August 14, 2016

The Electric Current of Living in Asia

 Where Eating Questionable Lettuce can Lead to Remarkable Discoveries

When I was back in the US last month, one of the most glorious feelings I had was an undercurrent sense of peace because I just understood how things work. All signs and labels were in my language, my mom's cupboards were organized as I knew them at 8-years old (except for the silverware drawer), and Cafe Solstice still had (re: HAS) my favorite oatmeal chocolate chip cookies on the menu. It all just made sense.

It took me all of four days back in Asia for that feeling to completely dissipate and be replaced with its polar opposite. The ice-bucket-to-your-head jolt of constant little surprises wrapped up in packages of tiny, ancient ladies at the fruit stand or the middle-aged chain smoker with a beer belly and a rolled up tank top who gives ZERO shits about blocking the sidewalk during rush hour when it's 100 degrees. Every. Single. Weekday.

In my non-scientific opinion, I'm convinced that this current, this electricity, that I feel when I'm out of my element is a direct cousin to adrenaline. It's what drives people to travel and throw themselves into unfamiliar things, all for the buzz and rush of that elevated thought process, giving off enough endorphin's  to carry you through the stories you tell when you go home.

I have been hooked on that high since I was like 16.

Blame it on old[er] age, cynicism, or both... but last month when I was back home in the US, got hypnotized by that security, the quietness of my brain, the symphony of just  "getting it." It was freeing and fun and made even the simplest of things, like driving my dad's F-150, as refreshing as a cool glass of water.

Alas, I'm back and the electric current is strong once again.

Five days after landing in HK from the US, I jetted off again to Da Nang, Vietnam, to support some friends running a marathon in the steam-basket of SE Asia's August. It was a quick trip and my girlfriends and I had amazing accommodations, so we were feeling fancy and planned to treat ourselves to a cocktail at the "the most beautiful resort on the planet," according to someone who ought to know such things.

Carved into cliffs on what felt like a private peninsula, the resort was a 30-minute drive from where we were staying. After what felt like ages of meandering through the jungle on a curvy, deserted road, we arrived. 

The security guards promptly turned us away. Their English was poor and my friends and I could tell they were giving us some porous story about the restaurant being full. Never ones to take no for an answer, we got out of the taxi and looked at the stars while we plotted a way in. Instead of being wooed by our sweet talk, the blushing and nervous security guards shut a gate on us and we were sent back in the taxi. Clearly Taylor Swift and her new main squeeze were staying there, otherwise we would've been let in.

Just kidding. I have no idea if Taylor or one of her squad ladies were there, but thinking about it makes me feel better about being turned away.

Disgruntled and tired of being in a car, my friend persuaded us to pull over once we finally got into the city and eat in one of Da Nang's seafood halls.The restaurants are essentially huge pole barns without walls, set up side by side for more or less a mile. 

The menu & seafood bins
Every single restaurant was brimming with Vietnamese families perched on plastic stools and folding chairs. The front part of the building  had mopeds and motorcycles crammed and tangled into any spare spot. The seafood halls are the perfect opposite of the fancy resort's photos I saw on Trip Advisor, but wasn't allowed to see in real life.

Through one lens, I felt the buzz and high of the absurdity and vibrancy of the evening's events. But on the other hand, I was also feeling that heavy weight of just wanting a good, expected and understandable meal.

I swear the waiter could sense my unease and he directed me away from our table to look at a menu. We shimmied through tightly packed long rows of metal and plastic tables, dodged crab legs and beer cans on the floor and  finally made it to giant blue tubs of living sea creatures and a big  sign on the wall with a list of fish.

"For goodness' sake, waiter, I grew up on the prairie and in adult life, picked out shellfish only when offered to me on a happy hour menu with full descriptions of flavor, origin, etc. How the hell am I supposed to a) pick things out and b) explain to you how I want to eat them." I

My friend thankfully swooped in and soon we were wheelin' and dealin' ourselves quite a meal. 

The electric current was back.

The best scallops on Earth
The food was amazing. We had grilled scallops and prawns and a stingray served with rice paper wraps and fresh herbs and lettuce. We washed it all down with Tiger beers, served warm in plastic cups with chunks of ice that were from a five-gallon bucket. 

Ice, greens, and shellfish are three of the most notorious caveat emptor foods for the traveler not keen on diarrhea. We ate and drank anyway.

My friends and I broke the rules and were absolutely no worse for the wear the next morning. I'm grateful for my Iron Stomach (not invincible, but certainly sturdy). 

The evening ended up giving me enough of a high to enthusiastically relay the story to friends and one week on I still find it amusing enough to write about on here.

Everyday there is some strange little something that reminds me that electric current is inside of me. But now I find myself seeking the opposite feeling: the calming, spacious sense of understanding. I haven't quite found it yet in Hong Kong, but day by day, I'm beginning to see more glimpses.  

The aftermath

August 3, 2016

Typhoon Nida: My First Typhoon

Somehow it's been three months since I posted... There's no great reason why that's the case, other than I spent May and June grappling for inspiration in my new "normal" of a life and then in July found myself talking about funny and frustrating bits about my Hong Kong life while visiting the US and was re-inspired.

Alas, I'm back and was ushered into town with quite a wave.

Within 18 hours of landing in Hong Kong, the office was shut early to allow employees to prepare for Typhoon Nida, with a Typhoon Signal 8 (T8) expected by 6 p.m. The T8 signal is the level where the city shuts down: no buses, no restaurants, no services except for the essentials, like 7-Eleven and movie theaters.

Jet lagged and with an apartment well-stocked with dirty laundry but seriously lacking in food, I left the office determined to make myself a fine T8 dinner from the shelter of my kitchen.

Walking to the market, my brain became its own typhoon trying to adjust to day/night while missing America yet feeling really happy to be back in my little home, and panicking as to just what the hell this big, scary T8 signal means.

"Typhoon" was not a word in my vocabulary as a kid, unless it happened to be in the name of an amusement park ride or limited  edition Gusher fruit snack flavor. As an adult I see typhoon and hurricane as the same.

Also having never been in a hurricane, I assume that everyone puts plywood over windows and rushes to Walmart to stock up on bottled water and breakfast cereal. After which families hunker down, switch on the TV, and watch the poor reporters on the beach trying not to get swept away while they explain that "the storm has really picked up in the last few minutes!"

The air right before the storm was atmospheric vomit. It hung absolutely still with temps pushing into the 30s (or 90s for my Fahrenheit friends). If a humidity level greater than 100% is possible, the air achieved it.

The hot, stagnant swamp was ripe for particulates and the pollution levels were actually truly off the chart. The app I use to track air quality measures HK air based on scales from a handful of nations and agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the US, EU, and Hong Kong.
Air quality just before the typhoon arrived

Each measuring agency has varying levels of qualitative vs. quantitative data. For example, at this very moment the Australia measurement model indicates the air is good enough to "enjoy activities" and the Hong Kong tab gives a resounding endorsement that the air is clean enough such that "no response action is required." By contrast, instead of life advice like the others, the WHO doles out only metered readings on various air quality metrics.

Immediately before the typhoon set in, every agency more or less said "Go outside at your own risk. Worst case scenario, you'll die. Best case scenario, you're now signed up for throat and/or lung  cancer within the next 20 years."

That evening while two friends and I were cooking a whole fish, bought and killed in the market, along with rice and veggies, we kept a close eye on CNN. Just like in the US with hurricanes, the  news promised great destruction.

The rain started before I fell asleep, and between typhoon anxiety and jet lag-fueled  nightmares, I barely slept. Although sleep should have come easy. All I could hear was the steady falling of raindrops. My building is well-protected from wind, so I didn't even experience any gusts.

Duct tape barricade
T8 was still "hoisted" and "in force" (bless the HK Observatory weather copywriters) in the morning, which meant a day to work from home. Midday I went out for a walk and the city was silent: no cars on main thoroughfares, closed up shops with "X" tape jobs on windows for storm protection, and empty sidewalks. Honestly, it was a treat.

Just before 2 p.m. the T8 signal was dropped and by 2:30, the city was in full operation and back to its unmistakable buzz.

The storm was a big deal on outlying islands and in the countryside. And it had whipped up quite a force in the Philippines before heading to Hong Kong. Today, the morning after the storm, Victoria Harbour was still churning and there were small bits of debris along the sea wall, but the city is back and the air quality is clean once again.