Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Break Up

In Alaska, break up means a prelude to spring, when the river ice begins to thaw into big chunks and water starts to flow again. This used to often be a violent time when the water-born ice took out bridges, and a hopeful one that spawned the Nenana Ice Pool, when people would bet on the day and time that the ice would break.

I keep reminding myself that breaking up means change, motion, and renewal, and I've had do that a lot recently. My latest trip to Bangkok ended a 20-year love affair with that city and when I returned home, I began to separate myself from the Chinatown neighborhood where I have lived since 2004--with a hiatus of several years when I moved briefly back to Bangkok.

I believe that the day I stop changing my life in some significant manner is the day that I begin to die. Loss means a new beginning. Finding something new to love, to explore, to inhabit is a crucial process for me and I look for a chance to do that every few years. But it, up until now, has always been a matter of my own choice.

Leaving Chinatown became inevitable with my last rent increase but I was lucky to find a new spot to call my own in an area that is still relatively ungentrified, thanks to an old friend with a vacant guest room. Right now my days are schizoid ones--setting up a new space while dismantling the one in which I still live. The act of moving could easily be done in several journeys by taxi; the act of letting go is significantly more difficult. I tell myself I'm a quick 10-minute walk away from this place that I've loved. This is true but soon I won't be walking through a generous sprinkling of neon to get home at night.

Bangkok? I knew I'd find changes there on my first visit since the Junta took over but I had to see that for myself. Coups have come and gone in Thailand as a matter of routine in the past hundred years or so, but life on a daily level has gone unchanged. Not this time, not in Bangkok. Market by market, the city is being erased, and personal freedom is disappearing with it. It hurt me every day of the month that I was there, and for the first time ever I was happy to return to Hong Kong on my journey homeward.

I still can't write about the city that I've lost, not yet. Instead I focus on putting objects into bags, assembling furniture from Ikea at the new house, finding new facets of the neighborhood that will soon be mine.

It's Break Up time. Bridges will be broken, but not burned,

Saturday, December 5, 2015

More Than I Can Say


For the first time in my life, I'm counting down the days before I leave Bangkok. The question of this week is which of us has changed the most?

It all began with the Skytrain and its comfortable, anonymous, rapid transit. Then came the MRT, with no sense of place at all. Now if you take a bus, or a riverboat, you can plainly see that Bangkok is being erased. A chaotic, wonderful, horizontal city is becoming a franchised, sterile, vertical one. When I saw the pseudo-colonial shopping mall (complete with Starbucks) that has replaced the dark sprawl of old ugly buildings that used to border Pak Khlong Talad's market, my heart splintered. 

Fifty new shopping malls are scheduled to be built in Bangkok over the next year. Since I arrived last month, at least two more market areas have been removed. Bring on the air-conditioned brave new world.


Bangkok in an Altered State


I almost didn't buy a newspaper yesterday. This should-be-simple-activity involves a long bus or taxi ride to the skytrain, a frigid ride to Silom Complex, and a trip to the third floor of a place I used to enjoy but that is now just another pretentious shopping experience. However it's the closest place I know that carries the Bangkok Post, which is invisible in my neighborhood of Ratburana, so off I went, as I have almost every day since I arrived in this city.

My bus was slow and I took pictures from its open window, realizing that what I was looking at will be gone in ten years or less. Old rice warehouses, small orchards, miles of streetfood vendors, all to be replaced by Bangkok progress--McDonalds, Starbucks, S&P.


Two days earlier I was whipped into depression by the sight of empty sidewalks in the Nana neighborhood. I have had a love-hate relationship with that part of Sukhumvit ever since I first came to Bangkok. The sidewalks were always so clogged with vendors that shoppers and other pedestrians moved at a pace that a toddler would sneer at. But it was an area that was wildly alive, attracting people from all over the world with a spirited interaction between sellers and purchasers. Ugly it was, and the people who sold things there every day were certain to perish a painful, lingering death from the horrible, exhaust-laden air, but it was a perfect antidote to the sterility of the city's shopping malls. Now the sidewalk vendors were gone, replaced with clean little shops selling things like baby clothes.

"The vendors come at seven o'clock now," an Indian tailor told me, and a long-time resident later said "Yes, they have three hours of selling time. They can stay until midnight but nobody shops there much past ten."

So much of what made Bangkok a city that I loved was disappearing fast. Even the fruit carts that used to be everywhere were dwindling, replaced by people who sold little plastic bags of fruit chunks, held tightly shut by a rubber band to ferment in the heat. Earlier I'd stopped at a cart near the skytrain and watched the vendor cut pineapple into bite-sized pieces for me. The fruit was sweet and sharp, as it never is anywhere else but Thailand, and soon may be not even here.

When the skytrain left me at Silom, I walked past franchised coffee stands and places that sold baked goods. Then I heard it--the clear, unmistakable music from a saxophone.

For years I'd heard this music at this place, played by a man whose eyesight was badly impaired, if not completely gone. His saxophone had always been part of my landscape, until this time, when he seemed to have vanished. I hurried down the staircase to the sidewalk and there he was, playing in the same spot, with a white hand towel draped over his head to help ward off the heat.

I watched him as my mood lightened. He is part of my history in this place and he is still here. I tucked 100 baht into his shirt pocket and moved up to the steps of the shopping mall to watch and listen.

He stopped playing for a moment and picked up a handful of bills from a receptacle. They were all twenty baht notes and he separated my pink bill from those green ones. He looked off in my direction with his clouded eyes and began to play Doe, A Deer from the Sound of Music.


A young woman walked by and put another pink bill in his fingers. Clearly he was part of many people's history, and that made me very happy. I stood and listened to a song that I usually detest, went back down the steps and slipped another pink banknote into his pocket, knowing that what he had given me over the years was worth more than I could ever pay.


Profile in Squeamishness

It is still there, waiting for the Rat Pack to fill its torn white naugahyde banquettes, pull the potted plants from the stage, and croon into a microphone.

In 1968 you could get an ultra-modern room there for 16.00. It had a swimming pool and a tourist shopping arcade. At 13.26 meters, the pool was the largest in Bangkok then. In 2006 it was photographed, still elegant, as is the hotel, although it needs a lot of TLC at this point as it approaches its half-century mark.

Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp by the golden door (okay it's not golden but oh well). The lobby is big enough to double as a ballroom with gigantic portholes in the wall that separates the restrooms from the reception area. The staircase is early industrial chic, imposing and metal among the profusion of wood that trims its surroundings.

The coffee shop/dining room is cavernous and the tables and chairs are solid hardwood, weighty in classic 1960s style. Banquettes large enough to hold a dozen people easily sweep in horseshoe shapes against the wall. It's the sort of room that makes you want to order a martini and a pack of Lucky Strikes. Rumor has it that the Khmer Rouge filled it during the 80s when they came to do business in Bangkok. It seems as though that was probably true as I sit there now with a good friend, drinking Heineken that has a faint aftertaste of Scotch. We both can taste it, a ghostly flavor but very distinct.

The waiter shoos us off before 10 pm in a kindly fashion and I approach the reception clerk, asking how much it would be to stay here. A room is over 20 USD a night and hovers around 540 US for a month. I say that's too much and she asks me if I would like to look at one of the rooms.

My friend and I crowd into the world's tiniest elevator with a staff member who might have been a bellboy in former times. The elevator just barely contains the three of us but manages to take us to the fifth floor.

The room we are shown is huge--quite possibly the size of the condo I'm staying in now. There is a deep bathtub and a lot of wooden drawers and doors on one wall. They look fragile and I gasp when my friend tries to open one, without success but also without breaking it. A big window looks out toward the lights of Pradiphat Road and a bottle of Mekong waits with two glasses beside the double bed.

It is a room with history and I want to stay there when I return to Bangkok. Actually I wish I could stay there right this minute. It's in one of my favorite parts of the city, a place where a shop still sells both the NYT and the Bangkok Post, where Abu Ibrahim still flourishes under the hospitable ownership of a man from Bombay, and food and fresh flowers are always for sale on the street. Next year...if I can wait that long.

I don't know why I have to set up little dares for myself, but I always have. "Dare you to walk on the underpinninngs of that bridge." "Dare you to have that extra shot of Scotch." "Dare you to live in Thailand." For a girl/woman/old broad who is bookish and unathletic to the extreme, this weird penchant for self-challenges seems completely out of character, even to me.

The Liberty Garden Hotel became one of those little dares this week. I'd been there a couple of times for post-dinner beer with my friend Don and we both were intrigued by its aura of decay and past elegance. It's in a neighborhood that is vibrant and unchanged over the past twenty years, which is unusual in present-day, rapidly transforming Bangkok, and that's why I decided I needed a night at the Liberty.

I had looked at one of the rooms, which at night after two beers, seemed romantically decrepit. Don pointed out the wifi password painted on the wall of the hallway---Ninja1234. It was all very noir and charming so I went back a couple of days later to reserve and prepay for a room.

I should have asked to look at it in daylight. Certainly the outer courtyard and the hotel lobby both looked vastly different when not softened by nightfall and a little tinge of disquiet began to color thoughts of this excursion. But I had dared myself, with a small caveat--"If there are bedbugs, you can always get a taxi back to the condo by the river."

Yesterday I was in the Liberty's miniscule elevator with the bellboy. The gaping hole in the wood veneer of its wall seemed less atmospheric and more creepy than it had when I had been in the elevator with both the bellboy and Don a week earlier. I entered a room and immediately smelled the odor of very old bedding. The window was large and overlooked the swimming pool. As I walked over and looked at it, I wished immediately for another view. The pool was lacking many tiles that gave it a diseased and blackened appearance in the spots where it wasn't blue. It was completely vacant and that wasn't surprising at all.

When the bellboy left, I peeled back the bottom sheet to examine the mattress. It was so mottled with spots that it was impossible to see if any of them had been left by bedbugs. The pillows were similarly ancient in appearance, but the bed linens looked fine. I went to the windows; both were old casement windows that opened outward and both were open. I could only close one of them.

"The window in my room won't close. I want another room," I told the desk clerk. She looked at me blankly. "The window won't close. There will be mosquitoes."

"We have no mosquitoes," she said and I tried not to snort. "My room is right above the swimming pool. Of course there will be mosquitoes."

She shrugged and beckoned for the bellboy. Together we went back up to the sixth floor where he tugged the window shut. He left in an eloquent silence and I sat on one of the heavy wooden chairs, looking at where I would spend the night. The floor was clean, when I went into the bathroom, it was clean. I'd stayed in places before that were as old as this room. But only in this room did I feel that it was very hard to breathe.

I picked up the bag I'd filled with everything I needed for a night away from Ratburana and walked into the hall. I left the key at the reception desk, saying, "I'm going out." Then I walked back to the skytrain and began my trip back to the world of Chapter One, Modern Dutch.

Sometimes dares aren't going to be taken. There was something in that room, in that hotel that wasn't for me. I'm going to chalk it up to the stale odor that greeted me when I walked in and the knowledge that the glow of the swimming pool at night would be much more Blue Velvet than I care to look at.


Here's why most people wouldn't want to travel with me--this is how I like to spend a day in Bangkok--made friends with a little cat while drinking a blended lime drink and picking my way through a dish I dislike but apparently managed to order anyway. Clarified matters and made friends with the people who own the food stall. Booked a room in a Bangkok hotel with a colorful history for one night next week. Walked a lot. Ate fantastic noodles with green curry (kanom jeen nom ya) at another street stall. Bought a huge bundle of roses from an old man without bargaining, came home and ineptly arranged them in a big glass salad bowl. Now kicking back with a beer and some salted nuts, ready to read. Not exciting but really nice.

It is a Puzzlement...

Starbucks at Senafest on Charoen Nakhorn has a pastry called Spelt Charcoal Raisin Walnut. No, I wasn't tempted but I am curious. Spelt I know about. Charcoal? (It is black.) Explain, somebody?

Nothing kicks off a morning like having a 36-hour-old manicure peel away from your fingernails in chunks. Unfortunately incompletely--I'd console myself by saying it looks punk but I'm in a country that's never embraced that aesthetic.

No soi to my condo, a boulevard of trees instead. Right or wrong? (Please discuss.)

Things I've Noticed Since Returning to Bangkok--

  1. It is impossible to buy a Bangkok Post in most areas of the city unless you go to a shopping mall or grab one of the very few that are delivered to Faster Books at a skytrain station. Hello, Single Portal.
  2. English in general is worse than ever in its written form. Seen yesterday on a sign "Thailand got's talent." Hello, ASEAN.
  3. There's a lot more made-in-China stuff for sale in cheap markets. Hello, inflation.
  4. Although Thai fruit is incomparable, Korean fruit is chic. Hello Paragon, Emporium, Em Quartier.
  5. Thai people are still wonderfully kind. Hello Skytrain passengers who give your seats to the elderly (including me--thank you!) Hello bus conductresses who are much nicer than they ever were when I was young.
  6. Despite regulation, Bangkok still does what it always has. Hello vendors on the newly-emptied Silom Road, who put their goods on the ledges of buildings during lunch-time rush hours.
  7. Food is still a paramount occupation. Hello tables on the sidewalks at 5 pm--I have missed you more than I can say. 

Taste of India

I love bright colors, sparkle, and glitter, so for me the Indian district in Bangkok is a visual buffet. There is no such thing as restraint in the Pahurat fabric market. Colors blaze, and even in the dark hallways behind the main streets, my eyes began to cry for sunglasses. 

Photographs wouldn't show the extravagance that is in every corner--the sequins, the gold thread, the scarlets and turquoises and lemon yellows. Eventually I was so dazzled that I had to leave; I was veering on the state that used to affect British spinsters in Venice, a dizzied disorientation bordering on sexual ecstasy. It's a hallucinogenic place that makes me wonder how I would ever absorb a trip to India.

The ramshackle buildings shelter a splendid Sikh temple, whose white and gilt spires and dome are radiant above a cluster of dingy rooftops. Sometimes the gates to the temple are open, as they were yesterday, and the immaculate cleanliness of its entry halls are stunning against the dirt of the surrounding streets.

Over the past twenty years, there has been one notable change, the Indian Emporium, a very small (by Bangkok standards) shopping mall. I refused to go in for a long time, but when I did, I went again and again. The fabric in that place makes it a textile art gallery.

My new neighborhood is very close to Pahurat and the bus I have found and use daily takes me there in minutes. It's always been my dream to live near this place and this is one reason why I don't want to leave Bangkok during this visit. I may never see it this way again.The riverside nearby has a mall; huge gaping construction sites are walled off on a neighboring arterial. The Pahurat area rests on prime real estate, and at least one new building is going in on Chakraphet Road, near the temple and the Indian Emporium.

But for now, dirt and clutter and color all reign in a way that, as Kipling said in Just-So Stories, "blaze in more than Oriental splendor." My eyes feed on these things and my spirit is nourished by their crazed contrasts. Cameras don't catch this. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Looking Back on a Bus

This is the fifth morning in my Bangkok home and I use the word Bangkok in its loosest sense, which is not a bad thing. I wanted to stay in a spot with no memories attached, which proves difficult since I taught all over this city for years. My little condo is within spitting distance of a bank HQ where I spent a lot of my time. Unfortunately my memories don't include what bus I took to get there from Bangkok. I do remember that it carried me far enough away from the river that I then had to take a motorcycle taxi to get me back to Kasikorn Bank HQ.

Now I take taxis to get me to and from the skytrain to the tune of 200 baht a day roundtrip and an hour each way by train and taxi to Dasa Books and other places I love. I look back on the days when the skytrain was almost empty--too expensive for many Bangkok residents and less useful than taxis for others. Now the train is often as crowded as Bangkok buses used to be, without the conductresses who bullied people into taking up as little space as possible. I miss those little dictators.

I took a bus yesterday, one that I used to sit on regularly, the 117 that runs from Nonthaburi to Huay Kwang. I knew it would take me back to my old neighborhood and I steeled myself for that. I'd forgotten that it also ran through the area where I first taught in 1995.

Bang Po used to be a lumber town and the girls I taught were the daughters of an affluent sawmill magnate. Pracharat Sai Neung was a street that was filled with the raw, sweet odor of freshly cut wood and the market had many stalls where men made dollhouse furniture from scraps of lumber. For years I had a tiny chest of drawers whose drawers opened and closed smoothly. One entrepreneur made Thai alphabet letters and I bought them all for tactile learning. The 7-11 was the only retail game with any claim to sophistication--it sold bottles of Johnny Walker Blue, which I couldn't afford.

Now this street has at least one sushi joint, a place called Chic Burger, and a lumberyard that proclaims a Passion for Wood. I gaped, a Rip Van Winkle on an ordinary bus--no aircon, no fare.

I got off at Saphan Kwaii, immersed in more memories than I could handle. But this part of the city is unchanged and that was just what I wanted to see. Food lined the sidewalk, along with fresh flowers. Fabric shops and drugstores filled the opposite border. I didn't find the Bangkok I was looking for but I found a garland of jasmine, rose, and chumpee (don't know what this is in English but it is so fragrant that I bought a small posy of it contained in a cone of banana leaf and sniffed at it all the way home.)

The vibrancy of Saphan Kwaii has always invigorated me and I left it knowing I was back in the place that I love. For a minute or fifteen I was far from the Starbucks that is eating this metropolis, even the riverbanks, and the ostentatious shopping palaces that I detest and that take up more and more of Bangkok's space. Next time I'm staying there. This time I'm wrapped in emptiness, which is a state th
at carries no memories at all for me in this city.

Where I Hang My Hat This Month

There are over thirty stories in the building that I'm living in this month and there are two others of the same size in the Chapter One compound. One of them directly faces the two wall-to-ceilng windows that bring light into my place, which feels peculiar. Luckily I may be the only inhabitant who opens my draperies when I'm home.

The apartment door leads into a space large enough for a loveseat (Ikea Ektorp) and a big TV which sits on a built-in shelf unit, and a desk/dressing table. A glass wall with sliding doors separates this from the bedroom, which has just enough room for a double bed and two night stands. It also has a built-in closet with an ample supply of drawers. The kitchen holds a table for two that is too small for the pair of place mats that rest on it, and a long kitchen counter with a sink, drainboard, and a microwave. The bathroom is just off the kitchen and is in direct line with the glass wall, whose Roman shade remains drawn most of the time. In Thai fashion, there is a shower only with no tub. There is a shower curtain, which used to be an unusual Bangkok apartment feature.

If I sit on my bed or walk out onto the narrow shelf that poses as a balcony, I can see the river and part of the city skyline. If I turn to the opposite direction, I see buildings that are low enough to allow a full look at the sky. Sometimes a scrap of cerise sunset shows up between the gap between the two facing towers.

In none of my Bangkok years have I ever had a view of the river and I've always wanted that. This complex has built a little park on the riverbank, with benches and two outdoor swimming pools. There are trees scattered about in it and little pockets of lawn bordered by carefully manicured hedges. A ferry for the complex's private use is moored at the end of a small pier and a rusty freighter keeps this tidy little craft company.

The entrance to Chapter One, as this place is called, is a double boulevard lined with trees. Under the towers are cozy little blue houses with peaked roofs and white dormer windows. The base of the towers is also painted blue and white, with shops, restaurants of sorts, laundries, and of course beauty shops and a massage spot. The theme is Modern Dutch and three pretty little white windmills sit in the park.

It is extremely quiet although below me are areas for children to play in, and there are no stray dogs anywhere. A little blue house shelters security guards at the entrance and there is an army of cleaning ladies, mopping and polishing in true Dutch fashion. It's comfortable and charming out in the middle of nowhere, a fine place to visit but I could never live here. It 's too far removed from the clutter and chaos that makes me love Bangkok.

Getting What I Want

I just finished cleaning the sink in my bathroom-for-the-month and realized this little task is part of what I wanted in this latest trip. I wanted to live in Bangkok for a month, peacefully and quietly enjoying everyday living in this city.

Even in my last stint of living here, I didn't have that and it certainly wasn't a hallmark of my last trips, or in my final years of living here. I was often scrambling for a way out of a place that had become immersed in turmoil and occasional violence. This year, after the bombing in late August, all is calm, all is bright.

I hate myself for enjoying a peace that has been imposed against the will of the majority but I do, all the more because I know it's temporary. Flashpoints in Thailand come without warning--right now the beach paradise of Phuket is in the aftermath of a night of riots that blocked the roads to the airport and set at least one street aflame. It could happen here in the next minute; I know that and I would cheer that on. But I'm human and I like the comfort of a city at peace. I'm not taking one second of this tranquility, artificial as it may be, for granted.

I won't come back to Thailand until this situation has changed, but in the meantime I am going to walk and observe and taste and engrave every area that I'm lucky enough to inhabit for a while into my memory. I want it all--or as much as I can encompass in a month, half of which is almost over. I want to relive a tiny bit of the life I loved here in the last century, to remember and cherish. I want the brief conversations that I'm capable of having with the convenience store clerk I see every day, the river views that I can see from my bed, the street meals that I blunder into, yes even the goddamned mosquito that woke me up with a bite on my eyelid. I want it all, all the dailiness, none of the sightseeing. And that's precisely what Bangkok is giving me this October.

La Vida Loca Encore

It is easy for me to forget that this city isn't defined by the skytrain or subway. The alarming thing is finding that nothing has really changed for people whose lives are off the map when it comes to mass transit of the 21st-century kind; huge amounts of this sprawling city aren't served by rapid transportation. Many people in Bangkok still crowd onto small, dirty buses that lurch at glacial paces down traffic-clogged streets.

The one I took yesterday when I left the Indian district at 2 o'clock had six little fans whirring away above the heads of passengers. As the bus filled up, the fans were less delightful and by 3:30, when we reached Victory Monument, I tottered off to the skytrain, feeling tattered.

The skytrain took me across the river and after a brief walk, I was back at a bus stop with several other women. We waited and waited and finally along came another tiny, dirty, basic bus. We crowded onto it and every time it stopped more people crammed inside.

A man gave me his seat and I gratefully took it. Even so, the trip had the quality of a fever dream and when at last I saw familiar landmarks, I got off the bus. A long, sweaty mile later, I was home, drinking an entire large bottle of very cold water at 6:00 in the evening.

I'll do this again, but not today. This morning I woke up after a fitful night's sleep, knowing in every muscle that I'm 66, not 46. Today I'll stick to the skytrain, go to Dasa, buy some books, and come back home to read. But tomorrow I'll be ready to look at the real world from an open bus window, reminding myself that most of Bangkok's population lives back in the 20th century, far from luxurious shopping malls and clean, cool transportation.

Vida Loca Ratburana Style

Yesterday wasn't the best choice for me to begin living the local life in Ratburana. It began well enough with a successful bus ride that took me within walking distance of the skytrain, but that walk was interrupted by a brief and violent downpour. When the rain stopped, I found my way to the train, tracked down a copy of the ever-more-elusive Bangkok Post, bought a lovely guidebook that focuses on flowers by the floral artist of international fame, Sakul Interkul, had a mammoth lunch of catfish lahb, cucumber somtam, grilled pork neck, and sticky rice, and then waddled my way back to the skytrain. By the time I reached Ratburana, the rain was bucketing down with no intentions of stopping.

Still I was determined to break out of my taxi bubble and swam to a bus stop. I sloshed on to the first one that stopped, ignorant of the harsh truth that it wouldn't stop again until it was over the river and back on Bangkok soil.

It stopped within walking distance of a skytrain station but the streets that took me there were flooded and my shoes may never forgive me. I was well-soaked when I got back to my starting point, the rain was inexorable and heavy, and yes I took a taxi to get home. Unfortunately the driver was the friendly, chatty sort. (Memo to self: Speak only English in taxis and when necessary invent a mythical husband)

Today was a dryer one and I took the correct bus home. One small step...however this part of the city isn't the most fascinating when it comes to street life. Thank goodness for buses and skytrains that take me to other neighborhoods and for the deep quiet that envelops me when I return to Ratburana.

Bangkok Riverine

This is one of the few times that I've awakened in a hotel on my first morning in Bangkok and this may be one of my best first mornings in this city. The Ibis Riverside really is right on the river--it's like being in an immobile commuter boat. I could easily spend the entire day sitting here and watching water traffic float past my window--my favorite sight so far is a tugboat painted in a variety of carnivalesque colors, pulling three big barges down the Chao Phraya.

And the Ibis, apart from its riverside location, is one of my favorite hotels ever. It is unassuming, comfortable, clean, and friendly--what more could I want? The electric sockets in my room need no adaptor, the buffet breakfast has the papaya and rambutan I've been craving (plus BIG coffee cups), and you can get food when you check in past midnight.  Nice, very nice indeed.

I'm 90 minutes away from my check-out time and at least three hours away from the time when I can take possession of the apartment that will be my home for the next thirty days. I'll watch the river from this window until just before noon and then do the same thing over a glass of fruit juice on the hotel terrace. It's almost as though this is a whole new city instead of one that I've lived in and visited for twenty years--funny what a change of perspective and neighborhood can do.

This morning's piercing sunlight that woke me early has faded behind gathering clouds, big puffy ones that may hold thunder as well as rain. But the river still sparkles and I am very happy.

Luxury’s Lap Is Not My Seat of Choice

If  I had come straight from Monkey Mountain, as I had planned, my stay in the Royal Park Hotel would have been quite a different experience. I would have been reduced to a gibbering, groveling, grateful woman and the bland anonymity would have been complete bliss. ("What! A bathroom that is all mine? A walk without wildlife to get to the MTR?")

But the massive monkey on the trail, immovable and inscrutable, sent me off to the best neighborhood in Hong Kong, where I had five days of therapy before I came back to Shatin. I can't and won't say that I haven't appreciated this space that is almost as large as my Seattle apartment. However travel is a learning process and this weekend taught me a lot.

Wherever I go, I try to immerse myself in my surroundings and I have given myself up to luxury for the past two days, hot baths, Cinemax movies, sitting on the window seat staring at the view of trees, river, and buildings, trying to impersonate Scarlet Johansson. When I went out beyond the mall that serves as the hotel's neighborhood streets, the contrast jolted my teeth. This comfortable capsule is isolated to the point of being alienating.

Travel for me is other people and in the past weekend, two people have spoken to me—a doorman who said good evening and the waiter who brought my room service breakfast. I think of the receptionist at the Lander Hotel who engaged me in a long conversation about skin color aesthetics and the wonderful conversation I had with Michael Tam, the owner of Cafe Sausalito, and the laundryman who knew my name after my first visit. Then I think of the Christmas Eve twenty years ago when I went to the Oriental Hotel's Bamboo Room and watched bored, affluent faces sipping their cocktails. Now I know why they were poster children for ennui. Not my bag--


I am far removed from Starbucks in this hotel, far from the Filipinas in their Sunday clusters on pieces of cardboard in public spaces, far from the monkeys and the people who are trying out sofas at Ikea. I am lightyears from the shop that sells portions of roast pig's head, complete with eye. All of these things are minutes away and in another universe.

A screen of bamboo shields the hotel's smoking area from the street. A high wall separates lounging bodies near the swimming pool from alien eyes, although I can see them from my window above. Not for long though; they aren't very interesting.

I went out this morning to buy a paper (thank you 7-Eleven, because this hotel has no newsstand), to have coffee at Starbucks as I did every morning for three weeks (this is the first time that I didn't use the free wifi), viewed the Swedish grocery store at Ikea (yes, they sell Swedish fish, in bulk), and looked for neighborhoods that were on the ground (there was a little winding lane that looked promising but also private.)

I thought about taking the train back to Tai Nan Street and spending the afternoon there, but I am in this hotel, in this town, and this is the experience I'm living today. I doubt I will ever do it again. I'm no more a denizen of a semi-posh hotel than I will ever be the Queen of the Jungle. (I say semi-posh because the minibar contains four cans--one Coke, one 7-Up, one Carlsberg, and one San Miguel. Emptying it would set me back less than twelve USD.)

If I were this kind of traveler, I would never know where I had been once I came back home from my trips. Viva low-end hotels in quirky neighborhoods.

Hermetically Sealed and Enjoying It

This surprises me. I could be anywhere in the world right now, so removed from life around me that I feel as if I've entered the Twilight Zone--and for right now, that feels good. For the past five days I've been enveloped in the vibrancy which I've craved and loved, but there was no downtime. Every time I looked out my window or went into the street, there was something new to see. I didn't realize how exhausting that is until I checked into this hotel and was instantly removed from Hong Kong. Even the green, jagged hills have dissolved behind a heavy veil of rain.

There is no sound at all. Having listened to street sounds and the voices of other hotel guests through the thin walls of the Lander for several nights, I am feeling my eardrums relax at last. I'm on a small sofa after days of sitting on my bed and I’m wearing a cotton pique bathrobe, feeling immaculate after a long bubble bath. Sipping a Bordeaux that swears it's French, I'm almost ready to see if there really is Fox Sports on the TV and if so, will I see the Royals?

I am not in Hong Kong. And by the time Monday rolls around, I will be more than ready to leave and go back to my real life. But at the moment I feel luckier than Cinderella--she had to share her good fortune with a prince, poor child. I have this all to myself and as I eye the pristine white bed with its four pillows, I feel no pangs of loneliness at all. God, it is so great to get old and live life on your own terms-- monkeys, fabric shops, and anonymous comfort-- it is all so good.

There are no stories waiting for me in the Royal Park Hotel, which is why I will be happy to leave it in two more days. But right now my story-clogged mind is happy to take a break. And perhaps another bath...

Where There is No Starbucks

Of course there is; this is Hong Kong after all where Starbucks is almost as plentiful as in Seattle, but I have yet to see one in my new neighborhood. It is full of small businesses, and men with blowtorches are not an uncommon sight. Many of the buildings are still of modest height and splotched by weather. When I look down at the street, people pushing handcarts are already at work by daybreak. I really, really like it here.

Yesterday I went back to Sai Kung after picking up a refund for my unused nights at Ascension House. Sai Kung has an alley filled with Thai restaurants, and after having sampled grilled pork and Isaan sausage (both very good with a fantastic dipping sauce), I was hungry for more. Sawaddee Restaurant had a little row of tables in the alleyway that drew me there and I ordered grilled pork neck, papaya salad Lao style, rice (sadly not sticky, but steamed) and Thai lemonade. It was all good, infinitely better than anything I've had in Hong Kong's Thai Town at Kai Tak, with real Thai flavors in every bite. It was also around 20 USD, reminding me that I was still in Hong Kong, where high rents demand high prices, but it was worth it after three weeks of subtle Cantonese meals.

Sai Kung is pretty and completely user-friendly, with a town square, a park with shade trees, sweet little streets, Western-style restaurants with English menus, and even a bookstore with books in my language and the best magazine section I've seen in this corner of the world. But today and for the following two days, I want my full measure of Kowloon grit and noise and prickly sweetness. Bring it, Sham Shui Po.

Where I Am Meant to Be

When Barry greeted me on my arrival at Ascension House with "I think you are where you are not meant to be," he was so very right. I am now, in a small compact hotel room with an urban view and its very own bathroom. (I can't tell you how much I wanted to put those last three words in all caps.) And as Gerard Depardieu said in City of Ghosts, "There are no monkeys in my hotel."

I'm in the textile area, on Pleather Street, otherwise known as Tai Nan in Sham Shui Po. It's an area I always wanted to stay in and now here I am. Tomorrow I'll explore. This afternoon I'm wiped out from hauling my big suitcase up a series of staircases (Therese the co-manager, bless her, carried the other one), and then on a series of MTR escalators and trains. I have every respect now for the mainlanders with their rolling suitcases--they are working damned hard when they get their luggage/shopping carts on and off trains and down crowded streets and through the malls.

I did stop at a sweet little cafe on this street where I had a cold chocolate with lavender--heaven, I tell you. I took a photo of Bad Boy Recycling, complete with bad boy sitting at the entrance. I didn't get a photo of the two elderly gentlemen sitting near the curb, each with a very large beer at 1 in the afternoon, living large. I met a local laundryman, who will wash my clothes for a tiny fraction of the 80 dollars (US mind you) that my hotel would have charged. I am a happy old broad indeed.

Tomorrow I'll go out into the world and wander and enjoy the noise and clutter and delightfulness of this part of Kowloon. The flower market is waiting, along with things that I have no idea are there. But tonight I'm going to wallow in solitude--after weeks of communal living, damn, it does feel good.

This is Where I Came In

It's raining this morning, the day that I will leave Ascension House, the same sort of heavy drizzle that soaked through my suitcases when I came here almost a month ago. I'm drinking my second cup of strong coffee and trying to make out the silhouettes of hills through the fog, without any success. It should be good and muddy when I take my suitcases back up the hill to the Christian Center and call a taxi to take me to the MTR station. That's terrific--the mud on my suitcase wheels has just begun to flake away and I would hate to travel without it.

I am not a jungle-dweller, I've discovered. When faced with a monkey the size of an adult border collie, I turn back and take an alternate (longer) route. And then I book an urban hotel--I'm just that kind of girl.

Maybe because my formative years were filled with mud and mosquitos, I have a real aversion to those things. The hotel I'm going to later in the day will have small rooms, smaller bathrooms, and quite possibly noise from other occupants. Been there, done that, and I know it well. I like that.

And I did life in the wild kingdom for almost a month, a feat that I would be proud of if a large monkey, taking up the entire pathway hadn't cut my visit short by five days. On the other hand, there is sanity to be considered, and I treasure my tenuous grasp on mine. Five days in the midst of Kowloon, with excursions back to Shatin, Tai Po, and Sai Kung is just fine with me.

Another View

Last night I looked at hotels in Shatin online. There aren't many and two of them are named Hyatt and Marriott (cross those off the list.) The other two were separated by a difference of forty dollars--the least expensive is older and caters to tour groups from the mainland. The other is in the center of town and is more posh than any other place I've ever paid for. I weighed them both, their price difference, and the contrast offered between both and where I've been for the last three weeks. I took a deep breath and pushed the button that booked a room at the fancier one, the Royal Park for my last two nights in Shatin.

I think what I'm looking forward to most is coming home after nightfall, followed closely by no need to apply insect repellent as a bedtime ritual--oh, and a long luxurious soak in a bathtub. (I'm hoping for good toiletries and a white terrycloth bathrobe.)  A glass of wine while sitting at the floor-to-ceiling window will be very nice too. (Yesterday I drank Sangria at lunch with friends and felt incredibly decadent after my detox period at Ascension House.)

Except for my first trip, I've never stayed in a real hotel in Hong Kong. From what I've read, they can be as Spartan as my usual CKM accommodations, with tiny rooms and not enough hot water. When I have my one-night layover before returning to Seattle, that will probably be my lot. But not on next Saturday and Sunday--then I will be the barbarian at the gates.

Now if I can only manage to get the dried mud removed from the wheels of my suitcases...

Getting What I Need

Each morning when I take my shower I marvel at my good fortune in finding Ascension House. I stand in an honest-to-god shower stall, with a large spray nozzle, a (clean) curtain, and an infinite supply of hot water. I don't have to shower inches away from the toilet, which, I've discovered from online research, is common in many Hong Kong hostelries other than my old haunts in Chungking Mansions.

A room with a view is another amazing feature. As I look up from my keyboard, I see city lights glowing through breaks in the greenery. My usual Hong Kong view in the past was straight into someone else's window.

Best of all, this place has broadened my outlook and made me aware that flexibility is a crucial part of staying alive. Sharing a bathroom with strangers, sharing a pathway with monkeys, remembering "Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Or as my very dear friend Sak used to tell me, "You don't have to look at this that way."

And that upward path is getting easier every week--who needs a hotel fitness center?

At the end of next week, I will drag my suitcases up to the place where I originally came in, ask someone to call me a taxi, and go off to Shatin's nicest hotel. But as I wallow in comfort for two nights, I know I will look up at the green hill that I've lived on for the past month and feel grateful that I was allowed to stay there.

Monkey Business

This morning I strolled down the hill looking at the sides of the trail carefully and brandishing my monkey stick (aka old mop handle found on the sde of the road after my first monkey encounter). Suddenly in front of me were many, many little baby monkeys and I froze. Where were their mothers?

It was as though I was staring at a monkey nursery. I banged my stick against the iron railing and they didn't seem to hear. They continued their leisurely meander down the cement path and when I looked behind me, there were more. Some men passed me on their way up the hill. "Monkeys," one of them smiled. He seemed very calm about the whole thing and certainly he and his companion had passed through the merry throng, unassailed by worried mothers.

I started to continue my descent, preceded by many little monkeys. "Git along little dogies," I muttered but then one of the babies stopped and regarded me with great curiosity, which was not what I wanted to see at all.

Suddenly a young man appeared behind me, smiling and unconcerned. "I'm afraid," I admitted and he said, "They won't hurt you." He beckoned to me to walk with him, past the large monkey that was sitting on the railing. "Ignore them and they will ignore you," he told me, "but if you seem aggressive, they will be the same way." So through the kindness of Ben, who has co-existed with Shatin's monkeys all of his life, I've entered the world of Monkey 101, but I still feel apprehensive about that climb home tonight. Such a coward at heart!

Above It All

I've been perplexed by Shatin. There's a gorgeous park that runs along the riverside, one of the best museums I've ever explored, and malls loaded with international brands. The food within the malls ranges from Starbucks to Italian and it is a splurge to eat it.

There had to be more and I felt frustrated that I didn't see it. But when I was on the bus to another town, I saw something that looked like a market and yesterday I headed in that direction.

It is much smaller than the one in Tai Po, but the chickens sold in Shatin are the freshest I've ever seen, as in cages of live poultry, and the fish flopped about on counters. I went up to the last floor, looking for cooked food. Instead I found a network of streets above the almost empty thoroughfares on the ground.

Open-air sky bridges link massive apartment buildings and shopping malls of the humblest kind. The bridges are lined with restaurants that aren't fancy but are probably good--I plan to find out in the next two weeks. The bridges rest above parks with towering trees, schoolyards, and traffic. They catch the breeze and are really delightful to walk on.

It's another facet of a place I'm slowly getting to know. Now if I could only find a clean hotel for business people of moderate means in the town center...The monkey I met on the trail last night is making me rethink the pleasures of a rural residence.

I'd Rather Have a Plague of Locusts

At first I thought it was prickly heat, the series of red bumps on my upper arm and near my stomach. On the next night I saw a gnat flying through my room and decided that was the culprit until I realized it probably couldn't bite through my clothes. But my cold was absorbing most of my attention and it's impossible for me to concentrate on more than one misery at a time. I blamed that, combined with jet lag, for my sudden awakenings in the middle of the night, when I was jolted into complete consciousness.

On the fourth night I sat on my bed in a paroxym of itching. I always check the mattress in any room I happen to be in and this one was clean, but when I climbed up for a view of the top bunk bed, it was covered with dirt. I went to find the newly-anointed managers of Ascension House and they discovered ants. I was given a new room that was much larger and apparently clean.

When I began to move my clothes, I saw a multitude of very small black beetles in the wardrobe of the room I was vacating so I left the garments where they were and put them all in the dryer the next morning. There seemed to be none in my new room and I slept sounder that night than I had in a week.

The managers found a nest of red ants in the room next to my old one, and quite a few in the room I'd formerly used. Spraying them with BioKill, they watched them die and we all felt happier. But I have to be grateful to the little devils--they gave me a bigger room, with much more light and a desk with a view. And their bites are beginning to fade away, so I think I'll stay at Ascension House.

The Bottle Overflows

The population of Hong Kong last year was figured at 7 million "usual residents," as opposed to "mobile residents." In July of this year, the number of visitors from mainland China, according to yesterday's SCMP, was 4.9 million for the month. This number is expected to dwindle to a mere 4 million visitors per month now that China's economy is cooling off a little.

That is, of course, a staggering number to someone who grew up in a state with a population that was far below a million people. It is even more staggering when I consider that more than half of the total population of all of Hong Kong (including Kowloon and the New Territories) floods into this area every month.

It explains a lot, including why I no longer enjoy Hong Kong as I used to. There are just too many people in places I used to love--Nathan Road, the Star Ferry, the core of Hong Kong Island, the train that travels between Kowloon and the Chinese border. Most of them have a wheeled suitcase to transport goods back over the border, which makes the crowding even more problematic.

When I first visited Hong Kong, almost seven years ago, it was far from underpopulated but it was navigable. Now it's a claustrophobe's nightmare and a shopping frenzy the likes of which I have never seen anywhere--and I am a survivor of Bangkok's Chatuchak Market. This is changing parts of the city that used to make me want to come and wander--luggage stores and currency exchanges are crowding out noodle shops near Nathan Road and fabric shops in Chungking Mansions. It makes me think of the disappearing grasslands in Wolf Totem and I realize this may be my last visit to Hong Kong.

Sweating in Shatin

By the time I made it to the top of my hill today, sweat was rolling down my face, along with any cold germs that might think they're settling in, I hoped. I had a bag filled with essentials: bananas, a bottle of laundry detergent, a book, and four rolls of toilet paper, so I blame the moisture on heavy-hands exercise. When I finally leave Ascension House, I will be in fabulous physical condition, or at least better than I was when I came. It's such a pretty walk that I always look forward to it, through glades, past ravines, often in the company of butterflies. And at the top is a house where I can collapse in peace, on a little sofa, staring at small, dramatic almost-mountains. Nice, very nice. In previous trips to Hong Kong, I kept away from where I was staying for as long as I possibly could. Chungking Mansions was interesting in those days but it sure as hell wasn't a place to relax. I'd walk and explore until I could go no further, hoping exhaustion would soften the rather depressing ugliness of my Kowloon home. I went back to that neighborhood today because I wanted noodles from a hole-in-the-wall on Lock Road. It is gone, replaced by a shop that sells suitcases, an item beloved by many mainland Chinese who find they make dandy shopping carts. To ease the pain of its departure, I went to another favorite spot nearby, Swindon's bookstore. It now sells coloring books for adults and all of the Fifty Shades of Grey because that's what people want, a young clerk told me. Goodbye, Tsim Sha Tsui. I may never go back.

Subsistence Living


My room at Ascension House isn't much larger than ones I've had at Chungking Mansions, but there's at least one crucial difference. I don't have to make my morning coffee two inches away from my bed. Here there's a kitchen, which I share with five pairs of shoes and an occasional sleepy Indonesian face passing through to use the bathroom. I don't drink that first cup of coffee on my bed either. I go out on the porch, sit on a white plastic chair, and listen to birds and crickets and the distant sound of a train that passes below the hill every once in a while.

When I'm alone in the house, I write at the kitchen table but now that I have company, I go to my room, turn on the air conditioner, and finish the last of my coffee. When I look up at my windows, all that I see are green leaves, and last night I came home to a baby gecko, frozen above my light switch. I'm glad to have this as my base for a few weeks, even though the smell of mildew is disconcerting. But when I open the windows, the same smell drifts in from outdoors, along with a strange hint of sour milk. The air conditioner is the only source of air without an odor.

Yesterday I roamed around Shatin for a while, discovering that its most commonly used thoroughfares are shopping malls, linked by skybridges. The mall that is connected to the subway and train system was as crowded as the Puyallup Fair, and possibly noisier. On the streets outside I've yet to find food that isn't franchised, so when my blood sugar went to absolute zero, I got on a train and went back to the area around Nathan Road. Sitting in a small congee joint, I ate comfort food and regained a decent world view again. This weekend, my goal is to find congee in Shatin that isn't in a shopping mall, and perhaps noodles too.