final passenger to disembark, at roughly 9 p.m.  Attempting simultaneously to bid adieu to Oliver and to step down from Moby, I crash my forehead on a jagged edge of the bus door frame.  “Too much guaro for you, eh amigo?” Oliver laughs as he closes the door and drives away before I can explain that excess altitude, not alcohol, has caused my condition.  Clutching my now bleeding scalp and not wanting to answer awkward questions from the front desk staff, I rush up to my room and attempt to dress the wound.  The laceration sits neatly on a stress line over my right superior orbital bridge, and though I assiduously stanch the bleeding, the site reopens every time I raise my eyebrows.  At midnight, after yet another episode of bleeding, I finally allow myself to walk across the street to the ER at the hospital where I’ve been working for the past week.  I discuss my case with the on-call physician, who kindly bandages my wound without charge and who makes a few snide comments about gringos and guaro.

Nursing a substantial headache on Sunday morning, I elect for a leisurely day.  I stroll through San Jose’s largest park, Parque Sabana, and through the pedestrian-only shopping and restaurant lane known as Avenida Central.  Later in the evening, at a Peruvian restaurant nearby my hotel, the waiter points to my bandaged head and asks, “Qué hiciste?” – What did you do?

“Well, it started with a divinely inspired diaper…”


For my second weekend in Costa Rica, I follow the recommendations of several physician clients I’ve met and arrange a weekend trip to Monteverde: a remote mountain town–originally founded by agrarian Quakers–and nearby nature preserve set in the unique “cloud forest” region of the country’s northern highlands.  Though the area lies several hours from San Jose, the doctors assure me the trip is a leisurely bus ride with excellent vistas en route, and so early Saturday morning, I eagerly await the charter bus that will pick me up from my hotel.

It becomes quickly apparent that the Costa Rican notion of “leisurely” bus ride and mine do not align.  The charter bus that arrives at my hotel is an overcrowded, chrome-detailed, tan and white VW minivan pulled straight from the ’60s; I half-expect surfboards to be tied to the luggage rack.  The driver, Fernando, speaks no English and answers even Spanish inquiries with a furious scowl and an increase in the vehicle’s speed.  As we move northward, the vistas of surrounding plantations and distant coastlines are indeed lovely, but difficult to appreciate at a constant speed of 175 mph.  Once we arrive at the steep mountain road by which one ascends to Monteverde, the ride moves from unsettling to alarming to harrowing to white-knuckle, soiled undergarments terrifying.  The road is unpaved, one lane wide, studded with house-sized boulders, and utterly bereft of anything resembling a guardrail; Fernando, however, considers none of these features a sufficient reason to reduce his speed.  Seated on the “outer” side of the bus as it circles the mountain, I have an excellent vantage of the sheer precipice down which we will fall several hundred feet to our collective demise should Fernando’s concentration lapse even for a moment; in some places, our wheels come within mere inches of this edge.  Prayers, in the multiple languages spoken by our bus’s diverse collection of riders, fill the air.  By the time we reach the town of Monteverde, I understand fully why it boasts such a large religious element; grateful genuflection seems the only appropriate response upon one’s safe arrival.

In a cloud of gravel and Spanish swearwords, Fernando leaves me outside the door of the small B&B where I will stay the weekend.  An edentulous, kyphotic, 900-year-old native tico woman greets me warmly in Spanish and ushers me inside.  The facility has four cozy guest rooms, which branch outward from the main family room / kitchen / dining hall / reception area.  The ancient matriarch and her family manage the property.  Her spry, 450-year-old daughters are busily preparing the midday meal when I arrive; after allowing a respectful interval of time for me to settle in to my quarters, one of them softly knocks on my door and invites me to almuerzo.  The fare is simple–rice, beans, tortillas, and home-grown vegetables–but good and filling, and the atmosphere is even more wholesome.  The only other boarders, a middle-aged Swiss couple, and I eat alongside the family; and through a combination of Spanish, German, pidgin English, and universal laughter a lively conversation takes place.  After lunch, I have an hour to spare before my zip line tour begins.  I lie down to rest, only to awaken moments later due to shrill, Spanish shrieking, “Aye, aye, aye!  Afuera, afuera!  Mi Dios!  Mi Dios!  Monos!”  Wondering if Fernando has returned with a vengeance, I rush to the main room.  There I find one of the daughters brandishing a broom and driving from the kitchen three silver-faced monkeys that had opened the windows, sneaked in, and begun stealing bananas.  They hastily retreat to some nearby rubber trees, where they proceed to enjoy the spoils of their sortie.  After snapping some photos, I return to my room to prepare for the zip line.

This zip line tour at Monteverde will ultimately prove worthy of joining Melbourne’s Great Ocean Road and Hong Kong’s Big Buddha on my Life Tally of experiences that have added inimitable substance and meaning to my existence.  However, the afternoon begins on an unpromising note.  As a solo traveler, I am added to a large group of undergraduate business students who are in Costa Rica for a three-week international finance “course.”  (As an Honors biochemistry major in college, I often wondered what the business majors actually studied; now I know.)   The students’ obnoxious frivolity generates exasperated eye-rolling among the tico guides, who no doubt lump me with these gringos.  Once we reach the forest canopy, everything changes.  I allow the future politicians and bankers to speed ahead, while I discuss with the guides various details of the zipping technique: how to control my speed and orientation; which zip routes offer the best views; how to avoid crushing my meter-long legs against a tree trunk; etc.  Nothing in the guides’ friendly advice, though, prepares me for the first moment of sliding out into the abyss.

Hanging a hundred feet above the canopy, which itself is one hundred fifty feet above the forest floor, I speed forward into an all-consuming fog.  I can see neither sky nor surrounding hillsides; only a formless, grey void broken at odd intervals by sable-green silhouettes of the tallest ficus trees and by transient shadows of flying birds.  I am soaring in the clouds of the cloud forest.  Moisture quickly condenses on my face and hands, and I can taste the pure rain droplets.  No sound, save the soft zzz-zzz-zzz of the zip cable, breaks the primordial stillness of the air.  The scene has a Jurassic Park quality to it; I expect a pterodactyl to break abruptly, screeching, through the thick sheets of mist.  Some of the zip lines are nearly a kilometer in length, allowing for prolonged intervals of gliding through the magical ether, before ending in a sudden, jangling halt at a treetop platform where a friendly tico guide switches the rider to a different line to continue the journey.  The entire run of lines takes roughly two hours to complete, but feels timeless.

With my head still–yes, I’ll say it–in the clouds after the zip line experience, the remainder of my stay in Monteverde passes in an enjoyable blur.  Later in the evening on Saturday, I participate in a “night tour,” which involves walking at midnight into unmarked jungle, accompanied by a bilingual guide and a dim flashlight.  Sensing, perhaps, my mild trepidation, the guide assures me that the jaguars, though highly efficient and strictly nocturnal killing machines, rarely attack tourists.  “They no like gringo meat, you see?” he grins.  Thankfully, we encounter no big cats, but an abundance of other jungle fauna: sloths, a raccoon relative known as the coati, leaf-cutter ants, sleeping toucans, and a highly venomous side-striped pit viper.  The latter we spot clinging to a low hanging branch, roughly at head level.  “Ooh, this way,” my guide gasps excitedly, beckoning me closer to the fluorescent green snake, “Isn’t she beautiful?  Look at that color.  Look how the neck is poised, set to strike.  Get closer so you get a good picture.”  Just as I begin to pull out my camera, the guide adds, as an afterthought, “She’s crazy deadly, too.  One bite, and you’re muerto in minutes.”  I decide that a blurry photo from fifteen feet away is perfectly acceptable.

On Sunday morning, the jungle hikes continue, this time principally focused on birds.  After a brief visit to the hummingbird gardens, where the tiny avian sprites are so numerous and bold they frequently alight on visitors’ hands, I join a tour group led by a slightly saner guide than the one from the night tour.  We walk for several hours through the rich undergrowth of the forest, and spot several species of rare birds, though one outshines them all.  The quetzal.  A vanishingly rare and unbelievably beautiful bird, the quetzal was worshipped by ancient Mayans, and for good reason; it is large, nearly three feet in total length, and has brilliant green, blue, and red plumage with long and often white tail feathers.  Our guide descries one perched two hundred feet overhead, in the thinning, upper reaches of the canopy.  Through his telephoto zoom lens, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the resplendent creature before, with a flash of its broad wings, it disappears into the misty heavens.

Sunday afternoon arrives, and with it, my departure from Monteverde.  I wish to extend, if just for a few minutes, my stay in that mystical world, but Fernando brooks no compromise on the time schedule.  As he impatiently revs the bus engine outside my B&B, I say goodbye to the partly fossilized proprietress and pause to take in one last view of the cloud forests, earning in doing so a volley of angry honking and obscene gestures from Fernando.  As we careen down the mountainside back towards San Jose, my mind remains in the canopy, zipping along with the quetzals.


Work obligations during my third and final weekend in Costa Rica limit my sightseeing activities to a single day, but I make the most of it with a Sunday tripartite tour to Poas Volcano, Doka coffee plantation, and La Paz waterfalls.

Still reeling from Fernando’s driving of the previous weekend, I book this Sunday’s tour with a different company and am grateful to find that the vehicle arriving at my hotel is a spacious, modern van driven by a stately, grey-haired gentleman named Roberto.  The final passenger in the group, I join the other tourists already on board: a retired banker and his wife from Michigan; three elderly spinsters from Florida who have come to San Jose for dental implants; a pair of sultry Colombian strumpets; and a family of five Italians who are–predictably–vivacious, vocal, and effusive in praise of each and every sight we encounter.  I learn of their Italian heritage after conversing for several minutes in Spanish with the husband, only to realize slowly that his speech is difficult to understand not because it’s an obscure Hispanic dialect but because it’s a different language.  By this point in the drive, Roberto has conveyed us out of the central valley, and we ascend the switchbacking road up Poas, stopping first at the Doka coffee farm.

Set among several thousand idyllic acres of rich mountain soil fertilized by volcanic ash, the Doka plantation has operated for more than 70 years, across three generations of the same family, and produces truly superb coffee.  The guided tour takes us through the entire production process: from planting, cultivation, and harvest to shelling, drying, and roasting to packaging and export.  The experience is quite educational, though only a couple of highlights warrant mention.  I learn that 75% of the plantation’s coffee goes directly to Starbucks USA, and I immediately wonder how one obtains the job of Starbucks source researcher who travels to exotic locales to procure fine coffee.  During the roasting section of the tour, the guide explains that light roast may taste weaker than dark roast but, contrary to common belief, actually contains more caffeine per gram.  This information utterly dumbfounds most of the Americans present.  Indeed, the banker responds with an indignant, “Unbelievable!  All these years, I’ve been drinking the wrong brew.”  I smile, because this news is no news to me.  As part of the medical student indoctrination process, upperclassmen mentor the first-years on various survival strategies, one of the more crucial being how to obtain the most stimulant possible per student loan dollar.  Cocaine is highly effective, but regrettably illicit.  Purified caffeine extracts work well, but are expensive.  Coffee, that sweet nectar of life, meets most needs, but only a light roast can carry one through an all-night anatomy review of the brachial plexus.  Thinking of my mother, the only person I’ve ever met who drinks more coffee than a medical student, I purchase a couple of bags of beans at the Doka gift shop, and hasten back to the bus for our continued journey to the top of Poas.

The apex of Poas is an anticlimax, for heavy clouds and mist enshroud the mountaintop and completely obscure what I’m told is a stunning view of the volcanic crater.  Rather disappointed and nursing a severe headache from the heavy sulfur fumes in the air, I hasten back to the bus, where I converse with Roberto for several minutes while awaiting the return of the remainder of our group.  Roberto, in the characteristic optimism of the ticos, points out that the failed Poas attempt simply gives me an excuse to return one day to San Jose.  I like his perspective.  Once the group assembles, we depart for the day’s final destination: the La Paz Waterfalls.

Or, in Spanish, La Paz cataratas.  The place is a nature preserve similar to Monteverde but, owing to a lower elevation, falls under the “rain forest” rather than “cloud forest” designation and boasts waterfalls rather than zip-lines as its principal attraction.  These waterfalls consist of a series of four separate cascades, ranging from 30 to 120 feet in height, coursing through several kilometers of lush tropical growth, which is continuously dripping wet from the overspray of the falls.  The noise is thundering, a physical manifestation of the sheer energy behind the masses of flowing water.  Wrapped in a tattered green poncho that began disintegrating the moment I withdrew it from its packaging, I stand awestruck at the falls, and shivering from incipient hypothermia.  At the terminus of the hike, Roberto and his chariot wait for the now bedraggled passengers, and mercifully, he has prepared hot coffee for us.  Over said coffee, Roberto informs me that just five years ago, the entire La Paz region was destroyed in a tremendous earthquake, though one would never suspect it from the seamless beauty of the refuge.  I gaze with new respect upon the dense jungle from which I’ve just emerged.  Nature has an incredible resiliency, and I wonder for a moment if humanity will prove as enduring.

Metaphysical musings aside, the weekend forms a strong conclusion to my month in Costa Rica and to my short stint as a globe-trotting salesman.  My immediate path henceforward is as obscured as the caldera of Poas, but channeling Roberto’s optimism, great wonders may lie just beyond the mist.

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Rolexes and Kleenexes

Orchard Road, in Singapore.
A bustling urban thoroughfare,
And playground for Ferraris and Bentleys,
With broad, polished promenades
Lined by haute shopping malls, Four Seasons hotels, and orchid topiaries
And frequented by financiers whose cufflinks
Are worth more than the GDPs of most countries.
Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Vertu, and Rolex storefronts dazzle pedestrians
Who perambulate, unhurried by pecuniary concerns, beneath multistory LED billboards.
Detritus, crime, poverty,
And last year’s summer fashions
Are quietly removed by robotic street-sweepers and secret police,
Here,
At the apogee of human civilization.

A rising, twenty-seven-year-old, recent medical graduate from the US,
I am in Singapore to conduct health systems research.
But in the evenings,
I walk this Fifth Avenue of the East,
Gleefully aware that the generous emoluments of my profession will soon grant me
Access to all the superfluous treasures around me.
I moisten the front of my underpants
As yet another sleek Lamborghini growls by.

Outside of an especially lavish galleria fittingly entitled PARAGON, a scene:
A disfigured, octogenarian Singaporean man.
He wears faded green trousers, clunky black boots with a hole over the right great toe,
And a soiled khaki button-up shirt with a crumpled collar.
His left leg hangs shriveled and lame;
The muscle atrophy and limb malformation are pathognomonic sequelae of paralytic polio.
(I’ve never before seen a real-life case.)
He has severe, untreated kyphoscoliosis,
Which leaves his back frozen in a gruesome spiral like a gnarled tree branch
And his torso bent in a permanent obeisance.
Hobbling along the sidewalk with a gait that lists continuously to the port side,
He proffers something to the chic passers-by,
Who either grimace and recoil
Or ignore him entirely.
He turns his face upwards to me.
His cloudy pupils reveal bilateral cataracts; his skin is leathery and deeply wrinkled.
His merchandise consists of little travel-size packages of Kleenex,
$2 each.

I have only $1.30 in spare change
Clinking in the front right pocket of my Armani slacks.
When I offer this sum,
He angrily shakes his head
And points to the cardboard sign indicating the $2 price.
I try to explain that the money is gratis, not intended to procure a product,
But the man continues to refuse.
Mortified to imagine my fellow orchardists witnessing the richly attired doctor
Haggling
With a crippled beggar,
I hastily drop my coins into the red plastic cup that functions as his cash register
And flee.

Safely ensconced in a bistro terrace across the street,
I order supper and glance back towards the gargoyle,
Who is still attempting, unsuccessfully, to make sales.
Suddenly, his poliomyelitic leg catches on an ornate flagstone.
My stomach wrenches
As he stumbles,
Collapsing like a sodden sandbag,
Spilling his tissue packs and precious coins across the path.
He lies there for several minutes.
No one stops
To help him to his feet or to gather the scattered goods.
Laboriously, he and his grotesque frame rise to a crawling position,
And he scrabbles about to collect his various wares,
His rheumatic fingers in constant danger of being crushed
By handcrafted Italian loafers.

The organic, fair-trade falafel wrap and kale salad remain untouched on my plate;
Shame, indignation, and despair prove a heavy enough repast.
I feel nauseated.
An elegantly arranged orchid bed next to my table
Receives my vomitus.
This is the magnum opus of humanity:
Bilious stomach acid on one’s lips,
Which no Kleenex tissue
Or silk handkerchief
Can ever wipe clean.

Melbourne – 2014

My flight from Singapore to Melbourne is a red-eye, and as dawn breaks, we are en route 35,000 feet above the center of the Australian continent.  Though my economy-class seat violates Geneva Convention proscriptions on implements of torture, it does at least have a window, and peering out this tiny aperture, I look down upon what appears to be the surface of Mars.  The earth is red, windswept, scarred with dried-up riverbeds, and devoid of all human presence.  Yet, in spite of this rather stark introduction to Australia, my first week in Melbourne proves a literal and figurative breath of fresh air after three months in Southeast Asia.

As I step off the plane, a cool breeze and a medical team screening for Ebola greet me.   The screening protocol forces the plane to bypass the main terminal building and instead to park on the open tarmac, where passengers board sealed buses to an isolated checkpoint for health clearance before entering into the actual airport.  The entire process seems a bit unnecessary, considering our flight originated from Singapore and not West Africa, but the circuitous routing gives me ample time to enjoy the weather, which is fair, dry, and 60F with the aforementioned breeze.  I actually feel cold and wish for my jacket, which has lain wadded up and unused for three months in my luggage.  It is not possible to describe what the marked change in climate does for my psyche; I nearly break out in song, except that such a display would undoubtedly draw the attention of the medical personnel, who would then quarantine me for neurosyphilitic dementia or mad-cow disease.

Once the airport staff allows me to rejoin the rest of humanity, I proceed to the ground transportation desk and encounter the native Aussie accent for the first time.

A chipper young woman at the counter greets me, “G’day, mate!  How’re ya goin’? Headed to the CBD?”

It’s 8:30 a.m., I just completed an 8-hour sleepless flight, and I haven’t yet located a Starbucks.  Accordingly, my mentation lags, and I answer her, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t a clue as to what you just said.  Is this where I buy my ticket for the Skybus to the downtown hotels?”

“Righty-O, mate!  That’ll be $18.  Let me check the diary here…yep, catch it on your left in 10 minutes,” she responds with indefatigable energy, “Cheers!”

“Um, sure,” I mumble as I attempt to produce the correct fare from the wad of confusing, new currency in my hands. “And,” I add, “Where do I get some coffee?”

Once settled in my hotel, an ostentatiously named hovel called the Pegasus Apart’Hotel, I set out to experience the local cuisine, and only three blocks from my lodgings I discover the Queen Victoria Market, a 150-year-old farmers market and collection of eateries.  The first shop I encounter sells organic falafel and lentil wraps with flaxseed tortillas. Having spent the last three months eating the only vegetarian options available in Southeast Asia–namely, peanut butter sandwiches, chickpea masala, and Chinese mixed rice–I gleefully purchase and consume a socially indecent number of the wraps.  “I’m going to like Melbourne,” I predict, as I buy a spelt and chia seed roll for dessert.

On Monday, I begin to call physicians’ offices, only to discover that most are closed or are closing early and that all will be closed on Tuesday in honor of the Melbourne Cup.  My two grad school colleagues and close friends who live in Melbourne inform me that “The Cup” is a horse race.  An all-day extravaganza held at the Flemington Race Grounds and attended by more than 100,000 people, The Cup is a centuries-old tradition of such importance that it has its own public holiday.  Indeed, it carries the slogan, “The Race that Stops a Nation.”  My friends persuade me to attend, and so, early Tuesday morning, I don my nicest, semi-wrinkled, mildly sweat-stained dress wear and catch a train to Flemington.

If the reader wonders, these dress clothes are an absolute necessity because The Cup consists of 5% racing and 95% social/fashion affairs.  Attendees wear their finest finery, often with a nostalgic flair to celebrate the late 1800s roots of the event.  The men wear three piece suits complete with top hats, golden watch chains, and walking sticks; I even see one man sporting knickers and wielding a monocle.  Classy.  The ladies, of course, take things to a new level.  Spectacular dresses, opulent jewelry, frighteningly unstable shoes, but most of all, hats–outrageous hats.  Lacy sun visors; posy-decorated cups that sit aslant on the head; flamboyant sombrero-like devices.  One particular arrangement I see boasts a pair of enormous peacock feathers and gives its wearer a disturbingly insectoid appearance; I wonder whether to take a photo of the woman or to spray her with DEET.

Throughout the day, everyone stands around drinking champagne and, on occasion, looking towards the field to watch one of the races that take place every hour leading up to the main event: the actual Melbourne Cup race, with prize winnings in excess of $6 million USD.  This race is 3200 meters in length and lasts roughly 3 minutes, but the intense betting and anticipation surrounding it begin weeks in advance.  When the race does finally take place, the experience of being there to watch it is memorable.  I do not know anything about horse racing, and in fact harbor an irrational equinophobia, but the horses participating in the Melbourne Cup are clearly the finest thoroughbred creatures possible.  Their coats are luxurious and their musculature perfectly toned; when they move, every step lands with absolute precision, and they seem to glide or fly rather than run across the turf.  During the brief three-minute span of the race, the 100000+ fans unite in a deafening roar of inebriated cheering, followed by shouts of joy or lamentation depending on the outcomes of their bets.  Having no disposable income, I do not take place in the betting and instead simply watch the horses.  I have mentioned their beauty, but what strikes me during the actual running of the race is the frantic fear in their eyes as the jockeys push them beyond their physical limits.  It seems sad and perhaps cruel to force such exertion upon the animals, and in fact, two of the horses die immediately after the race.  Thus, I am glad to have experienced “The Cup” but leave it knowing that horse racing has no further appeal for me.

On my first Saturday, I take a self-designed walking tour of the Central Business District, which is the “CBD” referenced previously by the cheery clerk at the airport.  My grand walkabout covers nearly eight miles in a sweeping counterclockwise circle and requires about six hours to complete.  I begin in the industrial park turned chic housing sector known as the Docklands, and then proceed south across the Yarra River to the ritzy shopping and entertainment district called the Southbank.  Continuing eastward, I come across a large park containing the Shrine of Remembrance, which is a war memorial honoring the State of Victoria’s soldiers who fought in the world wars, and the Government House, which I believe is the residence of the governor of Victoria.  Turning northward and recrossing the Yarra, I find the Melbourne Cricket Grounds or MCG, Australia’s largest sports stadium and the home of Australian Rules Football, which apparently is a more barbaric variant of rugby.  Heading back into the city, I stroll through Fitzroy Gardens, where–for reasons unknown to me–one can find a 1/6th scale, miniature Tudor village.  Finally, I pass by the Carlton Gardens and Royal Exhibition Building, which played an important part in Melbourne’s hosting of an international fair in the late 1880s.  Sunburnt and footsore, I return to the mighty Pegasus late in the evening and eagerly anticipate Sunday’s adventure: The Great Ocean Road.

I must admit that I fear broaching the subject of the Great Ocean Road because no words of mine can possibly capture the unforgettable experience of driving this route or the splendid magnificence of the natural wonders that one encounters along the journey.  The Great Ocean Road runs for a couple hundred miles along the southern coast of Australia between Melbourne and Warnambool; and during its course, it provides travelers with nearly constant panoramas of the Southern Ocean, sea bluffs, beaches, picturesque surfing towns, inland jungles, and vineyards.  My two grad school colleagues offer to take me on the famous drive, and so, early Sunday morning, we rendezvous at my hotel and set off, picnic supplies in tow, southward out of Melbourne.

Our first stop, and the official start of the Road, is Torquay (pronounced “Tor-kee”), a world-renowned surfing village and beach.  Aside from a Surfing Museum, which consists largely of a collection of used surfboards that all look roughly the same to me but that draw awed comments like “Whoa” and “Sick, dude” from the sandy-haired surfers in attendance, the town is unremarkable.  We travel a bit further, to Anglesea, where we climb a promontory on which sits the famous Anglesea Lighthouse and where I get my first glimpse of the great coastline and of the Southern Ocean it borders.  Under a smooth and uninterrupted hemisphere of blue sky, the starkly white lighthouse stands atop the crest of a verdant green hillock, which ends abruptly in a sheer sandstone cliff falling hundreds of feet to the churning turquoise seafoam below.  The ocean stretches away to the southern horizon, and as a delicious, salty breeze steadily brushes my face, I marvel knowing that I’m standing on the last edge of the inhabited world; the only land over that horizon is Antarctica.

After Anglesea, we stop briefly at Erskine Falls in Lorne, the tallest waterfall in the state of Victoria, and at an unnamed beach to enjoy our picnic, but neither of these experiences–nor indeed many experiences from my entire life–compares with our final destination: the Twelve Apostles.

The Twelve Apostles are a series of monolithic, ochre, sandstone natural towers that rise vertically out of the sea where the surrounding coastline has eroded in a circumferential manner and has left the towers stranded in the water a few hundred yards from the beach cliffs.  The structures are enormous, and the sight of them poised like sentinels along the coast, defending Australia from the turbulent grey-green waters of the Southern Ocean, is indescribably captivating.  My friends and I stand awestruck and mute for quite some time, and if it weren’t for the 9000 other tourists crowding the viewing platforms, the moment may even have been spiritual.  As we drive away, returning to Melbourne via an inland route that passes through bucolic pastoral scenes and wine country, I cannot stop thinking of the Apostles and regretting that the photos I took will convey little of the majesty those sandy citadels possess.  I decide that touring the Great Ocean Road and visiting the Apostles form an experience so inspiring and impactful that a person’s time on Earth is, in some way, not fully complete without it.  I add it to my personal Life Tally, which is the–small but I hope ever growing–list of actions, accomplishments, and experiences upon which I can reflect at my life’s end and think “Yes, these things made my life meaningful and whole.”  I aim to add many more such memories in the future, but for now, as my friends drop me back at the Pegasus, I simply say to myself, “That was a right bloomin’ good first week.”

Blustery winds, overcast skies, frequent rain showers, and a resultant ennui limit my excursions on weekend #2 in Melbourne, but nonetheless, I manage on Saturday to book a tour to Phillip Island, an islet roughly 80 miles south of Melbourne and home to the famed Penguin Parade.

The “Penguin Express” tour, which at $95 USD is the cheapest and thus most appealing option to me, leaves from the CBD at about 16:00 in the afternoon.  A few minutes early, I arrive at the designated rendezvous point and am pleased to find a nice, modern coach bus filled with only a handful of passengers.  I had expected something more like my one and only experience traveling on a budget bus in the U.S., an experience that involved an overcrowded and under-maintained jalopy, a flatulent neighbor, and a necrotic diabetic foot ulcer.  Instead, the Express, as our driver, Rodney, or Rod, informs us, provides tourists with a comfortable yet quick outing to see the penguins and is especially lovely during, as now, the less crowded off-season.  The ride from the CBD to the island takes about 90 minutes, passing through abundant farming country similar to that which I saw with my grad school colleagues during our inland return route from the Great Ocean Road.  Thanks to sparse traffic, our bus arrives early to Cowes, the main town on Phillip Island, and Rod gives us an hour to stretch our legs and to grab dinner.  Faced with a score of “fish ‘n chips” outlets or Sailing Sam’s Porkhouse, I consume a questionably vegetarian Greek salad from a dingy diner and then head out to the beachside promenade that faces Bass Strait, the notoriously tempestuous sea abutting the southern shore of Australia.

As I stand on the boardwalk and gaze wistfully, musingly upon the gentle flight of seabirds and the turbulent waters of the strait, a whitish squawking cloud of feathers and beaks suddenly engulfs me.  Seagulls by the dozens, and swelling in rank by the second, converge in a riotous screeching frenzy at the very location at which I happen to stand.  They surround me; they fly into me; they defecate on my jacket.  Simultaneously shocked, terrified, and laughing hysterically, I begin to strike out blindly at the avian assailants and attempt to stumble away as the swarming mass reaches what must have been several hundred birds.  Eventually, I emerge from the ornithic Charybdis, only to find my Scylla: a pair of drunken seamen whose purposeful tossing of Cheetos over the ledge of the boardwalk had precipitated the violent episode.  Bleary-eyed and staggering, they smirk in an besotted manner, clearly expecting or perhaps desiring a confrontation.  “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” I quote from Asimov as I walk silently past them, though I do give them a steely glare that could have rivaled my mother’s.

After our pit stop in Cowes, and after I clean the gull feces from my clothes, we re-board the bus and continue towards the nature park in which the penguins live.  Because of our early arrival, Rod takes us on an impromptu, off-road journey around the perimeter of the park.  Our giant coach lumbers down narrow dirt paths as we encounter several other species of Aussie wildlife that also inhabit the park.  Foremost among these, wallabies.  Dark-colored, miniature kangaroos roughly 3 feet tall, wallabies seem to fill the role played by white-tailed deer in the U.S.  “Cute devils,” Rod explains, “but not the sharpest blokes when it comes to avoiding cars.”  We also catch a brief glimpse of Seal Rocks, a craggy outcropping of the island and the mating grounds for some 12,000 Australian Fur Seals.  The gathering dusk precludes us from seeing the seals and reminds us to hurry along in order to reach Summerland Beach in time for the night’s Parade. Every evening, just as dusk turns to twilight, bands of the world’s tiniest species of penguins (Eudyptula minor) appear on Phillip Island’s Summerland Beach to return to the sandy burrows where they spend the night.  This sight has become known as the Penguin Parade, one of Melbourne’s top attractions.  We arrive half an hour before the little penguins are due, which leaves me time to visit the gift shop and purchase an absurdly expensive poncho, for dark clouds and sputtering raindrops presage a rather unpleasant evening ahead.

Shrouded in my poncho and shivering on a cold bleacher seat on an exposed hillside overlooking the misty beach, I sit with about 1000 other tourists and await the arrival of our waddling, feathered hosts.  After what seems an interminable period of waiting and after watching an altercation between two tourist families over the right to use an umbrella on the crowded bleachers, I notice tiny objects flopping about in the surf at the edge of the beach.  The penguins have arrived, and an energized hush falls over the crowd.  Photography and lighting of any sort are strictly forbidden in the nature park to avoid blinding or frightening the penguins, and so, for a refreshing interval, time seems to slow as cell phones, cameras, GoPros, and tablets disappear.  The other visitors and I must rely solely upon our own vision and cerebral matter to record the experience.  The penguins, more clearly visible now as they emerge from the foaming surf and come ashore, are scarcely a foot in height, dumpy, and comically clumsy.  They gambol about at the beach edge until a critical mass, usually about a dozen of them, assembles, at which moment they make their break across the sand!  Shimmering black-white-black-white as their rapid waddling causes their tiny bodies to rotate and alternate between their dark backs and bright white fronts, they scurry across the beach and head towards the rocky inland hills where their burrows lie.  The little, frenetic herds remind me of young children playing soccer; an excitable mass moving together as one horde.  The entire spectacle is adorable, and I join in the collective “Awww” from the audience.
After watching six or seven packs make their rapid trans-sand dash, I leave the bleachers and walk along raised footpaths back towards the gift shop.  These boardwalks give visitors up-close views of the penguins as they, having made it across the beach, wend through the underbrush towards their burrows.  At this close range, I notice that the penguins truly are about a foot tall but that their back feathers are a deep blue, not black.  The little creatures now travel in smaller groups of five or six, and occasionally make soft cooing noises.  To my surprise and delight, the throng of onlookers remains faithful to the no-photo policy; the occasional deviant, betrayed by the sharp flash of his or her camera, is quickly and mercilessly chastised by the crowd.  By this time, the rain clouds have dissipated, and the night is clear and cool, the stars overhead radiant.  The quiet of the still air, the bright starlight, the excited but respectful murmurs of the tourists, the cute and guileless little penguins combine to make the moment magical, and I am glad to have made the journey.  Later, near midnight, as Rod transports us back to the city, I reflect on the evening.  Was the experience as emotionally moving as the Great Ocean Road?  No.  Was the ticket overpriced?  Probably.  Did I forfeit the money for a memorable few hours under the stars and for a worthy conservation effort?  Most definitely.  Does my jacket desperately need a wash?  Indeed.

On Saturday of my third week, I intend to visit the Healesville Sanctuary, a wildlife preserve located in rural Victoria outside of central Melbourne and home to a large variety of native Aussie fauna.  My Melbourne friends and many of the physician clients I’ve met have all recommended a visit, and with great eagerness, I climb aboard an early morning train from the CBD towards the distant hinterlands, where a series of bus transfers will bring me to the sanctuary.

At least, that is the plan.  I should note that most people, of any respectable financial means whatsoever, do not travel by public transportation to Healesville, for the route is complicated and time-consuming.  They take day tours via coach bus, much as I did to Phillip Island.  However, my finances allow for only one grand excursion per month, and having expended it on the Penguin Parade, I must resort to the web of subway trains, street trams, buses, broughams, rickshaws, sedan chairs, and perambulation whereby one may alternatively arrive at Healesville.  Alas, a rail network disruption en route interrupts this sequence and leaves my fellow passengers and me stranded, awaiting a rescue bus, for much of the afternoon in the quiet suburb of Lilydale.

My unexpected stop in Lilydale provides for a glimpse into the humdrum, day-to-day existence of local residents who live outside Melbourne’s glittering downtown sector.  The scenes could derive from any rustic town in the US.  Empty, cracked sidewalks and faded brick storefronts line the largely abandoned main street, while a plastic and unremarkable Walmartish shopping center bustles with the activity of young families pushing grocery-laden carts in an asphalt parking lot filled with SUVs.  Radiating outward from this commercial hub lie numerous residential estates containing a nauseous repetition of small, banal houses where whole generations of families grow, multiply, and ultimately wither, perhaps never passing beyond the confines of their particular hamlet.  The isolation and macroscopic negligibility of the quiet community weigh upon me like the many layers of dust covering its streets.  Eventually, the rescue bus arrives at the railway station, and as we travel back towards the city, I feel disquieted by the day’s encounters.  In outlying Melbourne as in rural America as even in the dystopian HDBs of Singapore, myriad lives pass without ever rippling the great surface of humanity, and I wonder whether one must do so to achieve meaningfulness and contentment.  Unable to decide the answer, I slip into a fitful slumber as the bus continues its steady, droning return to the city.

On Sunday afternoon, my two friends, who are physicians in Melbourne and who form a married couple coyly referred to as H&M by our classmates, meet me at Edithvale Beach, a popular weekend destination located just south of the urban core.  Arriving a few minutes before H&M, I have time to survey the landscape.  Bounded by sandy dunes, the beach’s tawny, curvilinear, flotsam-littered shoreline hugs the gentle, bluish grey waters of Port Phillip Bay, across which looms the picturesque downtown skyline.  Overhead, the sky is brilliant blue, but drifting herds of fluffy cumulus clouds provide periodic respite from the intense midday sun.  A bracing sea-breeze whips the flags of the lifeguard hut and sends small clouds of sand swirling through the air.  In orderly rows at the base of the dunes, vibrantly colored bathing houses, small sheds in which locals store their beach gear, give the scene a riotous, rainbow background.

Once H&M arrive, our activities involve nothing special.  We go for a brief swim in the bay, which despite the summertime weather is quite cold, and I challenge H to some freestyle races.  To dry off and to warm up, we stroll for several kilometers along the shoreline while viewing the bathing houses and discussing current events.  As evening falls and a golden and purple sunset projects across the bay, we picnic on a beachside table, our feet in the sand and our eyes feasting on the delicious spread of vegetarian dishes, curries, and sweets arranged before us.  Seagulls flit about as we eat and chat and laugh.  Like the softly lapping waves at the shore’s edge, our conversation ebbs and rises, naturally but steadily–from intense debate of contemporary public health issues to recollecting humorous stories to sharing in trite small talk.   During a peaceful lull in the dialogue, I peer across the bay and rejoice in the simple, ineffable pleasure of being among great friends.  Inwardly, I recall my question from the prior day: whether, to find fulfillment, one must impact humanity at large.  I am either arrogant or humble or naive or delusional enough to respond, for me personally, in the affirmative; but sitting there on the sand, listening to the rush of the breakers and the laughter of my friends, and tasting the salty night air, I understand why some may answer “no,” and be correct.

Brunei – 2014

“Wait…you want to send me where?” comes my somewhat shrill response after my boss reveals my newest travel destination: Brunei.

Unsure even of where Brunei exists on the globe, I research online about the country, and my findings alarm me.  Located on the northwestern edge of the Malaysian island of Borneo roughly two hours by air from Singapore, Brunei is a small Islamic nation that boasts tremendous oil and natural gas wealth.  The ruling king, or Sultan, has a net worth exceeding $40 billion US dollars; and with a total population of only 400,000 persons, the country possesses one of the highest per capita GDP figures in the world.  These data account for my boss’s interest in the market, but my mind dwells on other aspects of the country: namely, its recent implementation of hardline Sharia Islamic law, its geographic proximity to known jihadist organizations in Indonesia, and its constant 100% humidity level.  Nevertheless, because the US State Department lists no specific travel advisories for Brunei, I pluck up the courage–or, more accurately, rely on an abundance of hopeful naivete–and board my plane at Singapore Airport, and prepare to depart.

I say “prepare to depart” because that is all the initial flight achieves.  Shortly after the passengers have boarded, the jetway malfunctions and wedges against the side of our plane’s fuselage.  The captain immediately cancels the flight and orders the disembarkation of all crew and passengers.  We climb down stairs on the undamaged side of the aircraft and return to the airport terminal, where complimentary lunch and gift baskets placate us until Singapore Airlines can scrounge up a spare plane, a 777-300.  I try to imagine what it costs the airline to do this, for our entire host of passengers totals scarcely 100, yet we are to make use of a aircraft intended to carry nearly 400.  The boarding process this time proceeds uneventfully, and each passenger gets an entire row of seats to himself or herself.  Shortly after takeoff,  I stretch my frame horizontally across three adjacent berths and promptly fall asleep, thinking to myself, “Well, one could imagine worse beginnings to the trip.”

Evening approaches as we descend towards Brunei International Airport, and I peer out the window to catch my first glimpses of the country.  Instead of the urban megalopolis to which I have grown accustomed in my five weeks in Singapore, sparsely settled jungle spreads inland from turquoise waters of the South China Sea.  At irregular intervals, golden minarets of mosques rise above the treeline.  The few small office buildings of the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB for short, are visible for just a moment before we land.  Entering the airport, I receive my first exposure to Brunei’s wealth and to its paradoxical lack of development.  The terminal building is luxurious–with marble floors, mahogany walls, chandeliers, brass balustrades, and sharply liveried attendants who greet disembarking passengers–yet lacks a bit of practicality.  The arrivals area has a KFC and a Burger King serving halal foods but lacks any service desks for arranging hotels or transportation or local SIM phone cards.  The information desk is unattended and, indeed, appears as though it hasn’t been attended in many months.  Because of my late arrival, the airport shuttle from my hotel is no longer available, and thus, unable to call the hotel, I find myself standing at the terminal exit and facing the country, without any idea of how to proceed and with a constant expectation of being attacked, abducted, savagely beaten, and held for ransom by some rogue militant group.

That is when I begin to notice the local Bruneians around me.  Aside from the Islamic dress worn by both women and men, their most immediately obvious feature is a relaxed and friendly demeanor.  No one seems in a particular hurry.  They stare at me, as is always the case in my Asia travels, but smile warmly when I meet their eyes.  Most speak only limited English, but none are unwilling to try to help me; one man even offers me his cell phone to call the hotel, but the number I have is incorrect.  They eventually direct me to the taxi stand, where I meet John.

John and his colleague Brandon will become my personal cabbies for the duration of my week-long stay.  Brunei has a grand total of 30 taxi cabs in the entire country, and therefore, visitors grow to know the drivers personally.  John is sixty-ish, a native Bruneian, married, with three grown children–two in the workforce, one still in college–and has an unerring knowledge of every street in Brunei.  His favorite vacation spot is Singapore, but he says the cabbies there are unhappy because “they’re chasing after money.”  Brandon, whom I meet the next day, is in his thirties, less experienced but enthusiastic, newly married, with a three-year-old daughter and a desire to one day visit NYC.  As John takes me from the airport to my hotel in BSB and en route points out distinctive buildings and explains local traditions and customs, I consider his frank kindness and that of the strangers at the airport, and I begin to question my fears about Brunei.

I will not bore the reader with details of my business experience in the country.  In short, I visit with many local doctors and quickly learn that the native population, though happy and given access to free public healthcare and subsidized housing, does not share directly in the abundant oil money.  The private physicians charge only $20-30 Bruneian dollars, or roughly $15 USD, for a typical consultation and cannot possibly afford the exorbitant costs of my company’s services.  Curiously, though, they seem more peaceful and contented than the overworked, highly paid, highly stressed doctors back in Singapore or back home in the States.

On Thursday, I have no physician appointments, and I decide to explore.  In the morning, I go to the Royal Regalia Museum, which chronicles the history of the Royal Family, uninterrupted rulers of Brunei for more than six centuries.  At the museum entrance, visitors must remove shoes and relinquish their phones and cameras, but the marvelous contents of the museum more than justify this slight inconvenience.  The museum’s many rooms contain priceless artifacts such as gem-studded ceremonial crowns, a gold-flaked chariot used in the current Sultan’s coronation, and dozens of silver and gold trinkets he received from world leaders for his Jubilee celebration.  Countless portraits and photographs praise “His Highness,” and for someone from a country established in large part in protestation against the tyranny of royalty, I find both interesting and slightly nauseating this unreserved adoration of a mortal man.

Later in the afternoon, I call Brandon and ask to go on a city tour.  For two hours, he takes me to various notable buildings and sites, and also serves as willing cameraman to take the obligatory cultural immersion photos of me standing in front of famous structures.  The first place we visit is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, located in downtown BSB.  Constructed by the current Sultan’s late father, the mosque boasts an exterior facade of gleaming, unbroken white stone and minarets topped with domes of, I’m told, actual gold.  A moat surrounds the facility, and in the moat floats an enormous ornamental barge-like vessel, the purpose of which I do not know.  As a non-Muslim, I initially feel rather nervous about approaching the temple grounds, but the few worshipers I encounter react to my presence by waving cordially and by offering to answer any questions I may have.  I find myself once again disarmed by the Bruneian hospitality.  Brandon and I proceed next to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, located further from the BSB core and built by the present Sultan.  This structure dwarfs its predecessor, and is stunning.  Whereas the father’s mosque is notable for its seamless white exterior, the son’s mosque is a splendid panoply of colors and patterns: jade, white marble, ebony, copper, and of course, gold.  The building spreads across several acres and boasts a massive dome plated with 24-carat gold; four giant minarets hundreds of feet tall and also gold-topped guard the four corners of the temple.  I take photos, knowing well that they will not capture the true presence of such a majestic structure.

After these religious sites, we visit several government buildings, beginning with the Royal Palace: the Istana Nurul Iman.  Unbelievable is the only word appropriate for this structure.  A sprawling estate located just outside of central BSB, the Palace is closed to the public and lies largely hidden behind hills.  From the front gates, where one can stop to take photos, only the–predictably–gold domes are visible, but one can nonetheless appreciate the enormity of the residence.  Some stats from Wikipedia will prove helpful.  The building, which cost upwards of $1.4 billion USD, has 17 floors, more than 1700 rooms (no, I didn’t insert an extra zero), a banquet hall capable of accommodating 5000 people, and an overall floor plan of more than 2 million square feet.  All of this for a single family.  Standing at the gate, I simply shake my head in wonder.  We then follow the Palace with a few civic buildings, such as Parliament House, but none can compare.  The Prime Minister’s office is approximately the size of the U.S. Capitol Building, and occasions an illuminating conversation with Brandon:

I ask Brandon, “Does the Prime Minister live at the office?  It’s huge!”

“No, he lives at the Palace.”

“I thought only the Sultan lives at Istana.”

“Right.”

“…I don’t underst–oh, wait.  The Sultan is the Prime Minister, isn’t he?”

“Yah, yah,” Brandon responds, chuckling, “He’s the boss.”

The remainder of my time in Brunei passes largely uneventfully.  Sure, some hooded men in a water taxi down by the riverfront badger me to go on a sketchy “river cruise”; and, a creepy man in an alleyway near the same waterfront asks me if I “need a girl”; and, the heat and humidity exceed any I have ever faced; and, vegetarian food does not exist in the country except in my hotel cafe where I eat every single meal. But otherwise, I experience no difficulties.  Some visitors might object to the countrywide ban on alcohol, but I don’t mind.  All that matters is the BSB business district has a Starbucks, though my usual order of a “light roast cafe misto with extra soy” requires several minutes of explanation to the barista.  As already noted several times, the people are uniformly amiable and inviting.  Not once do I have cause to fear for my safety–until I attempt a jungle hike, that is.

On Saturday, acting on Brandon’s recommendation, I set off on foot from my hotel towards a nearby nature park, Tasek Lama, where one can see a waterfall and, on occasion, the famed proboscis monkey found only on Borneo.  What begins as a leisurely stroll becomes, after I take a wrong turn, a harrowing trek across abandoned jungle in sweltering heat.  For what seems like days, I clamber along poorly marked footpaths, surrounded by thick vegetation and with nothing but my own footfalls for noise.  I find the waterfall, which is lovely but not exceptional, and meet no monkeys (I did encounter monkeys on a shorter trip elsewhere the next day).  My imagination, however, provides me with plenty of lurking jungle creatures–mostly large, carnivorous cats–with which to contend.  Eventually, after what was in reality probably only 90 minutes of wandering, I happen upon on Australian expat family out for exercise.

In as parched and scratchy a voice as I can manage, as though I just finished traversing the Mojave, I plead, “Waater, do you have water?”

“Sure, mate,” replies the father, “but you can also get some right there.”

He moves aside a palm frond to reveal the park’s main car lot and concession stand located about 50 yards away.  His nine-year-old daughter, who just completed the same hike as I did but without so much as even a flushed face, is cheerily bounding up the path while carrying a couple of bottles of water.

“Oh.  Yeah, right, of course,” I respond with breezy unconcern.

My sweat-soaked T-shirt belies this nonchalance, and the couple–undoubtedly fearing my immediate collapse from heat stroke–offers to drive me back to my hotel.  I shamelessly accept.

Two days later, John takes me back to the airport for my return to Singapore.  Along the way, in what was a first and will undoubtedly be a last for a taxi driver of mine, he treats me to a local breakfast: noodles and “kopi O,” a type of sweetened coffee also popular in Singapore.  He adamantly refuses to allow me to pay for the meal, though I, even with my meager salary, probably make in a month what he earns in a year.  This final stroke of kindness by John convinces me that my negative preconceptions about Brunei were, like many stereotypes and snap judgments, unfair and ungrounded.  For the record, though, my fears about finding any veggie food and about facing a humidity level matched only by underwater volcanic vent plumes were entirely valid.

Singapore – 2014

The moment I deplane and enter the Singapore Airport, I realize my experience in this country will differ drastically from that in Hong Kong and Macau–except for the weather, which remains oppressively hot and humid.  The primary language on all signage and overhead announcements is English; Western expatriates teem everywhere; salads–yes, actual, green, leafy vegetables–are available in restaurants; and, cold water is the default beverage option.  Yet, printed in red ink all CAPS across the top of the immigration form that I complete at customs, the notice “DRUG TRAFFICKING IN SINGAPORE IS PUNISHABLE BY THE DEATH PENALTY” suggests another, darker side to this storied island nation.

Aboard the shuttle bus from the airport to my downtown hotel, I converse with the driver, who speaks in crisp English and whose radio blares contemporary American pop hits, and peer out the windows at the unfolding scenes of my newest country destination.  Sculpted tropical shrubberies and palms line flawlessly smooth roadways, and through the trees, I catch glimpses of posh villas with orange- and red-tiled roofs and white stucco walls.  We pass expansive and pristine city parks where joggers and cyclists exercise in brightly colored Spandex.  On the nearby horizon of the sea, thousands of ocean freighters dot the harbor, one of the world’s busiest ports.  As we approach the urban core, skyscrapers–each modern and glassy and of a uniform height–tower over gridded streets, upon which Ferraris and Lambos scurry like very flashy worker ants.  In short, the place feels like a slightly cleaner version of Orlando or Miami, with a greater percentage of native English speakers.

In contrast to Florida, however, Singapore is a model of urban planning; it has to be.  The country is one of the world’s leading financial and trading centers and is home to nearly 5 million people, but is geographically tiny, only about 3/4 the size of Rhode Island.  Space therefore is a premium commodity.  Apartments–or “flats” as they’re called, in keeping with the country’s British heritage–routinely top the $1 million mark, and in order to own a personal vehicle, residents must purchase special permits, usually equal in cost to the price of the car.  The mass transit system, which, rather confusingly, is abbreviated “MRT” as opposed to the “MTR” in Hong Kong, operates with stunning efficiency.  The city is clearly and neatly organized into distinct commercial, residential, industrial, and entertainment zones, each of which connects in a logical, seamless, and readily navigable manner to the others.

As a leading international port, Singapore is a diverse society.  The population contains numerous ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Europeans, Americans, Indonesians, etc.  Though widely disparate in their religious and cultural practices, the groups interact and cooperate in an encouragingly integrated manner.  Young Indian men help an elderly Chinese woman to carry her groceries down the MRT stairwell; a black man in a Catholic priest’s robes converses laughingly in a Starbucks with a chic Malaysian businesswoman.  Undoubtedly, dividing lines and divisive issues exist among the various communities and become apparent when one resides in the city for a longer period of time, but my immediate impression is one of a peaceable human civilization in which people treat each other as exactly that: people, without categorical prejudices based on skin color, religion, or other characteristics.  Novel.

Singapore is also a highly globalized society, complete with rampant commercialism.  The number of shopping malls ranks second only to the number of restaurants and food courts, and Western brand names abound.  Starbucks outlets exist at every street corner and, similar to their counterparts back home in the States and in contrast to their sister stores in Hong Kong, offer unlimited free Wifi to customers.  On my first day of work, I enter a retail mall food court to find lunch, and as the escalator delivers me to the top floor, I encounter a Quiznos.  “Blessed Father in Heaven,” I murmur, as angelic music and glowing white light seem to fill the room and I experience a sudden desire to genuflect and offer hymnal praise.  Local residents seem more aware of global issues than were the people in Hong Kong.  One day at a coffee shop, which surprisingly was not a Starbucks, the Indonesian proprietor engaged me in some friendly conversation as he prepared my iced soya latte, no sugar.

“So, where are you from?” he asks.

“The U.S.”

“American, huh?  I thought so.  Could tell from your accent; less stuffy than the Brits.  Whereabouts in the States?” he continues, while staring intently at the espresso machine, which seems to have jammed.

“Are you familiar with the U.S.?  The Great Plains,” I respond, somewhat surprised.

“The place with all the tornadoes?” he asks, glancing up from the now whirring espresso grinder.

“…Um, yes,” I respond, amazed.

The multiculturalism and urbanization of Singapore remind me of the U.S., especially of New York, but a quality of Singaporean society that departs greatly from American is also one of its most appealing: safety.  I have never felt as secure walking the streets of any city or destination, even my hometown, as I do in Singapore.  Young children, we’re talking elementary-school age, walk unescorted alongside major streets and thoroughfares as they trek to/from classes; women walk unaccompanied at the latest hours of the night.  People at restaurants and cafes leave their phones lying on table tops and pay them little mind.  At first, with classic American cynicism, I figure this appearance of safety must be a charade, the locals incredibly naive.  As my stay lengthens and I speak with more doctor clients about their country, I learn that the safety is in fact genuine.  Crime occurs rarely; major offenses like assault and homicide even more seldom.  However, this security, and indeed the entire utopia of Singaporean society, comes at a price.


Three days into my Singapore stay, on a muggy and overcast Wednesday morning, I awaken to a mild headache, nasal congestion, and GI upset (the details of which need no mention in polite society).  This constellation of symptoms besets me whenever I have an incipient enteroviral cold, and sure enough, by mid-afternoon I feel terrible.  I take an early leave from the medical clinics where I have spent the day recruiting physician clients, and I return to my hotel for some rest and, as it turns out, for some instruction in the healing arts.

By the time I reach my room on the 25th floor of the hotel, I can barely stand, I have broken into a cold and shivering sweat, and I desperately need a rendezvous with the commode.  This juncture, then, is clearly an ideal time for the housekeeping staff to choose to clean my room.  When I round the corridor from the elevators, I see the custodial cart stationed outside of my door.  “You have got to be kidding me,” I groan.  Not wanting to interrupt and thus prolong the cleaning process, I wait outside the room and lean against the railing of the open atrium that forms the central core of the hotel.  How fast would the vomit be going by the time it reaches the ground floor, I wonder as I teeter on the verge of retching.  I hear my room door open behind me, and I turn to find the housekeeper: a kind-appearing, young Chinese woman, probably early- to mid-thirties, who is staring concernedly at me.  She speaks little English, but clearly conveys her worry.

“You sick?” she asks.

“I don’t feel well,” I reply, grimacing as my head now throbs.

“You pale.  You have medicine?”

“This infection…” I begin, but am too exhausted and weak to delve into the pathophysiology of enterovirus infection and the lack of efficacy of antibiotics in treating it. “Yes, I have medicine,” I respond instead.

“Good.  You go in now,” she commands, gesturing towards the door.

“Are you finished?” I ask, looking past her to see a half-cleaned room.

“No.  I finish, you rest,” she responds in the imperious motherly tone–apparently globally universal–that brooks no compromise.

Approaching a state of febrile delirium, I comply with her instructions, enter my room, and promptly collapse onto the freshly made bed.  In the feverish fog that follows, I vaguely gather that the woman has called in reinforcements and that a small army of housekeepers is now in my room, either cleaning it with hushed rapidity or robbing me of all my worldly possessions.  Frankly, I do not care which, as long as they continue to let me rest.  At some point, I fall asleep.  Some time later, whether seconds or hours I have no idea, a quiet clinking sound stirs me back to consciousness.  Drowsy, I search blearily for the source of the noise, which in its softness reminds me of a wind-chime tinkling in a slow summer evening breeze.  The noise stops, and I look towards the doorway just in time to see the housekeeper backing out of my room; she smiles, waves, and points to my desk as she leaves, shutting the door gently behind her.  On the desk where she indicated sit a kettle filled with hot water and a steaming mug of herbal tea, already prepared for me.

The tea is wonderful: slightly bitter but fruity, with hints of matcha.  It also seems to serve its purpose; with each sip, I feel my head clearing and my fever abating.  As would any good scientist, I wonder how much of the amelioration owes to the tea, to placebo, or to the psychosomatic effects of experiencing the cleaning woman’s kindness.  I decide that the exact answer doesn’t matter to me, and I instead focus on the larger phenomenon that had occurred.  Uneducated, scarcely able to speak English, and in a socially disesteemed position, the housekeeper had nonetheless reached out and improved the life of another, ailing human being.  As I fall asleep later that night, I mutter to myself, “Well, great doctor, with all your decades of schooling and your vaunted degrees, who was the true healer tonight?”


My first weekend in Singapore ranks as one of my favorite, from any country and from any time in my travels.  Four of my fellow graduate school alumni–and closest friends–and I decided to have a “Southeast Asia plus 1 white guy” reunion.  Melissa, a pharmacist from Malaysia; Fauziah, a TB physician from Indonesia; Samuel, an ophthalmology resident and native Singaporean; and Viva, a business major originally from Beijing and now working in Singapore.  Our get-together began a few days early, when I fell ill and Sam and Mel brought food to my hotel room.  I recovered quickly and by the weekend was ready for two days of reminiscing and revelry.

Saturday morning begins with me making rounds on a few clients, and I cannot join the others until 11 a.m. for brunch in a posh cafe located in the heart of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.  Dressed in semi-formal business attire and still wielding my valise, I arrive at the cafe to find Fauziah and Mel already into their second or third round of lattes (grad school tends to attract coffee addicts, or perhaps produces them; such a question of causality demands a prospective controlled study).  Sam joins us a few minutes later; he is post-call after a 36-hour shift in the pediatric oncology unit at his teaching hospital and is therefore only minimally conscious.  Aside from Sam, everyone looks healthy and well and happy.  Smiles and laughter abound.  After our meal, and after thoroughly disturbing the usually tranquil atmosphere of the upscale cafe, we proceed into the gardens.  I discover quickly that business dress is ill-suited apparel for strolling through tropical gardens under a midday sun.  “At least I’m with two doctors and a pharmacist when the heat stroke occurs,” I reassure myself.  For the next two hours, we walk the trails and admire the impressive array of flora, which my paternal grandmother, an avowed botanophile, would have loved.  In keeping with Asian stereotypes, we take an inordinate number of photos, especially group selfies.  As we prepare to leave the facility, a pattering of footsteps grows behind us.

“Mister, mister!  Wait!” cries a troupe of ten to fifteen pre-adolescent, Asian schoolchildren, “Can we get a picture with you?”

My colleagues begin laughing hysterically.  “Me?” I ask, rather flattered but also somewhat suspicious.

“Yeah, yeah!–”

“It’s for a scavenger hunt–”

“We’re on a school trip–”

“We have to find a really tall person–” they all reply at once, breathless after chasing us.

“Um, sure.  Sam, can you take the pictur–” I begin to ask.

“No, no, no.  It has to be a selfie!” their ringleader explains.  The rest of them nod eagerly in agreement.

So, surrounded by a baker’s dozen of tiny, impish schoolkids, I take the requested selfie.  Sam, meanwhile, grabs my own camera and captures the scene for posterity.  There I stand, caught in a sunbeam filtering through the canopy and with arm extended and the ringleader’s cell phone in my hand, a giant ogre surrounded by the smiling students–none of whom reaches even the level of my sternum and several of whom are making the signature Asian photo symbol of a peace sign.  After the photo shoot, they thank us and run off, giggling and already posting the image to Instagram.

After a pit stop at my hotel, where I exchange my work clothes for a t-shirt and khaki shorts, we go to Takashimaya Mall.  Fauziah needs to purchase for her niece a souvenir: a plush rabbit Disney character named “Clover” who accompanies us for the rest of the day.  Leaving the mall, Clover in tow, we encounter an enormous crowd of people gathered in a large outdoor square.  Apparently, a “lion dance competition” is in progress.  Sam grows excited, though he has now gone without sleep for 40 hours, and he explains that the lion dance is a Chinese tradition wherein teams of two acrobats, accompanied by music from six or seven drummer teammates, perform stunts while dressed in a two-part lion costume in which one acrobat is the “head” portion and the other the “tail” portion of the body.  The stunts involve jumping and dancing on tiny platforms set atop poles that range in height from two to ten feet above the ground.  The performance is truly astounding.  The pounding drums, the practiced choreography, the brilliant costumes, the gasps and applause of the crowd.  I can understand why the tradition is so loved, and I am glad to have witnessed it.

In the evening, Viva joins us, and we go to a local food court for dinner.  The dining experience there contrasts rather sharply with that at the classy bistro in which we brunched earlier in the day, and it necessitates a brief description.  In the traditional Singaporean food court, nine or ten thousand tiny stalls sell a host of different ethnic foods: Chinese mixed rice, Indian platters, Japanese noodles, Malay seafood, coffee and desserts, etc., and in the middle of the stalls is a giant open seating area, whence arises a deafening clamor of talking, scooting chairs, crashing plates, shouting, laughter, and hawkers vending bottled water.  Effete niceties such as napkins, clean utensils, air conditioning, and sanitary kitchen conditions are largely frowned upon, and bowel perforation secondary to invasive dysentery is an accepted and indeed highly prized piece de resistance to one’s dinner.  The prices, however, are unbelievably cheap; we order dozens of chili crabs, roughly forty-five pounds of Indian masala, rice dishes, and fruit and gelatin desserts, all for about $60 USD.  After our collective Campylobacter inoculation, night has fallen, and we walk the waterfront promenade and watch the Marina Bay Sands laser light show, which is spectacular and a definite “must-see” when in Singapore.  Later, we find a bar near Clarke Quay, an expatriate-oriented shopping and nightlife district along the Singapore River, and talk into the wee hours of the night.  When Sam–now 50 hours sans sleep–dozes off and nearly slides from his bar stool, we decide to turn in for the night, but not before making plans for tomorrow: a picnic breakfast, followed by a day on the playground island of Sentosa.

Not surprisingly, Sam oversleeps a bit on Sunday, but compensates for the delay by bringing Fauziah and me some homemade Singaporean breakfast dishes that his mom prepared freshly that morning.  Viva cannot join us, but Melissa meets us at Sentosa, and the four of us spend the entire day hiking, climbing ropes courses, racing along ziplines, walking the beach, visiting the national aquarium (which, for the record, was quite impressive), and participating in the sundry other activities that Sentosa offers.  And, of course, we take photos; I begin to wonder how Asians survived before the development of the camera.  The island feels somewhat Disney World-esque.  Alone, I would probably find the quaintness trite and nauseating, but in the company of great friends, it’s delightful.

In the evening, Melissa must return to Malaysia, Fauziah to Indonesia, Sam to the wards, and I to my hotel to prepare for the upcoming week of sales.  We part ways in an MRT station, after scheduling another rendezvous in Tokyo in a few months and, of course, after taking one last group selfie.


Rather serendipitously, my second weekend in Singapore corresponds with the city’s annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, an internationally renowned sporting event and gala party affair that attracts tens of thousands of fans–tourists and locals alike–and millions of dollars of fans’ spending to the downtown district, where the race takes place at night on the city streets.  Despite being (a) impoverished and (b) not overly interested in car racing, I purchase a ticket: a walkabout pass to the qualifying heats on Saturday night.   My primary goal in attending the event is to incite jealousy in my mechanical engineer and automotive enthusiast younger brother.  Thus, $150 poorer, I join the ranks of fans streaming into the racetrack facilities early Saturday afternoon.

Like any good, hyper-commercialized professional sport venue, Formula 1 endeavors to highlight wealth and status differentials among its patrons, and this process begins at the ticket counter.  Vivacious and excited, I step up to the “Internet Bookings” desk to retrieve the Zone 4 walking pass that I had reserved online a few days earlier and that, I should note, is the cheapest ticket option possible.  A cheerful young receptionist greets me rosily, until I present my printed confirmation page.  Grimacing as one does when choking on a fish bone or when confronted with particularly objectionable bilious vomitus, she reluctantly slides my pass across the counter to me and rapidly withdraws her hand to avoid contracting the leprosy that she figures I must surely possess.  She then promptly turns to the next customer, whom she greets–loudly enough for me to hear as I walk away–with something like the following: “Hello, sir.  Yes, I have your GRANDSTAND tickets right here, sir.  A glass of bubbly to start the festivities?”  Feeling now even more like a pauper than usual, I proceed to the admission gate.

Further class distinctions occur here.  Paddock Club and business lounge members enter a private gate via Bentley automobile, personal helicopter, or sedan chair; grandstand seat holders via plush, red-carpeted tracts lined by kiosks distributing complimentary designer sunglasses and aperitifs; and Zone 1-3 walkabout pass holders via a slightly soiled side-lane where they are screened for TB, scabies, and the other contagions that members of their strata are known to harbor.  Zone 4 pass holders are prodded through metal chutes alongside the cattle and larger poultry stock used for the food courts.

Once inside the venue, I utilize my walkabout privileges to do exactly that, and I admit that the event–shameless capitalistic ploys aside–really is quite impressive and enjoyable.  A carnival atmosphere pervades the scene, and in the hours leading up to the night’s races, one can partake of games, concerts, and giant inflatable obstacle courses.  A vast food plaza spreads across the main lawn around which the track circles.  Everything from classic fairground food (e.g., funnel cakes) to fine dining is present; Zone 4 holders are each allowed 1 helping of gruel and mutton.  Several “pre-race” races take place, including a Porsche Carrera Cup, a vintage F1 car display, and a Ferrari challenge.  Zone 4 holders crowd by the thousands onto tiny, wobbly platforms erected to give them, at best, a marginal view of the actual race track.  Thanks to a certain vertical advantage, I am able to see over the track walls and therefore can view the race from any point along the course, no doubt to the chagrin of race organizers.

Finally, at 20:00, the qualifying heat begins.  Even through my earplugs, the sound of the engines is deafening, although diehard F1 fans bemoan the current generation of cars as dandified and wimpy.  The speed of the cars is, of course, amazing.  Numbers and statistics and even video footage on television do not adequately convey the unbelievable velocity; it is cliche to say, but the cars are indeed blurs when they zoom by one’s position.  I cannot begin to appreciate all the technological wonders inhered in those incredible racing machines, but I understand that the engineering is truly marvelous and that my brother would suffer cardiac arrest from sheer ecstasy were he present.  The heat lasts about 45 minutes.  Apparently, some sort of cunning attack by one of the drivers occurs on the race’s concluding lap, and the crowd erupts in cheers.  I have no idea of what has happened, but I clap and share in their enthusiasm, nonetheless.  Tired, sunburned, and with an achy back from standing all day, I leave the course a few minutes before 22:00, unaware that further race-day excitement awaits me.

As I walk towards the MRT station to return to my hotel, my GI tract begins to lodge objections to the earlier gruel helpings, and I begin to search for a nearby restroom.  The Raffles Mall, a high-end retail outlet located downtown and adjacent to an eponymous MRT station, offers the requisite facilities, and although the mall usually closes at 22:00, I enter anyway, figuring the shops will surely have extended their hours to take advantage of the thousands of F1 attendees walking the streets.  This assumption, however, proves entirely false.  After some few minutes, which I will choose not to describe and will leave to the reader’s imagination, I emerge refreshed from the restroom, only to find the mall dark and deserted and myself locked inside.  “Not good,” I mutter.  I run to the nearest exit, but the sliding glass doors won’t open.  Passers-by outside stare, point, and laugh at the caged ogre.  I, on the other hand, am not laughing but, rather, worrying.  Singapore law is notoriously strict, and I can only imagine what will happen when a security guard finds me or when I set off a motion sensor alarm.  I call out for help.  No answer.  I attempt the doors at other exits, to no avail.  Not helping matters, images from Stephen King’s “The Langoliers” keep flashing across my mind.

Eventually, I descend into the mall’s basement, where the food court is located and where I find a lone woman, a Singaporean in her mid-twenties and dressed in business attire, seated at a table.  She has a computer and multiple file folders spread out before her and is clearly one of the restaurant managers, tallying the day’s sales.  Before approaching her, I pause to wonder how she will respond to a giant Western male emerging from the shadows in the basement of an empty mall.  “This may not go well,” I predict.  However, I fail to take into account the enviable naivete of Singaporeans regarding safety issues; their country is so safe, they do not immediately assume the worst about strangers.  When I call out to her, she merely looks up from her computer and smiles kindly.

“Are you lost?” she asks.

“Not exactly, but I think I’m locked in the mall,” I explain.

“Ah, yes,” she replies, as though this sort of thing happens routinely, “I can show you the way out.”

I nearly collapse with relief.

The woman directs me to a service elevator, which takes me to a back entrance where a security guard is posted.  After enjoying a hearty laugh at my expense, the guard allows me to leave.  I reemerge onto the streets, only to be soaked by the torrential rains that have developed during my mall adventure.  “Still better than spending the night in the mall, or in jail,” I reason.  Through the rain, I jog to the MRT station and board the train.  However, one more thrill still remains me.

At Outram Park, the MRT station nearest my hotel, I exit the train, and because the rains have not diminished, I decide to hail a cab rather than make the 15-minute walk to the hotel.  It’s now about midnight as a gleaming blue taxi stops for me.

“To where?” asks the friendly Singaporean driver, a young man roughly my age.

“The Holiday Inn Atrium, please,” I respond as I climb into the car, “It’s not far, but I’d rather not walk in the rain.”

“Holiday…Inn…Atrium…hmm…,” he says slowly, “You know how to get there?”

“You mean you don’t?” I reply with some surprise.

“Well, I’m new, you see.”

“That’s unfortunate.  I don’t know either; I’m a tourist.  Let me look it up on my phone.”

Together, we navigate the dark and rainy roads, except that our location on my phone’s GPS suffers a slight time lag, causing us to miss several turns.  After half an hour, twice the time needed to make the same journey by foot, we approach my hotel.  At the last moment, I realize we are in the wrong lane for entering the hotel’s drive.

“Wait, wait,” I exclaim, “we need to be in the right-hand lane!”

“What?!  Where?!” my driver yells, as he slams on his brakes.

“No! What are you doing?” I cry out, for we have now come to a complete stop on a five-lane roadway that, despite the late hour, is full of traffic from the F1 event.  Horns begin blaring as cars swerve to either side of us to avoid a collision.  “Go, go, go!” I yell back to him.

We shriek in unison as he pulls an illegal right turn across two of the five lanes and darts into the hotel driveway.

“That’ll be $6.40, sir,” he says cheerily, as he comes to a stop outside the front entrance.

“It ought to be free,” I grumble, as I pull the bills from my pocket.  I hand him $7, saying, “Change, please.”

“No tip?” he counters.

“No.”

Grudgingly, he hands over the 60 cents, and no doubt mutters under his breath, “Typical Zone 4 fan…”


As in week #1 of my Singapore stay, I find myself in week #3 dealing with a head cold and a touch of pharyngitis.  This illness, coupled with the large number of clients I must visit on Saturday morning, limits my excursions for the weekend.  Even so, on Saturday evening, I manage time for a leisurely stroll along the Singapore River, and on Sunday, I revisit the downtown district to see its attractions when legions of racing fans are not roaming the streets.

The Singapore River is, as most things in Singapore, a synthetic construct engineered by city planners to fill a particular role that they felt Singaporeans needed filled.  It starts as a nondescript drainage ditch in the provincial suburbs out west and then, as it enters the urban core, assumes a picturesquely wending course among luxury condo towers and high-rise office buildings to provide an appropriate setting for river boat tours and for riverside taverns where obnoxiously loud Western expats (the loudest, invariably, being Americans) can watch sports games on big screen TVs while inebriating themselves on expensively taxed liquors.  Though dusk has long since fallen when I go for my evening constitutional, the night remains warm and the air thickly humid, clinging to me and stifling my breathing as I walk along the water’s artificial edge.  The scene is postcard perfect: smooth, banked walls; recently swept sidewalks; carefully trimmed hedges next to the paths; benches and streetlights spaced at precise intervals.  “Sheesh, enough already,” I grumble, “Give me something gritty.”  Seemingly in answer, the next city block opens onto the local district known as Little India.

Little India, like real India, is crowded with people and with culture to the point of absurdity.  The entire district comprises an area of maybe 12 x 6 city blocks, within which no fewer than 3 or 4  billion people live and work.  The roads are cluttered, the sidewalks filthy, the atmosphere jovial, and the buildings festooned with a melange of mismatched banners and streamers.  I immediately love the place.  Some sort of holy festival is happening, is soon to happen, or has recently taken place, for miniature busts of a Hindu religious entity, unknown to me, figure prominently on every street corner and shop window.  Indian music fills the air; men sit in groups and smoke while women dressed in bright, beautiful sarees of every color walk about in laughing packs and examine fabrics hanging in the thousands of vendor kiosks that fill open-air bazaars.  About this time, interested as my mind is in the scenes around me, my stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten supper, and I begin to search for a restaurant.

Of which there are at least 500.  I have no idea which establishments may be more affordable, offer tastier food, or comply more fully with health department regulations.  For several minutes, I wander aimlessly along the restaurant row until I encounter a respectable-appearing diner that has over its main entrance a small, English sign reading “vegetarian.”  “Well, that’s a start,” I figure, and enter.  Inside, the place is loud and filled with local Indians, which I take as another positive indicator.  My entrance causes a momentary lull in the noise, as two hundred faces stare for a few seconds at the great white ogre, but then the din of talking and eating resumes.  I take my place at an upstairs table for four, which is already occupied by a family of five.  As I sit down, the mother and father briefly look at me and smile before returning to their conversation and to feeding their young children.  I scan the menu.  Although the text appears to be written in English characters, I haven’t a single notion of what the dishes mean: chapathi, pappadam, daal, sambar, channa masala, thayir sadham, poriyal, tomato chutney.  When the waiter returns for my order, I panic and point randomly at a menu item that has a star next to it.

“This one!” I declare.

“Ah, yes,” he responds as he scribbles on his notepad, “vetty good.”

The couple next to me nods in agreement, and I take heart.

The waiter and the couple were correct.  My dinner arrives, served on a giant leaf mat, and is–without exaggeration–one of the greatest meals I have ever eaten.  The only item I recognize on the plate is the roti bread, to which my Indian friends back home have introduced me, but this unfamiliarity does not prevent my taste buds from enjoying the rest of the items.  I devour two helpings of everything: a coleslaw equivalent, a chickpea stew, some sort of okra and green bean thing, a whitish paste which is warm and slightly sweet, and the roti bread.  At last, filled to the point of bursting, I fall back into my chair and ask for the tab.  $8 Singapore dollars, or roughly six US bucks for the entire meal.  “If I don’t die tonight from gastric rupture, I must revisit this place before I leave the country,” I vow.  And on that note, I return to my hotel, where I promptly collapse onto my bed and succumb to a long and splendid postprandial coma.

On Sunday morning, I awaken still full from the previous night’s meal and ready to visit two well-known tourist sites: the Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands resort.  The Gardens is a large botanical park containing several outdoor flora zones based on plants from different regions in SE Asia, two enormous glass bio-domes, and a copse of “SuperTrees.”  The lattermost are elaborate, pink-and-purple colored, metal scaffolds that rise 60-80 feet into the air and that serve as huge trellises for various tropical vines and tendrils.  A pedestrian platform about 20 meters above the ground connects the SuperTrees to one another, and for $5 SGD, one can walk this path.  The price is probably a bit steeper than warranted, but the walkway does allow for some great photos, which if I knew anything about WordPress, I could insert here for a timely visual emphasis.  Alas, the reader gets, instead, reams of overly circumlocutory prose.  My condolences.

After the Gardens, I walk to the nearby Marina Bay Sands, a 5-star inclusive resort and high-end shopping mall that faces the central harbor and business district and that hosts a nightly laser-light show.  The structure is an architectural marvel.  The hotel itself consists of three, separate, massive rectangular pillars sprouting out of the ground-level mall, and lying transverse across the tops of the pillars is a horizontal platform several acres in size that houses the resort pool, several fine-dining venues, and an observation deck.  The entire structure is supposed to represent a boat riding on waves, and if one squints while drinking and suffering an acute bout of vertigo, there is a slight semblance.  The lineup of Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked outside the resort’s main entrance suggests the type of clients who frequent the facility.  Plebeians like me can only access the observation deck, and then only after paying $28 SGD, which I do.  This deck, located on the 51st of the 52 floors of the resort building, offers striking vistas of the city skyline, and the placement of the open deck on the floor immediately below the posh rooftop restaurants allows the millionaires above to play “Ping the Peasant” by throwing trash, mixed nuts, and unwanted cufflinks at the mendicants below.  After taking the obligatory portrait shots with the city in the background, I rapidly leave the deck, only too happy to escape the hailstorm of cashews and class distinctions and to return to Little India for some reality and some roti.


Having visited during the preceding three weekends most of the country’s “must see” tourist attractions, I decide for my fourth and final weekend in  Singapore to leave the southern urban core and to venture into the lesser traveled northern, eastern, and western regions of the island–making something of a “circuit tour” of the entire nation.  This prospect of covering in the span of a single weekend the full geographic extent of a political state strangely appeals to me, coming as I do from a land of such vast dimensions as the U.S.  What’s more, accomplishing this feat requires little more than riding the complete routes of the two main subway lines, the north-south “Red Line” and the east-west “Green Line.”  Saturday morning, then, finds me making my way to nearest MRT station to begin my grand tour.

I board a northbound Red Line train, and after a few minutes spent below ground as it traverses the city, the train emerges onto the surface, permitting me my first glimpses of the Singapore beyond the concrete confines in which I have lived for the past month.  Though the scenes outside the window would never qualify as bucolic, the number of buildings and the degree of urbanization do diminish, replaced by large swaths of grassland, tracts of jungle, and an occasional military base.  Nature seems to reemerge, except around the MRT stations.  Indeed, a pattern quickly becomes apparent to me.  Each MRT stop serves as a nexus of sorts for a microcosmic urban center.  A large shopping mall and food court adjoin the station; schools, small businesses, civic buildings, and city parks lie in the next closest ring; then, radiating outward from this core are scores of small- to medium-sized apartment towers, painted in various tropical pastels but uniformly boxy and unremarkable.  At the outskirts of the townships, these towers abruptly end, giving way to long stretches of greenery that continue until we approach the next station, where the pattern repeats.  This arrangement, I later learn, is–not surprisingly–an intentional design of the government.  To manage the problem of housing the tiny island’s 5 million residents, the Singaporean government created the Housing Development Board, which in turn created a series of self-contained mini-cities, colloquially known as HDBs, in which the local people can live, work, breed, and die without ever needing to journey inward to the capital metropolis.  The apartments in HDBs are subsidized, which is why they all tend to have the same, boxy, prefabricated appearance.  Through different municipal liveries and petty sporting rivalries, the communities receive superficial identities intended, no doubt, to give the populations impressions of uniqueness, but to an outside observer, the arrangement is strikingly, and disturbingly, uniform.

In all fairness, American suburbs–blocks of featureless, neighborhood “housing estates” that are built up, invariably, around a Walmart Supercenter and accompanying fast food chains–do not differ too greatly from the HDB scheme, except that the American communities have, at least, the virtue of generally developing in an organic manner as the population and the free market demand.  Nothing spontaneous exists about the HDBs; they are spaced with the same mathematical precision and statistically perfect efficiency as the park benches along the Singapore River.  As we continue northward, passing through HDB after HDB, every dystopic novel I’ve ever read comes to mind, and I cannot help but shudder at the similarities.

After forty-five minutes of traveling due north, I arrive at Woodlands Station–the northernmost Red Line stop and the closest to the island’s northern boundary, a narrow ocean strait that separates Singapore from the city of Johor Bahru on the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula.  Here, the community does possess a somewhat distinct character due to the bustle of the nearby border crossing.  The Singapore side of the strait features a long boardwalk, and as I stroll along this promenade, I note how close the Malay side is.  The strait is scarcely a quarter-mile wide, and a less-than-rational part of me thinks, “I bet I could swim that.”  Bright red warning signs displaying unequivocal images of soldiers pointing guns at persons emerging from the water quickly dispel this notion from my mind.  I settle for taking a few pictures of the border crossing, and then climb back aboard the train to continue my journey.

Upon leaving the Woodlands, the Red Line turns southwestward and, in conjunction with the Green Line towards Joo Koon, takes me through the great industrial district of the country.  As I peer out either side of the train car, mile after mile of factories, assembly plants, power generators, and warehouses stretch to the horizon.  Black soot hangs in the hazy, polluted air, and few people other than equipment operators and commercial drivers are visible on the dirty streets.  No housing or boutiques or schools or parks exist here; only big business.  Here, the proletariat sweats out the products with which the CEOs, comfortable in their corporate headquarters and office towers in the distant metropolis, make their millions.  Again my thoughts turn to literature, this time to Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

I wrap up Saturday by riding the Red Line back to my hotel, but early Sunday morning, I am again on the MRT grid–this time on an eastbound Green Line train.  As with the Red Line on Saturday, the Green Line initially follows a subterranean course as it passes under the heart of the city and then emerges above ground as it takes me through another string of faceless HDB communities.  Only as we approach the eastern edge of the island does this monotony change.  The rail line splits, with one branch heading towards the Changi International Airport and the other, the one on which I ride, continuing onwards to the easternmost MRT station, Pasir Ris.  Pasir Ris is a beach resort, but quieter and less ostentatious than the Sentosa resort my friends and I visited during my first weekend; it sits on the northeastern limit of the island and faces one of the country’s major shipping lanes.  The site appears to be popular with local families, many of whom have brought picnic baskets and beach umbrellas for a weekend outing.  Seated on a sand-covered bench next to the beach, I watch the beachgoers playing in the foreground and the massive container ships drifting past slowly in the background.

A combination of blazing tropical sunshine, 8000% humidity, and sand fleas eventually drives me back to the MRT, and as I make the return trip to my hotel, I reflect on my brief but thorough survey of the country.  The HDB communities linger on my mind.  Are they eerie creations of a Parent State, or brilliant solutions to a pressing problem of overcrowding?  I think of the families at Pasir Ris beach, many of whom undoubtedly live in nearby HDBs.  They had seemed happy and whole enough, and definitely not oppressed or dispirited.  I ultimately decide that I personally would reject the manacles of HDB sameness but that I cannot pass judgement on the constructs generally.  After all, they provide for millions of people the fundamentals of life: shelter, education, employment, and food, at affordable prices.  Worse institutions certainly exist.  Thus, as my circumnavigation of the island comes full circle, so too do my thoughts regarding one of Singaporean society’s most basic building blocks.  Quite the journey for a weekend.


My initial blog entry for Singapore ended with a paragraph about the remarkable absence of violence and theft in the country and with a rather cryptic statement about the costs to achieve this state of safety.  I wrote, “However, this security, and indeed the entire utopia of Singaporean society, comes at a price,” and then, my entry abruptly ended.  Anything more than this vague sentence I feared to write because, for the first time in my life, I faced an environment in which I did not enjoy the guarantee of free speech.  Despite using a VPN to cloak my transmissions and blogging solely on a private webpage, I did not feel comfortable publishing the following commentary until I had left Singapore for good.  Now, I feel as though I must complete my Singapore story.

Singapore is a dystopia.  To the visiting tourist and to residents, if they don’t question appearances, the place seems ideal.  Tropical weather; beautiful foliage coupled with a modern, urban setting; diversity of culture and cuisine; efficient mass transit; immense wealth; excellent schools; low taxes; near absolute personal safety.  One doctor remarked to me, “It’s perfect; it’s like Disney World.”  Indeed, and equally as illusory.

My first indication of the stark contrast between the rosy facade of Singapore and the brutal reality, I have previously mentioned in that initial blog post.  That is, the country’s drug laws.  As our flight touched down at Changi International Airport, the smiling stewardesses–or, “Singapore Girls,” to use their misogynistic epithet–cheerfully handed out the immigration entry forms, which are printed with a bold, red, all-caps message, “DRUG TRAFFICKING IN SINGAPORE IS PUNISHABLE BY THE DEATH PENALTY.”  This severe and immutable justice carries over to the country’s laws for even minor offenses.  A sign I encountered at a public swimming pool showed a picture of a youth stealing a phone; petty larceny, punishable by 7 years imprisonment and three strokes of the cane.  Frequent roadway signs showed an X through a person crossing the street; jaywalking, punishable by a $5000 fine and 6 months in prison.  Chewing gum, $1000 fine.  The absurdity of the laws has earned Singapore the nickname of “Fine City,” a moniker about which the locals jest and which some enterprising capitalists have converted into T-shirt designs.  Yet, few are willing to challenge these laws or the lawmakers who enact them.

Any persons who might wish to object to the draconian policies have few avenues for voicing their complaints.  At my hotel, I received a daily copy of the state newspaper, The Straits Times.  Reading through the headlines, I did not initially perceive why every morning I came away from the paper feeling uninformed.  Slowly, aided by the comments of an ex-American doctor I met who described the news as “sterilized,” the truth dawned on me.  The paper, and indeed all press in the country, is censored.  The degree of censorship does not rival that in China or North Korea, but still, journalists cannot criticize the central government.  In the stories I read, whether about Ebola or ISIS or maritime threats from China, there was seldom commentary about what Singapore should or should not do; articles simply list the basic facts about the subject and never analyze The State or Its actions.  I compare this muzzling to the free license given to vitriolic pundits and brazen commentators like Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart back home in the U.S., who regularly lambast the President and politicians and who receive in return not state censure but, in the case of Colbert, invitations to testify in front of Congress.  Not so in Singapore.

Indeed, journalists who do attempt to say something of substance are silenced.  One day, I read an article reporting the nationwide ban on a documentary film produced by an expatriated Singaporean woman about the communists who led an attempted revolution against the Singapore government in the mid 1900s.  The government film bureau ruled that the movie is subversive to state interests.  Rather than produce a rebuttal to the film and offer their own version of the history, government officials simply blocked the usurper and her message.

The one “outlet” afforded to the populace is a sham.  A small plot of land in a city park, the so-called “Speaker’s Corner” is, ostensibly, a free speech zone.  However, one can only assemble there provided the following conditions are met: the speaker is a native Singaporean or permanent resident, the speaker has obtained a permit from the Parks Authority and has provided a detailed itinerary of the schedule and topics of discussion, and the speech does not evolve into a protest or march.  Lastly, the government reserves the right to refuse any speaker if it feels that his or her message will negatively affect state interests.  During my stay in the country, two college-age activists were jailed when their rally at the Corner became too large and threatening.  In other words, one can exercise free speech, as long as that speech takes place at a scheduled time and place and does not broach any sensitive issues, and the government can make it “unfree” at anytime.

In sum, the idyllic picture of Singaporean society has a dark side.   The gleaming skyscrapers, posh malls, safe streets, and financial wealth of the country stand upon an authoritarian political structure, a lack of free speech, and a culture of submissiveness.  Granted, I was only in the country for 7 weeks, and my conclusions are undoubtedly both overgeneralized and unfair, but there is a reason why Freedom House ranks Singapore as only “partly free” and why Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 151st of 179 in press freedom.  Some people may be willing to exchange their liberties for the luxury and security of Singapore.  It is a personal choice.  As for me, I’ll take the dirty and destitute streets of America; they may be fraught with danger and littered with used condoms and needles, but at least I’m free to say so.

Hong Kong – 2014

The following is a series of travelogue posts that I wrote while working in Hong Kong for a health tech startup.  As it was my first time overseas, I penned these journal entries to help my family back home to stay abreast of my activities.  Rereading the anecdotes years later, I laugh at my naivete, but I also smile at the unfiltered lens through which I viewed my experiences.  I share these stories now, with minimal editing from the original time of writing, in hopes they will make you laugh and smile as well.

—♦—

The trip begins on a rather inauspicious note.  On the evening before my departure, after a pleasant and relaxing dinner at my younger brother’s apartment, I return to my parents’ house–from which I will leave early the next morning–and prepare to endure my mother’s overly apprehensive interrogations.

“Did you pack a jacket?” she asks.

“Yes,” I reply.

“How about underwear? Seventeen pairs are not nearly enough.”

“I think I’ll manage.”

“Sunglasses?”

“Nah, good retinas are overrated.”

“Don’t forget your phone charger.”

“It’s already packed.”

“Did you get your passport?”

“Of cour—wait…, what?”

“Did you remember to retrieve your passport from the safe deposit box at the bank?” she asks in a growing falsetto voice as the hysteria mounts, “The bank’s closed now and won’t reopen until after your flight leaves tomorrow!”

“Well, shit,” I reply with erudition befitting my three academic degrees.

At this juncture, my father intervenes, and with his characteristically unflappable business air, says, “Look, you don’t leave directly for Hong Kong tomorrow, right? You have to go to Boston for training. We can ship your passport overnight to Boston.”

Greatly relieved, I agree to this plan, believe the issue to be resolved, and excuse myself to my bedroom to complete my last-minute packing.  My mother, who even prior to the passport faux pas had already harbored concerns about my traveling to the other side of the planet, has now lost all faith in my ability to function independently and follows me while mumbling softly, “I just don’t know…”

Her questioning resumes, this time–perhaps justifiably–without any favorable assumptions regarding my intelligence.

“Did you remember your toothbrush? Socks? Shirts? Shoes?”

“No, mom, I had planned to go barefoot.”

“Don’t give me lip, young man. How about medicines?”

“Mom, I am a doctor, remember? I probably have the medicine thing covered.”

“You didn’t have the ‘passport thing’ covered.”

“Touché.”

Eventually, when I stop responding to her inquiries, she says goodnight, hugs me tightly, and steps out the door, all the while eyeing me worriedly.  Her gentle refrain, “I just don’t know,” follows her as she leaves.  I don’t tell her, because she already knows, that I love her dearly and will miss her.

Two days later, I receive the passport in Boston, and at the cheery hour of 3 a.m. on August 1st, I blast off from New York JFK.  After an uncomfortable but uneventful 15-hour flight, I touch down at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday, August 3rd.  My confidence as a global traveler somewhat shaken after the passport affair, I nonetheless hold high hopes for the adventure before me.


My introduction to Hong Kong comes through the immaculately clean windows of the driverless bullet train that whisks me at breathtaking speed from the airport to the downtown hotel where I will spend the next four weeks.  Steep hills covered in lush, impenetrable, tropical verdure rise sharply from ocean bays whose gentle waves form a sort of glimmering patina, shining aquamarine and coppery in the soft glow of the early morning sun.  The sleek and almost noiseless train seems an absurdly futuristic marvel as it races past these scenes of unsullied natural beauty.

We round a bend, and in a moment, the paradisaical landscape transforms into an ultra-modern urban skyline, with innumerable skyscrapers, looping highways, giant electronic billboards, and a cluttered harbor bustling with the movements of thousands of vessels ranging from day-fishing boats to transoceanic cruisers. The level of activity appears frenetic, and the pace of the train now seems more appropriate. I have arrived in Hong Kong.


Cleanliness, cigarettes, and wealth.  These are my earliest impressions of daily life in Hong Kong.

Beginning with the bullet train, in which not a single gum wrapper or discarded Starbucks cup besmirches the gleaming floors of the passenger cars, Hong Kong residents clearly prize cleanliness.  English/Cantonese bilingual placards proudly declare that on an hourly basis custodians disinfect the handrails on escalators and the buttons on elevators.  The station corridors of the subway system (known as the MTR) shine with fresh wax, and lack the centuries’ worth of wholesome grime, detritus, and pornographic graffiti that adorn most stations in the U.S.  The public restrooms–whether at the airport, in the MTR, in shopping malls, or in the darkest and most squalid alleyway of the city–are spotless, with full-time attendants who furiously scrub the facilities, sometimes within an awkwardly few seconds of the user vacating the commode.

In striking contrast to their fastidiousness with regard to the city’s infrastructure, Hong Kong residents do not seem to value clean lungs.  Cigarette smoking is disturbingly popular, especially with the younger generations.  Men, women, youth; it doesn’t matter.  One cannot walk the streets without encountering unpleasant clouds of secondhand smoke.  It is as though the smoking prevalence from 1960s America has transplanted to present-day Hong Kong.  Evidently dissatisfied with slowing sales in the U.S., where decades of assiduous public health efforts have drastically limited their marketing freedoms, the soulless American tobacco companies have loosed their poisons on East Asia.

I spend most of my time in an area of downtown Hong Kong known simply as “Central,” a global financial center (or centre, according to the Brits whose influence remains so palpable in the city) of almost unbelievable wealth.  Towering skyscrapers and massive urban development exist on a scale that in the U.S. has an equal only in the streets of lower Manhattan.  In the span of no more than two minutes, as I walk alongside Louis Vuitton and Gucci shops while crossing the street between two office buildings, I pass a stunningly gorgeous red Ferrari, a white McLaren F1, and some sort of Audi creation that looks as though it just time-traveled here from the year 2075.  Ten-dollar coffees are the norm, and most businessmen I encounter wear cufflinks worth more than my accumulated student loan debt–a not insignificant sum, trust me.

Yet, only two blocks removed from this opulence, crumbling tenements line narrow, crooked streets where stooped, wrinkled, elderly street vendors hawk cheap imitation watches.  An old man, blinded with bilateral cataracts and dressed in a baggy, soiled green jumpsuit, sits on a stoop and proffers tiny, wilted white flowers to the stream of young, chic, fabulously wealthy passers-by.  No one stops to purchase his wares.  I want to give the poor man the spare change in my pocket, but I do not know whether this act would violate any social taboos or how the people around me would react.  So, I do nothing, but tears fill my eyes as the throng of pedestrians carries me away.  Surely, with all our ingenuity and resources, humanity can realize a society in which the billionaire with the Lamborghini and the flower man can coexist in a more equitable state–a state in which, in all likelihood, both would find greater contentment.


Much to my delight as an avid recreational swimmer, I learn early on that a public swimming facility with a 50-meter competition pool exists in Kowloon Park, only a few blocks from my hotel, and on my second day in Hong Kong, I eagerly walk over to try it out.  After several minutes spent gesticulating about entry fees to the attendant at the facility entrance, I gain admittance, quickly change in the spacious locker rooms, and make my way to the pool deck.  There, I encounter what is possibly the single densest collection of human beings on the planet.  Thousands of people fill the pool: wading, floating, diving, splashing, swimming, and undoubtedly urinating in the water.

Undaunted, I approach the water’s edge, and step in.  Much like the sticky humidity of the Hong Kong summer atmosphere, the water is lukewarm and utterly unrefreshing.

“Probably the urine,” I speculate.

As I strap up my goggles and don my swim cap, I turn my attention to the task of following appropriate swim etiquette in a new culture.  I wonder whether circle-swim goes in the opposite direction here, much as the cars drive on the wrong side of the road.  These worries, it soon becomes apparent, are groundless.  Although the pool bottom has lane stripes, they serve little purpose because no corresponding lane ropes float on the surface.  People swim in every which direction, jostling and ramming into each other and resuming their courses in random vectors.  Lifeguards whistle frequently, to little avail.  It is aquatic anarchy.

Unsure of how best to proceed, I linger by the poolside and search for someone who looks as though he or she speaks English.  I finally decide upon a friendly appearing youth of sixteen or seventeen, who, as it turns out, speaks very little English at all.

“Where are the lanes?” I ask.

“You go,” he replies and gestures in a vague forward direction.

“But, go where?”

“Anywheres. You go.”

“You mean I should leave you?”

“No, you go.”

“I just…go?”

“Ah, ah, yes!”

“But, what about the other people? Won’t we run into each other?”

“No, they move. You go.”

“Um, all right. Thank you.”

“Very good. You go.”

I turn to face the open water, retighten my cap and goggles, take a breath, push off the wall, and immediately smash headfirst into a buxom woman performing the breaststroke.  I apologize profusely, but she seems unfazed and does not even break her rhythm.  For the next half-hour, this scene or a similar permutation repeats continuously.  I swim for ten meters or so, bodily assault someone, apologize, am ignored, and resume swimming.  The scientific part of my mind imagines that this is how atomic particles must feel during Brownian motion.

Eventually, I achieve basic proficiency in this art of social swimming, and begin to adopt my usual, quicker freestyle pace.  After a few hundred meters at this speed, I notice a group of three or four people watching me.  Thinking that perhaps I have unknowingly invaded their preferred zone of the pool, I stop swimming and ask them if there is a problem.

“Where are you from?” one of the men asks me.

“The U.S.”

“You Americans, always so good at swimming,” a woman replies.

“Oh, come on. Nah…I don’t know about that,” I humbly rejoin, as my ego soars through the glass-paneled roof, “I mean, I’m no Michael Phelps.”

“You know Michael Phelps?!” they exclaim in unison.

“No, although I did go to school in Baltimore, where he trains.”

This credential suffices for them, and for the next twenty minutes, I hold an impromptu swimming clinic: giving advice, analyzing strokes, demonstrating drills.

By this time, I am exhausted from the combination of tepid urine water and constantly dodging swimmers-by.  I take my leave, but not before accidentally kicking a man in the flank as I exit the pool.  He doesn’t seem to mind.


At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, I quite literally stand out from the crowd on the streets of Hong Kong and, accordingly, attract a great deal of attention, not all of it always welcome.  Most of the time, people simply stare; children often point; older youth sometimes whisper; and elderly folks, less bashful in their advanced years, tend to smile, laugh outright, and pass flatus in a corporeal trifecta at the sight of this giant Western ogre.  Once, I caught a young girl, probably ten-years-old, taking a phone photo of me in the subway, where my head routinely scrapes the tops of the train cars.  When I waved to the little girl, she smiled with embarrassment and quickly pocketed her phone, but not–I noticed–before she finished snapping the picture, which undoubtedly ended up posted to her instagram page.  #ogre

A less enjoyable form of attention I draw is that of the tailors who line the famous shopping boulevard Nathan Road, which I take when walking to/from the MTR station and my hotel.  Every evening, as I walk home after work, these men assail me.  Not just one or two of them, but dozens, and they are insistent.  One day, one of them followed alongside me for two city blocks as he outlined the specific shirt-trouser combinations that I need and the dates by which he would have them available to me.  As a tall Westerner who wears a nice business suit, I have, the merchants seem to believe, limitless quantities of cash at my ready disposal and a keen interest in expanding my wardrobe.

I have attempted various countermeasures against the tailors.  Ignoring their bargains only invites further vending.  Responding in Spanish causes them to consider me a member of the Spanish nobility and to redouble their sales pitches.  In the end, the best recourse I’ve discovered is to walk speedily and to employ fellow pedestrians as blocking pawns–leaving the tailors blockaded by stroller-bearing mothers, bag-laden shoppers, and elderly women who, predictably, smile and laugh and break wind as the ogre strides by.


On my first weekend in Hong Kong, my first real opportunity to act a tourist, I elect to escape the urban bustle of Central and to take a day trip to Lantau Island, a less populous perimeter territory within the Hong Kong administrative region.  The island contains on its northern shores the Hong Kong International Airport, but further to the more rural south, it purportedly boasts sandy tropical beaches and one of the world’s largest religious monuments, the Tian Tan Buddha.  So, early on Saturday morning, I eagerly board a ferry at Central Pier and depart.

Within fifteen minutes, I am violently seasick.  Crammed, alongside at least 13000 other tourists, into the dank underbelly of a dilapidated ferry that continually lists to the starboard, I catch only occasional glimpses of the horizon as we encounter wave after lolling wave from the giant wakes of transoceanic cargo ships that stream out of Victoria Harbour, and I begin to wish I had not eaten breakfast.  Suffocating from the carbon monoxide-laden exhaust fumes seeping into the cabin and from the stench of whatever unspeakable atrocity the screaming infant in the seat behind me committed in its diaper, I pray silently either to succumb to an immediate and fatal case of scurvy or to have a rogue harpoon crash through the salt-encrusted porthole near my head.  Just as I begin to consider assaulting the ferry’s boatswain in order to gain access to the open deck, the boat shudders suddenly.  Great, we’ve begun to capsize or we’ve reached Lantau, I figure, happy to accept either outcome.  It’s the latter, and rejoicing, I step onto the docks of Mui Wo where the ferry makes berth on Lantau.

Rather than the maddening chaos of honking taxicabs, screeching trams, and millions of slick-suited bankers that characterizes the Central district where I spend my workweek, the pier at Mui Wo is subdued, with a modest collection of garish trinket shops, a few rows of rusted bicycles for rent, and a small lineup of buses that on the dilapidation score give the ferry a run for its money.  I board one of these buses, overpay by double for my ticket because I do not have exact change, squeeze myself into a seat that a diminutive nine-year-old child would find uncomfortably small, and head towards Cheung Sha Beach, my first destination on Lantau.

As the bus wends along narrow roads that cling precariously to the sides of densely jungled hills, it must stop on occasion to allow for passage of feral oxen that roam freely on the island, and I grow increasingly excited for our arrival at Cheung Sha.  In preparation for my weekend outing, I’ve researched online about Hong Kong’s various beaches and know to expect at this particular location long and lonely stretches of white sands and unspoiled views of the South China Sea.  At last, we round a final turn in the road…and I encounter a replica of Miami Beach.

From the cliché tiki bars and surf shops to the overweight men unabashedly wearing tiny Speedos, to the loud music blaring out of cheap portable speakers, to the even louder multicolored umbrellas staked into the not-so-white sands, Cheung Sha Beach hardly matches the quiet retreat I had envisioned.

“Still, it’s better than pounding the pavement in Central,” I mutter.

Sunbaked and stereotypically languid lifeguards watch over the beachgoers: tourist families with tottering children building lopsided sandcastles; youthful lovers strolling inattentively hand-in-hand along the shore and stepping on said sandcastles; wild dogs combing the beach for discarded food morsels; and, sitting underneath palm trees, ancient local elders grumbling, smoking, and scowling at the tourists.  I long to take a refreshing dip in the ocean but cannot because I have my camera, passport, and credit cards with me and no secure place to store them.  Instead, I search for a decent restaurant, as the ferry experience and long, cramped bus ride have left me hungry and frazzled.

An open-air, comparatively clean-appearing restaurant that boasts beach seating and “South African” cuisine grabs my attention.  I enter the establishment, which at the relatively early lunch hour of 11:30 has only a handful of patrons present.  A short, brusque, female troll whom I assume to be the proprietress curtly informs me that the restaurant is fully occupied.  Terrified that the woman may bludgeon me with the water pitcher in her hands but glancing askance at the nearly two dozen empty tables, I meekly counter, “Yes, I can see that, but could you spare one place?”

She eyes me menacingly before answering, “Fine, but you’ll be on the beach. Take it or leave it.”

“That would be fine. Thank y—“

“JIMMY! Set a table on the beach for this man,” she bellows as she huffily storms off into the kitchen.

Jimmy, a diffident local youth who cringes at loud noises as though he has had personal experience with the troll’s water pitcher, arranges for me on the sand a flimsy white plastic table and folding chair.  I order a salad and hummus platter, both of which were surprisingly fresh and predictably expensive.  Though tempted to lounge in my chair and enjoy the beach scenery for a while, I hastily finish my meal and exit–hurried away both by the return of the troll and by a wild dog relieving himself on the leg of my table.

“Ah, yes, my daily dose of urine,” I note as I return to the buses and continue on my journey to the Buddha.

Perched atop the hills of the Ngong Ping region in the center of Lantau, the Tian Tan Buddha is a relatively recent addition to the adjacent and much older Po Lin Monastery located at the site.  The “Big Buddha,” as it is known, was completed in the 1990s and is an enormous bronze statue, more than 112 feet tall, of a seated Buddha that faces northward towards mainland China.  Thousands of people travel to the site annually, and on the day of my visit, arriving in the early afternoon after my Cheung Sha beach adventure, I encounter the usual throng of tourists, religious pilgrims, and opportunistic capitalists offering everything from pictures with Buddha to incense sticks to Starbucks coffee.

On the grounds of the monastery, visitors mingle with tamed oxen who wander freely on the paths and whose gentle demeanor and beautiful, burnished, roan coats attest to the loving care with which the monks attend to them.  Despite the bustle of tourists and mercantile activity nearby, one can find along the winding lanes of the gardens solitary benches and tranquil copses in which to spend a reflective moment.  I find one such haven, and after glancing about for any pools of bovine urine in which I would undoubtedly set foot were I not careful, I sit down for a few minutes of quietude; for the first time since my arrival in Hong Kong, I truly feel a sense of relaxation and peace.  After this brief repose, I turn to face the ascent to the Buddha.

A daunting stone staircase of some three hundred steps leads straight up from the monastic grounds to the Buddha statue.  Taking the obligatory portrait photo at the outset, framed with the stairs leading upwards ad infinitum behind me, I make the climb.  In truth, the trek is not overly arduous, though I nevertheless pass plenty of corpulent Americans whose red-faced heaving causes me to wonder whether the monks ought to keep an automated external defibrillator on the premises.

The view at the top of the staircase makes the climb well worth the effort.  The Buddha truly is magnificent: gleaming, towering, and somehow exuding a sense of calm in spite of the thousands of camera-wielding tourists crawling around its base.  The vista of the surrounding countryside is equally impressive.  Lush, rolling hills like those I encountered on my initial train ride stretch into the distance towards the glimmering, aquamarine sea and the wavering, gaudy umbrellas of Cheung Sha Beach.  Thick, soggy rainclouds hang only a few feet above the top of the Buddha, their gossamer strands of virga gently caressing my face and bringing welcome relief from the usual, oppressive daytime heat.

Refreshed physically and spiritually, and thankful for an activity that did not end in my encountering urine from man or beast, I return from Big Buddha to Central, ready for week #2.


My second weekend in Hong Kong finds me suffering from a bout of febrile pharyngitis, and as a result, my planned outings and their written chronicles are less ambitious than those of week #1.  On Saturday, I visit Victoria Peak, and on Sunday, the Sik Sik Yuen or Wong Tai Sin temple.

Victoria Peak, or simply “The Peak,” ranks as one of Hong Kong’s most popular attractions.  I arrive at the base of The Peak early in the morning, so as to face a crowd of only a few thousand other tourists who have assembled to ride the century-old, funicular railway called the Peak Tram that rapidly transports visitors from the sea-level streets of Central to the observation tower and adjacent shopping mall located at The Peak’s summit, 1,800 feet above the city.  As the tram makes its ascent, climbing at times at inclinations of more than thirty degrees, I feel pressed into my seat back as though I’m riding an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster.

The views once I arrive at the top of The Peak are truly splendid.  To the north, I overlook Victoria Harbour and the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong.  Via the universally understood symbol of pantomiming camera shutter buttons, an Asian man wearing a “Go Yankees” shirt and I communicate that each should take a photo of the other with the cityscape in the background.  To the south, I survey the various tropical islands that constitute Hong Kong’s archipelago and watch as freighters and cruise ships disappear into the cerulean haze where the South China Sea meets the horizon.  Of course, compliments of American commercialism, I can grab a quick latte at The Peak Starbucks before my return tram ride.

The Sik Sik Yuen or Wong Tai Sin temple, a tripartite shrine for Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, is located in northern Kowloon and lies sandwiched among high-rise apartment towers and overhead highways.  It does not rival Big Buddha in terms of majesty or opportunity for spiritual repose, but it does offer fortune-telling.  Two narrow alleyways immediately outside of the temple contain dozens of fortune-telling stalls, each the size of a small broom closet and bespangled with sundry religious tokens and ancient tenants who might possibly be older than the concept of religion itself.  I find a stall with a small sign that reads “English,” and enter.

Various gold-colored trinkets, scarlet ribbons, and smoldering incense sticks crowd the tiny space, and seated behind a miniature desk is the sorceress herself, garbed in contemporary black Nike sweats and browsing Facebook on her iPad.  When I enter–stooping–into her cramped quarters, she rapidly stows the iPad and begins smiling and chanting softly while subtly pushing a price list towards me.  For only $25 HKD, or about $3.50 USD, she will perform a soothsaying.  I figure a great story has to come of this, and it’s only three bucks; so, I go for it.

“May I please have one soothsaying?” I ask.

“Of course, of course,” she croons while waving her hands in mystic circles, either to enhance her incantations or because she suffers from acute choreoathetosis, I’m not sure which.  She has me draw a numbered stick; I draw number 25.

“Ah, yes, 2-5, very good. The best,” she sings while withdrawing from a stack the corresponding soothsaying card, which looks strikingly similar to a Bingo placard.

“Tell me, young one, what do you seek? Job? Money? Health? Looooove?” she whispers.

I had not planned for this lighthearted outing to become an exercise in existential thought, but I feel strangely intimidated by the question the woman has posed.  I consider the options, and my mind begins to race.  Which of these do I indeed prize? Which do I want above all else? What is of greatest value in my life? What is my goal in life?  Finally, fearing that the woman might tear a rotator cuff muscle if she persists with the hand-waving for much longer, I reply, “What about happiness? Can I ask for that?”

“Ooooh, wise, very wise,” she responds as the mystic movements greatly accelerate, “Happiness you seek; happiness you find.”

“Well, that’s good to hear,” I respond, feeling for some reason greatly relieved by her forecast.

“What do you do?” she asks abruptly.

“I, um, I’m a doctor.”

“Oh, ho! Yes, very good, very wise, very smart. You work hard now, but later, yes, later you have great happiness,” she declares, “Yes, you will have empire! The best!”  As if afraid that I’ve misunderstood, she carefully writes on the card, in surprisingly neat cursive penmanship, the word “Best.”

“Thanks.  I really apprecia–“

“Wait! You must watch out, though,” she interjects.

I catch my breath, “For what?”

“Your leg. Your leg hurt you much, yes?” she asks as she casts a knowing and worried glance down at my knees.

“Um, not really, although I guess I did injure my lateral meniscus a few weeks ag–“

“Yes, you must watch leg. Happiness, best!” she concludes with a final hand flourish.  My twenty-five Hong Kong dollars’ worth of the future having now been revealed, the woman unceremoniously hurries me out the door.  I walk back towards the MTR station to return to my hotel, and can’t help but notice a slight limp in my step.


Given the relatively short duration of my stay in Hong Kong, I had not planned to revisit any tourist destinations or attractions, but after a physician’s secretary strongly recommended the Ngong Ping cable cars and the Tai O fishing village, both located on Lantau Island, the site of Big Buddha, I decided to make an exception.  Thus, early Saturday morning on my third weekend in HK, I returned to the lush tropical landscape of Lantau.

Recalling the dysenteric infant, carbon monoxide asphyxiation, and seasickness involved in my previous voyage to Lantau, I elect on this trip to forgo the “authentic experience” of the ferry and, instead, take the high-speed MTR bullet train directly to Tung Chung, an expatriate shopping district and the site of embarkation for the cable car ride, whose infrastructure is readily apparent the moment I step out from the subway station.  Massive steel pylons and cables stretch northwestward towards the Hong Kong International Airport before turning sharply south and disappearing over the tops of mist-enshrouded hills in the direction of Ngong Ping, the village six kilometers distant where the ride will end at the entrance to the Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha.  When I arrive in Tung Chung at 9:00 a.m., which by Hong Kong’s standards is an unjustifiably early hour, no queue has yet formed at the ticket counter, but I spot a few cable car cabins already in transit along the wires.

Patrons have several ticket options for the ride; I buy the 1-and-1 package, which provides me berth on a “crystal cabin” for the outbound journey and a standard cabin for the return trip to Tung Chung.  The crystal cabin costs substantially more than the standard one, leading me to believe that the former will include perhaps an en route glass of champagne, a foot massage, and possibly a personal bodyguard to keep at bay the peasants and other mendicants of the standard classes.  In fact, the crystal cabin has a glass floor.  That’s it.  Except, the one to which I am assigned has, of course, another feature: a screaming infant.

“Great, we’ll have a wet diaper on our hands by the time we reach Ngong Ping,” I mutter, as the infant’s family and I climb aboard.

For all its touristy gimmicks, outrageous prices, unwelcome co-passengers, and unsettling mechanical noises that tend to occur precisely when one’s cabin overhangs a particularly treacherous-appearing cliff or waterfall, the cable car ride is absolutely amazing.  The initial views overlook the airport and provide an excellent vantage from which to observe the take-offs and landings and the frenetic activity at the terminal buildings.  Then, our cabin turns and rises towards the hills, and I look down through the floor as we pass over a wide river, in which barges navigate the central channels and fishermen in hip-waders sift for clams on the muddy banks.

My ears pop as we climb steadily higher, cresting the first ridges and passing over fog-filled valleys.  The scenery around and below me becomes a dense, unbroken mat of jungle foliage, and my mind can process only one reaction: green.  I have never encountered–and had no idea there existed–so many hues, shades, gradations, tints, tones, tinges, and types of the color green.  It is as though someone applied a green filter to the entire world.  In my medical training, I remember reading that the human eye has a finite limit to the number of distinct colors it can detect, but the author of that text clearly had never soared above the slopes of Lantau.  Each of the tens of thousands of trees covering the hills beneath me offers a distinctive verdant variant, and even the distant ocean on the horizon seems more teal than blue.  The very atmosphere is thick with vegetation; I swear it smells green.  The cumulative effect is an overpowering, rich sense of the Earth as a living and breathing organism.

At its apogee, the cable car line hangs many hundreds of feet above sea level, and the panoramas are simply breathtaking.  Beyond the foliage and hills lies the sea.  Dozens of unnamed islets with small forested hills and topaz-colored beaches dot the limitless expanse of water, the surface of which is a dynamic combination of sapphire, jade, and aqua hues.  Tiny rectangles, the ocean liners, proceed in an orderly fashion from the harbour to the distant horizon.  Overhead, a pale azure canvas forms the vast hemisphere of sky.  I give up trying to take a single photograph that could do justice to the scene, and instead, I simply bask in the splendor of the moment.

The steady vibration and hum of the cabin finally lulls the infant to sleep for a few precious minutes as our journey reaches its end.  My old friend the Big Buddha is visible on a nearby hill, where he sits serenely, thick gray mists once again hanging around his head.  Our cabin jolts as it locks into the disembarkation dock; the infant awakens, screams, and promptly urinates on itself; and I, having already toured the Buddha and monastery grounds on my prior visit, proceed directly to the transport station to catch a bus to Tai O.

The ride from Ngong Ping to Tai O takes roughly 40 minutes and, consistent with my prior bus travels on Lantau, involves contorting my frame to fit a seat intended only for especially scrawny toddlers and praying for deliverance as the top-heavy, swaying vehicle careens at breakneck speeds down narrow mountain roads.  By early afternoon, we arrive–miraculously intact–at the Tai O village: an idyllic seaside fishing community famed for the traditional stilt houses and rustic ways of life of its inhabitants.

Tradition notwithstanding, Tai O does not eschew capitalizing on Western travelers, and within the first nine seconds of my exiting the bus, at least four dozen local merchants offer to take me on a boat tour to see the village and the famous pink dolphins that reside in the adjacent ocean bay.  Not wishing to accede immediately to such an obvious tourist trap, I haughtily ignore their sales pitches and opt for the second classic tourist experience: wandering aimlessly in the streets for hours in blazing midday sunshine and 800% humidity, only to find bottled water for sale at unscrupulously inflated prices.  After thirty minutes or so of my perambulations, I am willing to pay any sum the vendors ask.

Adequately rehydrated, I turn my steps to the Tai O Market.  An open-air street bazaar filled with innumerable tiny stalls selling all manner of goods from live crayfish to dehydrated whole sharks to imitation “I Love NY” t-shirts, the market is deafening, crowded, cramped, and unbearably hot; and its stench will forever leave an indelible mark upon my olfactory sense.  Under the same blazing sunlight that serves so favorably the bottled water trade, racks of raw fish lie exposed to the air and covered in flies, and the pavement, which is perpetually damp from vendors washing out the floors of their stalls, steams under the sunlight like a giant putrid cauldron.

Fleeing the miasmas of the market, I turn down increasingly impoverished lanes and begin to encounter local residents engaged in their daily activities.  Ancient, bowed women sit on shaded porches and peel fruit with their gnarled, rheumatic hands.  Mangy dogs lie lazily under said porches.  A middle-aged, sunburnt, wisp of a man wearing matte-green khakis and an enormous straw sunhat spreads shrimp paste onto baking trays and sets the trays in the sun to cure.  The paste has the color and consistency of dark chocolate cake batter, but its odor surpasses even that of the market.  The smell can only be described as the stench of 12,000 decaying opossum carcasses that have lain rotting for weeks in the maggot-infested sludge at the bottom of a fetid cesspool.  During my clinical years of med school, I encountered some truly horrific odors–the freshly disimpacted fecal stones of an elderly woman who hadn’t evacuated her bowels in six days comes to mind–but none equal to that of the shrimp paste.

Making my way back to the main pier, I meet a troupe of seven or eight beautiful, vivacious Indian women, college seniors on summer holiday, as it turns out, who ask me to take a group photo of them gathered around a park bench.  I gladly assist, and as I turn to leave, one of them–amid the giggles of the remainder–asks me to join them in a photo.  Flattered, I agree, and only as I walk away do I realize that I do not have a copy of the photo because they used their own cameras.  Alas, my friends will never believe me.

After the photo experience, I do not know what other treasures Tai O could possibly offer, but I return to the central wharf and join ten other camera-laden tourists on one of the questionably seaworthy vessels offering cheap water tours of the village.  I purposefully choose a tour that includes only the stilt houses and not the pink dolphin sightings because I figure using a motorboat to chase after endangered aquatic mammals probably doesn’t qualify as an ecologically sound endeavor.  I take the boat’s final open seat, next to the captain’s chair and immediately fore of the sputtering, smoking outboard motor, and we push back from the dock.

Perched approximately ten feet above the water line, the stilt houses line both sides of narrow canals and give rise to Tai O’s nickname, “The Venice of the East.”  The thousands upon thousands of wooden pilings that form the stilts stand in various degrees of verticality and create a haphazard appearance that is at once both visually stunning and squalid in appearance.  Most of the “house” structures atop the posts consist of little more than plywood walls and tin roofs, with half-clad locals sitting and smoking on the porches.  One elderly man–thin, shirtless, and with a cigarette poised perfectly in the side crease of his mouth–gathers in the moldy rope from a wire fish trap that he had set in the water beneath his home.  I snap a quick photo as the man scowls at me, and indeed, with the sharply rising mountains in the background and the cluttered but functional hodgepodge of houses, dinghies, and clotheslines in the foreground, the stilt house scenes offer countless opportunities for pictures.

We return from the stilt house canals, and the boat speeds straight past its dock and heads towards the open sea.  Excellent, either I’m being abducted for ransom or this tour does in fact visit the dolphins, I think to myself as warm sea spray splashes across my face.  For the next twenty minutes, we crisscross the bay in search of the storied creatures, and when at last a small pod makes a brief appearance, I understand why they are so highly valued.  Their skin is a brilliant, stark, bubble-gum pink; the animals almost seem synthetic, their color is such a shining, perfect, neon hue.  I don’t bother taking photos; I will not soon forget such a rare sight, but I do feel a bit guilty about having inadvertently financially supported the exploitation of the species.

Once we finish ravaging the dolphins’ environment, the boat returns to Tai O, but not to the main pier.  It drops off passengers at a secondary dock, giving them the “opportunity” to walk the hellish streets and to purchase the aforementioned bottled water.  Having already participated in this mercantile exercise, I refuse to disembark.  The captain, who speaks not a single syllable of English, gestures to me to leave, and I, who speak not a syllable of Cantonese, gesture my refusal.  The situation threatens to deteriorate, until I produce a few bills of local currency.  The captain rapidly becomes a dear friend, and gladly transports me back to the central pier, even offering me a more comfortable berth than the motor mount seat I had on the outbound trip.  Once back at the pier, I glance eagerly about for my newfound lady friends, who, regrettably, are nowhere in sight, and board a bus to Ngong Ping.  From there, I take the cable car back to Tung Chung to catch the MTR train to my hotel, where I feel tempted to nasally insufflate Febreze in an attempt to mask the lingering redolence of opossum corpse.


After a brief sojourn in Macau, and several days of caffeine-withdrawal headaches induced by that country’s inexcusable lack of quality coffee outlets, I have returned to Hong Kong for one night before an early morning departure to Singapore.  I stay in the luxurious airport hotel, where the beds, though having dimensions suitable for, at most, a good-sized rabbit, are at least clean, and I reflect upon some of my experiences and memories and lessons learned from the month.

Weather:  Do not, under any circumstances, visit Hong Kong in August, the month in which, by a sadistic twist of Nature, the country’s rainy season and summer both simultaneously reach their peaks.  In other words, it is hot and humid.  Very hot and humid.  Like, jogging, in a business suit, over a bed of coals, in an equatorial rainforest, during a monsoon.  Ideal, I’m sure, for wrestlers wanting to shed pounds for a lower weight category; unpleasant for any other living creature.

Water:  In light of the climatological conditions just noted, one would expect to find cool, refreshing water available from restaurants and certainly, for an appropriately exorbitant cost, from street vendors.  In my first week, after walking for several hours along the Kowloon peninsula and Ocean City pier, sightseeing and taking photos of Victoria Harbour, I entered a reputable-appearing delicatessen and ordered a salad, sandwich, and water.  Bear in mind that I was sweating profusely, red-faced from the heat, and probably on the verge of cardiovascular collapse due to dehydration.  Understandably, then, the waitress brought to my table the salad and sandwich, and a steaming mug of scalding water.  I wondered for a moment if I had accidentally ordered tea, but no, this was the correct order.  When I politely requested a colder version, the woman scowled and returned with a glass of lukewarm water.  “Close enough,” I conceded.  My colleagues in Asia later informed me that traditional Chinese culture favors warm-to-hot water, and one must specify “cold” when ordering and be prepared for looks of shock, disgust, and/or pity from the shopkeepers.

Words:  I must comment briefly on the valediction used in telephone conversations here.  When people in Hong Kong, both women and men, end a phone call, their closing remark is invariably the following: “Ok, bye byeeeeeeeeeeee.”  The final “bye” is given a coy, lilting, upward inflection, much as a gleeful child uses when waving bye-bye to mommy.  Adorable when a five-year-old does it; indescribably irritating when a thirty-five-year-old does.  My work involves calling a lot of doctors’ offices and speaking with secretaries; by the month’s end, I was routinely hanging up the phone before the other party could conclude the conversation, just to avoid the second byeeeeeeee.

Wealth and Woes:  I’ve previously described the immense wealth in Hong Kong, with its Louis Vuitton shops and Maserati dealerships, but despite these riches, the people do not seem happy.  Frequently, as I took the MTR to work, I would look at the people rushing around me and would find no warm smiles or contented expressions, only grim faces with eyes fixated on mobile devices and with expressions of dread at another day in the office.  Everyone is rushing hither and thither, but to what end?  Money to buy that $10,000 Coach purse in the window on Queen’s Road?  Most residents of Hong Kong will never achieve this goal, and many probably have annual salaries far less than this amount.  During the entire month I spent downtown, walking through the high-end malls, I never saw a person actually shopping in the luxury stores.  People peer longingly through the shop windows, but practically no one can afford to purchase what they see.  That is, wealth constantly stares people in the face but is untouchable.  (Indeed, Hong Kong has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world.)  For the select few who do attain wealth, it does not seem to buy them peace.  Other than the taxicabs (which in any culture, it seems, communicate solely via irate honking of horns), the cars honking most loudly on the streets were the Bentleys, Porsches, Rolls-Royces, etc., whose occupants have access to every amenity and security that society has to offer.  I have little doubt that these same wealth disparities, continual hurry, and unsatisfying capitalism also characterize the working population in New York or London, but as a complete outsider here in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to view the situation from a external vantage, and the scene proved depressing.

All told, Hong Kong boasts many delightful tourist attractions, most of which I toured and which I have detailed, but is not a place I would wish to call home.  Visit for a few days, see the sights, order cold water, but do not talk to anyone on the phone.  So, Hong Kong, for now, bye byeeeeeeeeeeeee.