Some places we stay in forever. Some places are mere stopovers. Just like Hong Kong.
That line opened Hello, Love, Goodbye, the Philippine movie that broke local box office records of all time. Ki and I made our stop at Hong Kong the previous year. Much of the movie was shot in places we had visited. We should’ve been the movie’s location scouts. A location tour usually followed the success of a movie or TV show (think Sex & the City in NYC and The Sound of Music in Salzburg). Done the other way gave us a sense of deja vu while watching the movie.
Was it the Dalai Lama who said “Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck”? Our last morning at our remote Yangshuo hotel, Riverside Retreat, was supposed to be a quick check-out. Nature foiled our plans. Rain started pouring in sheets at breakfast. As travel surprises went, our detention at the hotel turned out to be a stroke of serendipity.
“Everything is a memory. Everyone becomes a memory,” I waxed nostalgic on Facebook. Even a place could become a memory. My first visit to Macau in the early 1980s was marked with colonial nostalgia. Stone and clay were a stark contrast to the steel and glass of Hong Kong even then. Macau had since moved on 35 years later. Skyscrapers had broken out of its skyline, but it had done a better job at memory preservation than its sister city.
This street was made for walking 1,400 years ago. The oldest in Yangshuo, West Street was still a promenade when I pounded its pavement of marble. Since the county opened up to tourism in the 1980s, the pedestrian street had also become a melting pot, a conglomeration of cultures catering to Yangshuo’s international visitors. Chinese out-of-towners, though, outnumbered foreigners in the unending stream of people.
We came to Hong Kong along with a mid-winter cold front and a big chance of rain. Daytime temperature hovered just a few degrees over zero, certainly not beach weather by any stretch. But for Ki, it was beach season nonetheless. Insulated with woolen scarf, leather gloves, and the sentimental warmth of the jacket given by Mom many birthdays ago, I set out with beach-bum-for-all-seasons Ki to the island’s scenic coastline.
I gotta hand it to the annual street art festival HKWalls for propagating art in public spaces in Hong Kong. The success of this annual event was not more evident than in Hollywood Road, the oldest street in the city. Otherwise merely a dense and aging concrete jungle, the main and intersecting streets had been gentrified by street art and murals. They rejuvenated drab, decaying buildings with vibrant colors and revitalized urban monotony with striking images.
Streets crowded with tourists? Yass. Skyscrapers crowned with clouds? Double yass! Wilderness islands? Duh. Deserted beaches? Double duh! Farthest from my mind in Hong Kong. But as it turned out, not far from reality. Who knew that I would reach what seemed like the remotest part of Hong Kong? Apparently, only my travel companion Ki. His early morning online research yielded our day’s destination: Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands.
Guangzhou / Xingping and Yangshuo County, Guilin, China
September 3 – 8, 2017
Quinn was my (reluctant) star student. He was engaged and engaging, inspired and inspiring – qualities that earned him the title Mr. Total Package in class. No matter how equally embarrassing and annoying to him, the nick stuck. He held up a paper with my name as he welcomed me at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. I screamed, “Ni hao Mr. Total Package!” Not only could he not live it down, but he still lived up to it a year on and many miles away from the classroom. Let me count the ways.
February 19 – 20, 2012 / January 31 – February 4, 2018
I went to bed fully clothed: padded jacket, sweater, scarf, shirt, jeans, thermal undies, socks, gloves, beanie. The works. Only my shoes were off. The wintry chill crept in through the tightly-shuttered windows and into several layers of my clothing. I threw the comforter over my head and curled up in a fetal position. There was nowhere to take cover from the cold. My only source of precious warmth was a portable heater, just slightly bigger than a computer speaker.
The next best thing to living abroad was staying at local people’s homes. I never wanted to crash on anyone’s couch, though. I put a premium on comfort and privacy – both mine and my host’s. Houses that doubled as B&Bs and hotels owned by local families were as good as it got, and both were a dime a dozen in Yangshuo and Guilin. Language barrier considered, I could stay at such accommodations only with the help of my Chinese friend Quinn. He took charge of searching and booking homestays and hotels, many of which had non-English websites. It gave me an up-close-and-personal experience, not only of the place, but of its people and culture.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Grief got me to Guilin. My trip was a pilgrimage of sorts in the hope of tracing Mom’s footsteps in southern China back in 2002. I could not join her in that trip then. There would not be a second chance. Mom went home to heaven in 2015.
The first impression of foreign visitors was usually their experience at the airport and the ride out. If that proved to be more stressful than the flight itself, then it certainly leveled expectations. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” I’d say. While I relished such convenience in most cities I had visited, it depressed me that we couldn’t have the same luxury back home. Case in point: Shanghai. I flew in past midnight with my girlfies, Perfy and Vang. We had no other choice but to take a taxi – metered, no haggling and overcharging. For our return flight, we could not pass up taking the Maglev train, the first in the world.
Over the sea grows the moon bright. We gaze on it far, far apart.
There couldn’t be a more opportune time for a night of nostalgia than on a full moon. In Chinese tradition, the moon, unreachable yet inescapable, aroused retrospection, and, especially in mid-autumn, it inspired reunions. How apt then that the moon was a perfect orb on the chilly October night I would rekindle a long-lost friendship separated by distance and a decade.
It took a few turns before it dawned on me that I was lost in a complex labyrinth of rock. I could not even retrace my steps to where I had entered. People who could help me could not understand me; those I could ask were just as clueless. I broke into a sweat despite the autumn chill. I didn’t mind losing my way, but I did mind missing the appointed time given by our tour guide to regroup. I couldn’t be the idiot that held up everyone’s schedule. Finding the exit was a fluke after I had been running in circles like a hamster on a wheel. By then, what I had feared happened. I was the last tourist on the bus. As I got on panting, the whole group erupted into applause and cheers. I turned redder than Chairman Mao.